Righteous Diplomats

Aleksander Ładoś, Tadeusz Romer, Henryk Sławik, Chiune Sugihara and Raoul Wallenberg were diplomats who helped Jews during World War II. In Bern, Tokyo, Kowno or Budapest, they endeavoured to help save those condemned by the Holocaust – often against their own country’s official policy. Many have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Here, we present selected stories of ambassadors, consuls and diplomatic mission employees, telling how they helped and whom they saved.

During World War II, many ambassadors, consuls and employees of diplomatic missions used their special position, immunity and available resources to actively assist persecuted Jews - largely refugees from occupied Poland. The range and extent of this diplomatic assistance was very limited. Poles were also amongst diplomatic mission personnel around the world, who tried, by official or secretive means, to save Jews. Many of these have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Who were the refugees?

The 20th century is often referred to as the age of migration. It brought about an unprecedented mass of refugees, a new political and legal status of refugees which changed our understnding of this phenomenon. Until now, the refugee issue did not exist on such an international scale. There were other barriers to emigration, to the freedom of movement and settlement - regulations determining the registration of a population.

Hannah Arendt (1906–1976), one of the most outstanding philosophers of the 20th century and a World War II Jewish refugee, in January 1943 wrote an essay entitled “We Refugees”, In it, she wrote:

A refugee is a person forced to seek refuge due to an activity or due to his or her] political belief. The truth is that we were forced to seek refuge. However, we did not do anything and most of us never dreamt of having any radical view. When we appeared, the meaning of the term “refugee” changed.

The events of the last century created a contemporary, international definition of “refugees”, encompassing all people who remain outside of their permanent place of residence, as the result of a fear of being persecuted due to their race, nationality, religion, political views or due to belonging to a specific group.

Jews as refugees

Since the earliest years, refugees from persecution have been part of Jewish history. Repressions aimed at Jews led to their dispersal and, over the centuries, successive waves of  persecution have changedthe social structure and geographical location of the Jewish Diaspora. 

The first wave of Jewish emigration from the Nazi policy of repression occurred in 1933–1939. It forced almost half a million people to flee. It mainly affected affluent and educated Jews from Germany, Austria and from the free port city of Gdańsk. Among other effects, their origins deprived them of work and Jewish youth lost the opportunity of gaining an education.

Hannah Arendt wrote:

Before the outbreak of war, we were even more sensitive to the term “refugee”. We tried hard to prove to everyone that we were simply ordinary immigrants. We made declarations that, of our own free will, we were leaving for a country of our choice and denied any suggestions that our departure had anything to do with the so-called “Jewish question”.

Already by then, the immigation policies of Great Britain and the United States, the destinations of choice, were characterised by a reluctance to accept refugees from Europe. Poland also had a similar policy – read about the internment camp in Zbąszyń (Wielkopolskie Province) »

Refugees during World War II

Following the  outbreak of World War II, there were three waves of Jewish emigration, each stronger than the previous one, as the Third Reich occupied more territory: Poland in September 1939, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luksembourg and part of France in May1940, the USSR from June 1941.

Escaping persecution, Jews tried to emigrate to countries which would guarantee their safety or where they could obtain documents which would ensure their inviolability in areas controlled by the Third Reich. From occupied Poland, emigration was mainly to the USSR.

During German offensives in the West, the first emigration destinations were Spain and Switzerland, as well countries outside of Europe which could be reached by sea from, among other places, Marseille. 

Crossing borders illegally often meant a stay in an internment camp. Where immigration laws were restrictive, it could mean expulsion from that country – this was the case with, among others, 20,000 Jews who had come to Switzerland.

The Holocaust and international politics

Many ambassadors, consuls and diplomatic mission staff were among those who tried to protect Jewish refugees from repression and, ultimately, death in ghettos or extermination centres. Sometimes, these rescue efforts were carried out in an organised manner in accordance with instructions from their governments. However, they were mainly carried out by individuals operating in opposition to their government's official immigration policy which prohibited the admission of refugees.

They represented countries which had differing war status:

  • neutral, such as Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Sweden and Switzerland;
  • those allied to the anti-Nazi coalition under the leadership of Great Britain, the United States and, later, the USSR;
  • those which were part of the Axis powers – the Third Reich, Italy and Imperial Japan.

Together with thousands of German Jews, Hannah Arendt was one of those interned in the camp at Gurs on the eve of the German invasion of France in 1940. In May of the following year, she emigrated to the United States:

In Europe, the Nazis comfiscated our property […] but, in Los Angeles, they limit our freedom to move around after dark because we are “enemy aliens”. Our identity changes so frequently that no one can work out who we actually are.

For the Allies, rescuing Jews during the Holocaust was not a priority. Due to the armed conflict and the material and demographic losses suffered at the time, as well as prevailing strict immigration policies, their governments reacted passively towards the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Stories of diplomats rescuing Jews

The activities of diplomats were not conducted on a large scale and were mainly limited to the illegal issuing of entry or transit permits, passports, citizenship certificates and other documents, regardless of their country's war status and its policy towards refugees.

