Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust

By Mordecai Paldiel

KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Mordecai Paldiel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-88125-909-4

Chapter One

Why Diplomats? The Significance of Their Action

It is a fantastic comment on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death. -Dorothy Thompson, American journalist

During the Nazi period, before and during World War Two, the two sides seemingly squared off against each other as the Bad Guys-Nazi Germany and its supporters, and the Good Guys-the democratic Allies and their supporters. While it is true that the survival of the Jewish people in the face of the genocidal Nazi onslaught against them depended on an Allied victory, the sad fact is that the Allies were not so much concerned with the survival of the Jews as with stopping Nazi Germany and its partner nations from their mad race to conquer ever more lands and countries, and thereby upset the fragile balance of power in the world. When it came to the Jews, the Allies found one excuse after another to shirk responsibility from an active involvement in rescuing them. The Evian and Bermuda conferences of 1938 and 1943, convened to discuss the plight of Jewish refugees, ended without any practical decisions, nor any readiness to admit into their countries the few who escaped from the Nazi inferno. In 1944, deep in the war, and with victory in sight, the United States and Great Britain nevertheless came up with excuses for declining to bomb the railroads leading to the death camps, although by then they had gained supremacy over Europe's air space.

Saving the Jews trapped in German-dominated Europe was left to individual non-Jewish rescuers, many of whom have been honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations. Among them may be counted some select individuals, serving in various diplomatic capacities, who thanks to their official positions were able to save many Jews, and they deserve special attention. Whereas most rescuers could save only one or a handful, diplomats, if they so wanted, could do a lot more in terms of number of persons helped, using their power to issue visas or protective passes not only to a few but to many-to dozens, hundreds, if not thousands. To many fleeing Jews, at the end of their wits in their effort to escape the closing dragnet, a visa became a magic word and a life-line to freedom from deportation and death. Thus the stampede for such documents. For diplomats, on the other hand, the issue was their country's policy on issuing visas on a mass scale to fleeing Jews. Was it permitted or not? In most cases, it was not.

When acting on their own, diplomats faced two choices: either to disobey instructions from their superiors that forbade them to issue visas or other documents that would protect the bearer against persecution, or to reinterpret the instructions from above in such a way as to make it appear as if they were carrying out their country's immigration policy even though they were, in fact, turning it upside down. Either way, diplomats faced the possibility of serious consequences to themselves, from reprimands to dismissals and further punitive measures. In this study, we shall tell the stories of the relatively few diplomats who faced up to this moral challenge, and responded to the appeals for aid. Some paid a heavy price-punished not by the Germans, but by their own governments.

In a significant development, the Nuremberg Tribunal that tried the surviving top Nazis immediately after World War Two rejected the claim of the accused that their obligation to blindly follow orders from above excused their wartime behavior. The question remaining open was not whether not to obey, but of taking it a step forward-of disobeying by acting contrary to orders and instructions that were clearly a violation of universal principles of human rights. The diplomats in this study took this additional step when they acted contrary to government immigration policies that prohibited the admission to Jews to their countries. Their legacy to future generations is the example they present of administrative behavior by top civil servants bound to universal principles of humanity and not merely to narrow bureaucratic obligations; of official conduct at its humanitarian, as opposed to technocratic, best.

In 1962, Yad Vashem established the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, a public agency headed by a Supreme Court judge, to choose non-Jewish rescuers of Jews to be awarded the honorific title of Righteous Among the Nations, as provided by the 1953 Yad Vashem law of the Israeli parliament. One of the fundamental criteria was and still is risk to the life and safety of the rescuer when extending assistance to a Jewish person during the Holocaust. However, when dealing with help by diplomats, two different criteria were applied. In other instances, the requirement was help even to a single Jewish person. With diplomats, it was not a question of sheltering and hiding fugitives from the authorities in one's own home. Instead it has to be shown that the person in question extended help, in the form of visas or other life-saving documentation, to more than one or several individuals; in fact, to many more. In addition, it has to be established that the diplomat acted either in violation of clear instructions or in such a way that his action, while not a clear violation, nevertheless in the end amounted to acting against the spirit of his instructions. A diplomat meeting these two qualifications would be awarded the Righteous title even if there had not been any immediate danger to his personal safety from the Germans and their allies in the country where he was posted, but only of punitive administrative measures from his own government.

