Carl Lutz – Forgotten hero of the Holocaust

The Second World War saw the mass slaughter of a number of groups of ‘undesirable’ people by the Nazi regime. Amongst them were the Roma, homosexuals, and the handicapped; but by far the greatest number to die were Jews, around six million of them. Yet the number could have been much greater if not for courageous men and women who laid their own lives on the line in defiance of Hitler’s Final Solution. So on Holocaust Remembrance Day perhaps it is fitting that, as well as the millions who died, we remember those people who risked everything to save others.

Carl Lutz, Budapest 1944 By FOTO:Fortepan — ID 105824

The names of some of these brave people are known to us – Oscar Schindler (who employed Jews in his factories so that they would not be sent to the concentration camps) and Raoul Wallenberg (who I shall mention again later) to name but two – yet few people have ever heard the name Carl Lutz, including those in his homeland of Switzerland. Lutz was the Swiss consul in Palestine in the 1930’s before being transferred to Hungary as the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest in 1942; he stayed there until 1945. Hungary had joined the war on the side of Hitler in 1941 and so Lutz found himself in an unusual position in a country at war – as Switzerland was neutral Lutz was given the task of representing the interests of countries which were at war with Germany and had closed their embassies in Budapest, countries which included Britain and America. Soon after his arrival Lutz began working with the Jewish Agency for Palestine and issued Swiss safe-conduct documents to almost 10,000 Hungarian Jewish children who were then able to emigrate to Palestine.

It was not until 1944 that German forces actually moved in and occupied Hungary. They immediately began to target the local Jewish population, and Lutz saw how Jews from the countryside were being rounded up for deportation (mostly to Auschwitz). He was not naïve and realised what the fate of the Jews would be. Although a quiet and rather shy man Lutz was unable to look the other way; he felt he had no choice but to do something to help, and whatever that was he would have to do it quickly.

Carl Lutz in his office at the United States legation, Budapest © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

Lutz’s solution was to give Swiss protection to any Jews who had connections to Switzerland or the other countries which he was representing in Hungary. Somehow he managed to persuade the Germans to let him issue 8,000 diplomatic letters of protection. These letters were intended for individuals but Lutz issued them to whole families instead so that thousands of Jews received protection; yet there were thousands more who needed help. As the number of letters available swiftly diminished Lutz decided that there was only one thing to do – he issued letter number 7,999 and then re-issued letter number 1. It was a gamble which could have cost him his life, but it paid off and the Germans were never aware that he was duplicating the numbers. Carl Lutz single handedly ran the largest civilian rescue operation of the war and is credited with having saved around 62,000 Jews with his diplomatic letters. Other foreign diplomats in Budapest were aware of what Lutz was doing and decided to copy his methods, notable amongst them was the Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg who also saved tens of thousands of Jews.

Jews queuing outside the Swiss Embassy in Budapest By FOTO:FORTEPAN / Archiv für Zeitgeschichte ETH Zürich / Agnes Hirschi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As the war dragged on and it became obvious that Germany would lose, the Nazis in Hungary became more brutal than ever. Rather than deporting Jews to be killed in the concentration camps they began to take whole families to the banks of the Danube where they were shot and their bodies disposed of. One day, Carl Lutz came across a group of fascist Arrow Cross Party militiamen who were shooting Jews on the banks of the river. One woman had not been killed in the initial shooting and was struggling in the water, bleeding badly. Lutz jumped in and grabbed here, swimming to the bank with her where he confronted the officer in charge, declaring that the woman was a foreign citizen under the protection of Switzerland. He then calmly walked her to his car, got in, and drove away. The Arrow Cross men were stunned and subdued by the diplomat; not sure if he was telling the truth or not, no one dared to stop him. (That quay beside the Danube in Budapest is now named after Carl Lutz).

The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer on the east bank of the River Danube River in memory of the people who were killed by Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during the Second World War. The Jewish victims were ordered to take off their shoes, and were then shot so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away.

As the end of the war drew closer, and the Nazis more brutal, Lutz realised that his diplomatic letters might no longer offer protection and so he set up 76 safe houses in the city. He told the authorities that each house was an annex of the Swiss legation and so, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Nazis were not allowed access. Among the safe houses was one known as ‘The Glass House’ which sheltered around 3,000 Jews. The Red Cross and Swedish embassy also set up safe houses and there were a total of 120 in Budapest by the end of the war. Carl Lutz’s efforts to undermine the Nazi genocide were so extensive and so openly defiant of the Nazis that the German Proconsul in Hungary asked for permission to assassinate him; Berlin never answered.

In the winter of 1944-45 the Soviet Army was moving westward through Hungary and targeted Budapest. For two months the city suffered an horrific bombardment which resulted in a Russian victory in February 1945. Lutz was recalled home to Switzerland. While not necessrily expecting to be rewarded for his bravery Lutz was stunned to actually be reprimanded for overstepping his authority in saving the Jews. That may seem strange to us today but the main reason that Cal Lutz was not celebrated as a hero was the concept of Swiss neutrality. Switzerland was determined to be neutral at all times and Lutz’s actions had compromised that position.

Whilst in Budapest Lutz’s wife Gertrud (‘Trudi’) was a constant help and support to him. One of the women they helped was Magda Csányi who had gone to Lutz to ask for help for her young daughter, Agnes. Lutz gave them a lettere of protection in 1944, and when the Russian bombardment began they took shelter in the Swiss consulate. Although the end of the war brought a happy ending for Magda and her daughter it was less so for Trudi as her husband, Carl, had fallen in love with the Hungarian. The Lutz’s were divorced, and Carl and Magda were married.

Lutz died in Bern, Switzerland, in 1975.

Carl Lutz Righteous Among Nations Plaque Washington, DC

Although Lutz had been criticised for his actions when he returned to Switzerland in 1945 things slowly changed and, in 1958, the government honoured him for his actions. There are a number of streets in Switzerland named after him but few people know who he was or why he is remembered. Other nations have also commemorated the heroic stand which Carl Lutz made, and the thousands he saved from Hitler’s Holocaust.

  • In 1963, a street in Haifa, Israel was named after him.
  • In 1965, Lutz was the first Swiss national named to the list of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
  • Lutz received the Cross of Honor, Order of Merit, from the Federal Republic of Germany.
  • In 1991, a memorial dedicated to him was erected at the entrance to the old Budapest ghetto.
  • In 2014 George Washington University in Washington, DC, posthumously honoured Lutz with the President’s Medal in a ceremony attended by various international dignitaries and his step-daughter Agnes Hirschi.
  • His name has been included in The Raoul Wallenberg-memorial at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.
  • A street in Jerusalem has been named after him.
  • In November 2017 a memorial above the Sea of Galilee was inaugurated in his honour.
Carl Lutz can be easily described as “forgotten hero” in his home country Switzerland. In Israel however the situation is different, as he was the first Swiss to be recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations”. A new scenic lookout high above the Sea of Galilee was inaugurated in his honour in November 2017
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