The concept of bravery evokes images of soldiers rushing into battle or doctors tending to the sick in a war-torn country. It is less common to consider office workers as brave. Yet during the Holocaust, there were many incredibly brave diplomats of many different nationalities who, with the stroke of a pen, collectively saved thousands of Jewish lives. Acting against their government’s orders, they risked their careers, social status, property and sometimes even their lives to do what was right.
This is the story of three exemplary diplomats who rescued thousands of Jews from certain death.
One of the most well-known heroes of the Holocaust, Raoul Wallenberg came to Budapest, Hungary in July 1944 as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps. Just a few months before his arrival, Hungary had been on the verge of making a pact with the Allies, but the German’s did not want this to happen and it was a time of severe crisis. To prevent the agreement, the Germans occupied Hungary and established a puppet government headed by the ardently pro-Nazi politician Dome Sztojay. The regime enthusiastically rounded up Jews in Budapest to hand over to the Germans, and forced Jews outside Budapest into squalid ghettos. Approximately 440,000 Jews were deported, almost all of whom went to Auschwitz.
Two days before Wallenberg’s arrival, Hungary’s King, Miklos Horthy, ordered a halt to the deportations while he attempted to reach an agreement with the Soviets, whose troops were on Hungary’s borders. This lull presented Wallenberg and the Swedish government with the perfect opportunity to help the remaining Jews in Budapest. Almost as soon as he set up post in Budapest, Wallenberg began issuing certificates of protection to Jews, and set up humanitarian relief projects such as soup kitchens, hospitals and over 30 safe houses, all of which formed the heart of the “international ghetto” of Budapest.
His methods were quite unconventional. Bribes, extortion, empty promises, threats: everything was fair game when it came to saving Jewish lives. These efforts paid off more substantially than he expected. Wallenberg was able to convince the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to issue 4,500 diplomatic passes, three times more than the original quota allowed for.
Things took a turn for the worse when the virulently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party seized power in October 1944. Ferenc Szalasi, leader of Arrow Cross, rescinded Horthy’s orders and restarted the deportations. Arrow Cross gangs terrorized Jews in the Budapest ghetto and forced many of them into harsh labor. In November of that year, the regime relocated nearly 70,000 Budapest Jews into a 0.1 square mile ghetto and marched many others to the Austrian border to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Wallenberg worked even more fervently to prevent Jews from having to march. He begged and pleaded with the Hungarian authorities to recognize the Jews’ protection papers. At risk of being shot, he went so far as to personally block trains leaving with Jews to concentration camps and hand out passes to the Jews inside.
Wallenberg’s greatest act of heroism was in January 1945 when, upon learning of Adolf Eichmann’s plan to kill everyone in the Budapest ghetto, he warned German general August Schmidthuber that he would be tried as a war criminal and executed if the general carried out his orders. Thanks to Wallenberg’s threat, the massacre was stopped. In all, Wallenberg saved the lives of almost 100,000 Jews.
Sadly however, Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets that same month and was never seen or heard from again. A Russian government document asserts that he died in his prison cell on July 17, 1947. To this day, the authenticity of the document is not proven and the circumstances of his death, or even whether he actually is dead, have been the subject of debate for decades. Wallenberg is today remembered in countless ways from street names to stamps to monuments. One of his most famous quotes is, “I will never be able to go back to Sweden without knowing inside myself that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
It would hardly be expected that a representative of an Axis power would risk his career to save Jewish lives, but Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, managed to grant safe passage to over 6,000 Jews.
Sugihara’s task in Kaunas, Lithuania was to provide his government with intelligence on German and Soviet military activities in the Baltic region. This mission changed when a huge crowd of Jewish refugees appeared outside the Japanese consulate in July 1940. They had found out that the Dutch colonies of Curacao and Dutch Guiana didn’t require entrance visas. They got permission from the Soviets to travel through the USSR, but they still needed to go through Japan to get to the Dutch territories.
Sugihara telegraphed his superiors in Tokyo to get permission to give the refugees visas. He was allowed to issue a limited number of them, but was told that the remaining refugees would have to have enough money for their stay in Japan in order to receive a visa. Many of these refugees were penniless and couldn’t meet this condition. Sugihara and his wife Yukiko decided to follow their conscience and work day and night for almost a month filling out visas for the thousands of refugees who requested his help. They had managed to grant visas to over 2,000 Jews by the time Sugihara was ordered to leave Lithuania for Berlin on September 1, 1940. As his train left the station, he handed out more visas from his window as fast as he could write them and even threw his visa stamp to a refugee who then used it to save even more lives. The Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees never made it to Curacao or Dutch Guiana, but over 6,000 of them found safety in the Japanese-controlled Shanghai Ghetto.
Sugihara was transferred to Prague and then to Bucharest, where he stayed until the end of the war. Because he defied his government, he was dismissed from diplomatic service in 1945. He became a part-time translator and interpreter, and then worked as a manager at a Moscow-based Japanese export group. After reuniting with the people he saved, Sugihara was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1985, one year before his death. In the words of Susan Bluman, a Sugihara refugee, “I believe he was a very special person, a very remarkable human being. To him, human rights were very, very important. He believed that everybody should be able to be free.”
Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Like Chiune Sugihara, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes was an unexpected hero. Mendes was a devout Portuguese Catholic born to an aristocratic family. He worked as a diplomat in Bordeaux, France at the time of the Nazi invasion. The Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, decided to collaborate with the Nazis and refuse entry to Jews.
Acting on his conscience, Mendes announced to his staff that “Many of you are Jews, and our constitution clearly states that neither the religion nor the political beliefs of foreigners can be used as a pretext for refusing to allow them to stay in Portugal. I’ve decided to be faithful to that principle, but I shan’t resign for all that.”
30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, appeared at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. A group of Jewish refugees, headed by Mendes’ friend Rabbi Haim Kruger, petitioned Mendes for entry visas to Portugal. He eagerly agreed to this request and even gave out the documents for free to those who couldn’t afford them. Mendes and his staff worked to the point of exhaustion in June 1940 to ensure that all 30,000 refugees got visas.
Word of Mendes’ insubordination reached the Portuguese government, and he was ordered to return to his home country. On the way, Mendes continued to give visas to refugees. In one such instance, he passed the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne, France where a crowd of hundreds stood outside the gates hoping to get visas. Mendes boldly marched into the consulate and ordered the staff to immediately issue visas. He even escorted the refugees personally to the Spanish border to ensure their safety.
Once Mendes arrived back in Lisbon, he was declared “mentally unfit” by the Salazar government and stripped of not only his job but also his pension and right to practice law. Even his children were blacklisted from universities and employment opportunities. Left penniless and hated by his government, society and even some of his family members, Mendes lived the life of an outcast in his family home of Passal in central Portugal. Despite all that, Mendes never regretted his actions for a moment, “I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.” He died in 1954 in poverty at a Franciscan monastery.
Mendes was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. His government finally dismissed all charges against him and reinstated his diplomatic position in 1988. The Portuguese government has also announced plans to turn Mendes’ home into a museum of tolerance.
When asked to explain why he refused to follow orders, Mendes offered this now-immortal line “I would stand with G-d against man, rather than with man against G-d.”
(Sources: Virtual Jewish Library, Yad Vashem, U.S. Holocaust Museum)