In the case of Raoul Wallenberg, who was active in Budapest, the risk element was not totally absent. SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann warned him that an accident could always be engineered. Fearing for his safety during the phase of Arrow Cross rule in Budapest, Wallenberg was careful to always spend the night in a different location. His diplomatic status, in this instance, was no sure guarantee against physical harm. It was otherwise for the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, in Bordeaux, France. He clearly disobeyed instructions from above not to issue transit visas to Jews; in fact, he distributed these life-saving documents in the thousands. As a consequence, Mendes was victimized by his government with punitive measures that included dismissal from the diplomatic service and annulment of all retirement benefits. The Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, also in Budapest, went beyond the mandate given by his government in issuing protective letters to Jews. Likewise for Francis Foley, a British diplomat in Berlin, whose far-reaching reinterpretation of British immigration laws, at times in contradiction to their spirit, made it possible for many Jews to leave Nazi Germany.

These stories took place in a time when a piece of paper, usually a visa or a diplomatic protective document, could spell the difference between life and death for a fleeing Jew anxious to escape the Nazi web of destruction. Diplomats posted to various European capitals understood this well, and some took note of what their conscience dictated in the effort to save innocent lives, even and in spite of immigration regulations that restricted their scope of operation. To their credit, the total number of people saved runs into the thousands, even several tens of thousands.

The narratives in this book will illustrate the methods employed by diplomats in securing the lives of innocent Jews during the Nazi reign of unrestricted terror. Their humanitarian acts are testimony to the wide latitude available to persons in high places in the cause of universal principles-if, of course, they are prepared to obey the dictates of their heart and conscience, during periods of emergency, instead of the more narrow administrative requirements of their official post. They represent the best and the bravest in terms of human behavior during one of the darkest chapters of civilized life and its moral values.

Chapter Two

Nazi Germany Where It All Began


Germany is the country where it all began; the avalanche and downward slide, engulfing and burying in its sway a centuries-old heritage of human values. When Hitler assumed power on January 30, 1933, the 522,000 Jews of Germany, comprising fewer than 1 percent of the population, were not only in the process of full acculturation, but held influential positions in the country's life, especially in journalism, the theater, and schools of higher learning, in proportions much higher than their corresponding share in the non-Jewish population. This was, tragically, to change drastically. The first months of Nazi power saw physical attacks on Jews, many of whom were subjected to public humiliation, with the police standing by. A climax was reached with the anti-Jewish boycott of Jewish-owned stores of April 1, 1933. This went hand in hand with laws excluding Jews from influential positions, such as the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, now reserved only for Aryans (a term henceforth applied to those who were "racially" non-Jews). All Jews were automatically fired from public service positions.

Very quickly Jews were excluded from cultural life, journalism, and academic institutions. On April 7, 1933, all professors of law who were Jews were driven from their universities in humiliating circumstances. This was followed by the suspension of all Jewish judges. Martin Heidegger, Germany's most famed philosopher, joined the Nazi Party, and as head of Freiburg University dismissed Jews from the faculty, including his own mentor, declaring: "The Fuehrer himself, and he alone, is the German reality of today, and of the future, as of its law." Cities and towns vied with each other in pronouncing that "Jews were not wanted in this place."

While all this was happening, the country's civic and religious leaders kept their silence. Stunned by the unexpected turn of events, the Jewish response was, in general, to seek immigration possibilities in other countries. Some 300,000 left in the following years, and well into the first two years of World War Two. In September 1935, the Nuremberg laws were promulgated, annulling the citizenship of the country's Jews, and prohibiting marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, as racially defined. In October 1938, passports held by Jews were marked with a large J; the same for personal identification cards. A year earlier, Jews were required to add "Jewish" middle names on their ID cards: Israel for men and Sarah for women. Jews were also ordered concentrated in special "Jewish" houses, and were forced to sell their holdings in real estate, as well as other large enterprises, at prices a fraction of their real value, a process euphemistically termed Aryanization. Jews were eventually prohibited from leaving their homes after dark, and certain sections of the cities were placed out of bounds for them.

