by Esther Gilbert
Righteous Diplomats, Part 2
Frank Foley, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Varian Fry, Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara, Henryk Slawik, Georg Duckwitz, Selahattin Ülkümen, Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz – ten men who managed to defy the Nazi German attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. Men who went out of their way to help men, women, and children escape the German killing machine. Men who for the most part have been passed over by history, their deeds unknown.
And what was their life-saving deed? They were diplomats. They wrote visas.
In an effort to make those deeds better known, Martin and I were involved in a film called The Rescuers, Heroes of the Holocaust about these men and some of the people they saved. The Together Plan will be screening this film in February. You should be there.
It began with an exhibit called ‘Visas for Life’ which had attracted the American philanthropist Joyce Mandell. Her friend Michael King, a filmmaker, wanted to do something to thank her for the help she had given him throughout his life. He decided to thank Joyce by bringing to life, on screen, the ‘Visas for Life’ stories of some of the diplomats in Europe before and during the Second World War. The diplomats had in most cases gone against their governments’ orders and helped Jews to escape: they provided visas to neutral countries where these Jews would be safe. For the most part, the escaping Jews had no idea who had helped them. The diplomats remained anonymous and unknown heroes.
Frank Foley was head of the British Passport Control office in Berlin in 1938. Inge Sampson was a small child who didn’t even know she was Jewish until she was singled out and ostracised by her classmates. Inge’s father obtained visas for Britain from Frank Foley, and Inge’s family survived.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, gave visas to Jewish refugees streaming through Bordeaux. Spain was neutral and with a visa for Portugal, the Spanish authorities allowed in those with Portuguese visas. Varian Fry worked for the private American Rescue Committee in Marseilles. He smuggled Jewish intellectuals and artists to Spain from which they could continue on to Portugal and the United States. Michael Kaufman was three years old when he escaped with his mother across the Spanish border, safe due to the efforts of Varian Fry.
Jews in the Lithuanian capital Kovno (now Kaunas) found refuge due to a non-existent visa: Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch businessman who handled Dutch consular affairs, created a stamp that said ‘no visa was required for Curaçao’, a Dutch holding in the Caribbean. With this ‘no-visa-required’ stamp, the Japanese Vice-Consul Chiune Sugihara could give the passport holder a transit visa through Japan. No Jews went to Curaçao; all escaped the Germans’ clutches, including Polish-Jewish children Berl Schor and Sylvia Smollar.
The Jews of Denmark were ferried in small Danish fishing boats to Sweden where they remained safe throughout the war. It was a member of the Nazi Party sent from Berlin to Copenhagen who prevailed on the Swedish government to take in the Danish Jews: Georg Duckwitz. Gus and Leo Goldberger went by boat, with their parents, to safety in Sweden.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage, Battery Park, Manhattan, New York has a stunning exhibition called ‘Courage to Act, Rescue in Denmark’ recently visited by The Together Plan’s CEO Debra Brunner. It comes highly recommended.
In 1944 the Jews of the Greek island of Rhodes were deported by ship to Athens and then by train to Auschwitz. Very few survived the journey, let alone their reception in Auschwitz. Among the Rhodes deportees were citizens from the neutral country of Turkey. But Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul General in Rhodes, decided to give visas to whole families if only one of the family members were Turkish. In this way brothers Bernard and Elliot Turiel and their family were saved.
With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, it was a concerted effort by the diplomatic community in Budapest, organised in part by Raoul Wallenberg with help from the American War Refugee Board and diplomats from foreign countries like the Swiss Vice-Consul Carl Lutz, who set up an international ghetto that offered refuge for the Jews in Budapest. Peter Vagi was a young boy working in Wallenberg’s office who survived due to their efforts.
Working with other diplomats and on their own, these brave men proved that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword, if the will is there. The film The Rescuers, Heroes of the Holocaust, gives us brave and important examples.
The Together Plan will be showing ‘The Rescuers, Heroes of the Holocaust’ in Newcastle on 1st February 2024, as part of the Newcastle City Council Holocaust Memorial Day events.
Click here to book tickets.
Click here to watch the trailer.