Carl Lutz - The Swiss man who saved tens of thousands of Jews
Carl Lutz, a diplomat stationed in Hungary, led the largest diplomatic rescue operation of World War II. A look back at a personality who is still too little known.
March 1944. Germany invades Hungary and urges the country to finally participate in the "Final Solution" by deporting the country's Jews, who until then had been relatively spared, to Auschwitz. In Budapest, however, a network had been set up for months to save as many as possible. Swiss Vice Consul Carl Lutz led the "largest diplomatic rescue operation of World War II," according to historian Xavier Cornut, president of the Society for Swiss History, which studies the subject.
Carl Lutz had come to Budapest in 1942 with his wife, Gertrud, after being stationed in Jaffa for six years. They were "unforgettable years," as he later said, and the pictures of the talented amateur photographer have been preserved. In Palestine, which was then under the British Mandate, he advocated for the German citizens in the region.
Born in 1895 into a Methodist family in a village in Appenzell, he was at the same time "a typical Swiss, introverted, serious, but paradoxically also an adventurer with a great sense of initiative. This mixture of ethical values and entrepreneurial spirit explains why he had the courage, but also the intellectual sophistication, to build such a comprehensive protection system in the heart of a dangerous country like Hungary," praises Xavier Cornut.
Invention of the letter of protection
As a Swiss, Carl Lutz also represented the interests of countries that had severed diplomatic relations with Hungary, including the United States and Great Britain. Unable to abandon to their fate the hundreds of Jews crowding daily in front of the Swiss legation, he developed letters of protection, using the 7800 certificates received from Great Britain for emigration to Palestine. The letters of protection, always numbered from 1 to 7800, are distributed to prevent the deportation.
Another feat was to extend diplomatic protection to 76 buildings in Budapest where Jews were housed, fed and supported. The Jewish Council for Palestine, now the "Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation," was located at 29 Vadasz Utca, in the "Glass House," which now houses a small museum. His life was also shaken on a personal level by the meeting with Magda Grausz, who had come to ask him for protection for herself and her daughter Agnes, and whom he would employ in his residence. He would marry her in 1949.
The Glass House
The diplomat is not acting alone, of course. The Glass House is the headquarters of the Jewish Resistance (HeHalutz), which does the "immense logistical work" required to produce immigration and protection papers, as pointed out by Anita Halasz, whose uncle, who ran the Glass House, eventually immigrates to Switzerland. They were supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, by other Swiss and foreign diplomats such as the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, to whom Carl Lutz explained his method, or by Jewish personalities such as Miklos Krausz.
The Helvetic authorities advised him to be cautious because his activities did not fall within the framework of representing foreign interests in the strict sense, but had a humanitarian character. The Nazi authorities, especially Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, with whom Lutz negotiated several times, were aware of his "harmful effect." The German proconsul in Budapest even suggested to Berlin his physical elimination, a request that went unanswered, perhaps because of his service to Berlin when he was stationed in Palestine.
Until the fall of 1944, when the fascist Arrow Cross Party took power, Carl Lutz worked with the support of his wife Gertrud. He even hid Jews in his black Packard and participated in the columns forced to march to the Austrian border. In total, more than half a million Hungarian Jews perished, 120,000 survived. The Swiss action, headed by Carl Lutz, helped save several tens of thousands of men, women and children.
"Righteous among the Nations"
Gertrud Lutz-Fankhauser, from whom Carl Lutz was divorced after the war, was involved in humanitarian work throughout her life and rose to become, among other things, vice president of UNICEF in Paris. She was named Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem memorial in 1978 on behalf of the State of Israel and died in 1995. Agnes Hirschi, Magda's daughter, who was adopted by Carl Lutz and lives in Switzerland, continues to travel the world - she was recently in Buenos Aires - to pay her last respects to her father. I experienced the siege of Budapest myself when I was a six-year-old girl," she recalls. I will never forget it and I am grateful that I survived." She has since published the accounts of numerous survivors under the title "Under Swiss Protection."
He was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1964 became the first Swiss to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. He died in Bern on February 13, 1975. It took another 20 years before a major biography was dedicated to him in Switzerland by Theo Tschuy (Carl Lutz and the Jews of Budapest, published in French under the title Diplomatie dangereuse in 2004). In 2018, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs dedicated a room in the Federal Palace to him.
"In his younger years, Carl Lutz asked Providence to give him a special mission. He felt that it had answered him when the Jews in Budapest came to him for help," says Xavier Cornut. "This is the quintessence of the concept of the Righteous Among the Nations: the person who, while others give up, preserves his dignity as a human being against all odds."