With the start of the war on September 1, 1939, further restrictive decrees followed one another in quick succession, such as the requisition of personal goods: jewelry, radios, cameras, electrical appliances, and any other valuables. In September 1941, all Jews aged six and above were ordered to wear the Jewish Star. Jews "fit for work," practically everyone, were assigned to the most menial and difficult tasks. A year before the start of the war, on the evening of November 9-10, 1938, several hundred synagogues, thousands of small-scale Jewish enterprises, and Jewish homes were either torched or vandalized throughout Germany (which now included Austria and the Sudeten region of former Czechoslovakia as part of the Greater German Reich), in a government-orchestrated orgy of horror that came to be known as Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass." Close to 100 Jews were murdered and 35,000 were carted off to the concentration camps (at this stage, most were released upon the presentation of transit visas to other countries).

Here, too, civic and religious leaders kept their silence, only voicing concern at the economic losses caused by these destructive acts. This time, there was a stampede to consulates for visas to emigrate to any destination possible, including places as distant as the international compound in Shanghai, China. About 164,000 Jews (of the 215,000 counted in September 1939) were still living in the expanded Reich on October 1, 1941 (the date of the ban on further emigration). Large-scale deportation of Jews began in October 1941. By then, over 300,000 had managed to leave the country, some to neighboring countries, and these people fell victim to the Germans when their host countries came under German occupation. The remaining Jews faced the final murderous brunt of the regime.

As the war expanded, with the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, special killing units known as Einsatzgruppen carried out mass exterminations of Jews in the newly conquered territories. In Germany, the fall of 1941 saw the start of mass deportations of German Jews to killing sites in the East, including Auschwitz. The more privileged were initially deported to the "model" camp of Theresienstadt, established to fool the deportees and international agencies, such as the Red Cross, into believing that the camps were created with the sole purpose of separating Jews from the rest of the population but nothing worse. After the Red Cross team left the scene, the inmates they had met were dispatched to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. In sum, a total of 137,000 Jews were deported from Germany, of whom only 9,000 survived the depredations of the camps. Between 10,000 and 20,000 Jews survived inside Germany (an estimated 7,000 in Berlin alone), some protected by their marriages to non-Jewish spouses.

In neighboring Austria, annexed to Germany in March 1938, the Jewish population was 185,000-170,000 in Vienna alone. Following the annexation, the Gestapo (state political police) launched an organized campaign of looting Jewish apartments and confiscating Jewish-held valuables. Jews were dismissed from most important posts, and synagogues were desecrated (this took place before the infamous Kristallnacht in November of that year). All major Jewish enterprises were closed and taken over. Up to the start of the war, some 126,000 Jews managed to emigrate. The rest were deported to concentration camps in Poland, where most perished. At the end of the war, only 1,000 Jews were to be found in Vienna; some were partners in mixed marriages, and others had gone underground. A total of 65,000 Austrian Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis, with only 1,700 surviving the horrors of the camps and death marches.

Francis Foley

In 1919, Lieutenant Francis ("Frank") Foley, after distinguished service in the British army in World War One, arrived in Berlin as an agent for the MI6 section of British intelligence, to observe and report on the activities of the communist-led organizations that were so strong and active at the time in Germany, such as Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacist movement. As a cover for his spy work, he officially was chief passport control officer in the British embassy, where he had wide latitude to judge and decide on the admission of foreigners to the various parts of the British Empire-all, of course, in accordance with the relevant immigration laws and regulations governing the United Kingdom, the dominions, and the various colonies, protectorates, and mandated territories of the British Empire. Foley continued in this post until the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939. Earlier, with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, Foley's attention had shifted to the rearmament of Germany, and he simultaneously began to be more preoccupied with helping Jews to emigrate, a need which became urgent after the staged pogrom of November 8, 1938, the notorious Kristallnacht. Foley utilized legal means whenever possible and in other instances exploited loopholes in Britain's immigration rules. For instance, British regulations at the time forbade the issuing of entry visas to persons liable to compete with certain professional categories in England, as well as to the very aged, the sick and handicapped, and members of the Communist Party. As for entry to Palestine, then a British-mandated territory, the applicant had to have ��1,000 on hand in order to obtain a "capitalist" visa. This was a sizable sum at the time, the equivalent of ��40,000 today, and unavailable for many Jews whose bank accounts and other assets had been frozen by the Nazi authorities. The following examples will illustrate how Foley helped people overcome these obstacles.


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