by Esther Gilbert
Righteous Diplomats, Part 3
On February 1 The Together Plan will be screening the film The Rescuers – Heroes of the Holocaust. In 2009 Martin and I were part of the film crew that travelled throughout Europe on the trail of diplomats who had saved Jews during the Second World War. Travelling with us were some of the descendants of the diplomats, and some of the Jews who had been saved.
What could save a Jew from deportation to certain death, and how could diplomats who wield pens – rather than swords – help? Amazingly, the Germans recognised nationals of neutral countries, and neutral countries allowed their citizens either to enter or to transit. A diplomat’s visa became a life-saving document if it claimed the holder of the document was the citizen of a neutral country. In most cases this document dispensing went against the diplomat’s country’s orders. But faced with an opportunity to help, the diplomats helped.
Most diplomats were successful before the country in which they worked was invaded. After being occupied by Nazi Germany, the work of the diplomats ceased. One difference was that of Hungary where neutral diplomats were able to work together to help the Jews of Budapest until it was liberated by the Soviet Army. Carl Lutz, who represented neutral Switzerland and American interests, worked with diplomats from Spain, Portugal and the Vatican by giving out visas that could save Jews from deportation.
In July 1944 the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz ceased and the problem became the Nazi-sympathising Hungarian Arrow Cross who grabbed Jews wherever they found them. At that point the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was sent by the American War Refugee Board to coordinate efforts in Budapest to save Jews. The diplomats together set up a series of safe houses in what became known as the International Ghetto where Jews could hide unmolested.
Though their efforts did not help the Jews of the Hungarian provinces who had been deported in most cases to their death, the diplomats’ efforts did save nearly 100,000 Jews in Budapest.
The photo shows Sir Martin with Agnes Hirschi, the step-daughter of Carl Lutz who with her mother lived through those dark days in Budapest. They are standing in front of the United States Embassy in Budapest where Carl Lutz had been headquartered. In the background are 5 of the film crew, March 2009.
I will be attending The Together Plan’s event on February 1st. I look forward to answering your questions and celebrating the work of The Together Plan.
This will be an in-person event at the Newcastle City Library and tickets can be booked here.