This is how Raoul Wallenberg (1912–1947), Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, together with the Apostolic Nunciature, the Swedish and International Red Cross, managed to save many thousands of people. He came to Budapest in the summer  of 1944 when, after the extermination of half a million Hungarian Jews, the Jewish community there numbered 250,000. 

Wallenberg issued Swedish passports, citizenship certificates and baptism certificates. He employed several hundred people in the Budapest Embassy. He also provided medical care and distributed food. He established an orphanage and an aged care home. Other Swedish Embassy staff joined him in helping Jews and their activities were financed by the United States government. At the end of August 1944, in a letter to his mother, he wrote:

We have so much to do and we work day and night. Right now, it seems that our first humanitarian efforts have been successful. However, we still face huge difficulties.

A few weeks later, he noted, “Many Jews have perished and, apart from in the big cities, there are none left. Known for its beauty, Budapest has changed completely”.

At the risk of their own lives, other diplomats hid Jewish refugees in their embassies or in their apartments which were protected by immunity. In Budapest, Carl Lutz (1895–1975), the Swiss Deputy Consul, established the “Glass House” which was a shelter for Jews. The premises was previously used by the Swiss Embassy for its Immigration Department. At any one time, the building held 2,000–3,000 people. It is estimated that, thanks to the issuing of documents, negotiations with the Hungarian government and working together with institutions from other countries, Lutz managed to save almost 60,000 people. 

Poles were also active in Budapest. After the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, more than 100,000 Polish soldiers and civilians sought refuge in Hungary. Head of the Committee for the Protection of Polish Refugees was Henryk Sławik (1894–1944), a delegate of the Minister of Labor and Social Welfare of the Polish Government-in-Exile. Working together with József Antall, an employee of the Hungarian Ministry of Internal Affairs, he issued documents which allowed Polish Jews to avoid death. According to the Yad Vashem Institute, he saved around 5,000 people. A significant number of these were children. They found refuge in an orphanage established by Sławik in Vác. 

After the Germans invaded Hungary in July 1944, Sławik was arrested and investigated. He was deported to the German concentration camp in Mauthausen. He died there on 25th or 26th August 1944.

The Story of Henryk Sławik

Read more about the aid he provided as Chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Polish Refugees in Hungary »

Diplomats often decided to break the law and their diplomatic instructions by allowing refugees to cross borders. The Japanese Consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara (1900–1986), against his government’s instructions, granted Polish and Lithuanian Jews transit visas, regardless of the consequences of his insubordination:

In front of the Consulate in Kowno, behind the fence, I saw a crowd of refugees from Poland […] There were not only men, but women, the elderly and children also. All looked tired and exhausted. I didn't know if they had anywhere to sleep in Kowno – maybe they were sleeping at the station or on the street […] Finally, I came to the conclusion that discussions with Tokyo would make no sense.

In 1940, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, thousands of people endeavoured to escape the resultant repressions. Many turned to Consul Sugihara asking for a visa to Japan - a country allied with the Third Reich, but which maintained meutrality in the matter of refugees.

In an interview, in 2015, for POLIN Museum, Marcel Weyland, rescued by Chiune Sugihara said:

My father and brother-in-law travelled to Kowno where they stood in a queue to see Sugihara. They returned to Wilno with a visa. I remember exactly just how fortunate that was. We got on the Trans-Siberian Railway and, when we arrived in Moscow, they told us that the train would remain there for several hours. “Good”, we thought, “we can see a little of Moscow”. These beautiful, underground stations, set in marble, churches with onion domes and, of course, the Kremlin. When we returned to the station, a hour before the scheduled departure time, the train had gone. Why? Nobody knew. Fortunately, there was a taxi which took us to the next station.

The Story of Chiune Sugihara

Read about the help provided by the Consul of Imperial Japan in Lithuania »

Day-by-day, the queue of people outside the Consulate in Kowno grew. From 29th July to 4th September, Sugihara and his wife issued thousands of travel documents. In the course of one day, they exhausted their visa issuance limit. Sugihara's help ended with the handing over of the travel document – he was unable to coordinate anly help in his own country. Weyland recalled:

Vladivostok – it was a place of ice, hail and winter – unhappiness. When we came to Japan, we saw cherry blossoms and the sun. Really, everything was beautiful like the young Japanese women in their kimonos. It was a completely different world. We were there for seven months – we only had permission for ten days – I think just for transit.

Polish Ambassador in Tokyo, Tadeusz Romer (1894–1978), also provided help to refugees. This Polish diplomat constantly intervened with the Japanese authorities on the issues of extending visas and sought new visas to countries which would guarantee safe refuge. 

When, in the autun of 1941, under presure from the Third Reich, the Polish diplomatic mission in Tokyo was closed, those under Tadeusz Romer’s care were sent to Shanghai. There, also, Polish diplomats looked after Polish citizens and, even before returning to Europe in August 1942, he managed to establish zdążył utworzyć Union of Poles in China. That institution represented Polish Jews to the local authorities.  

The Story of Tadeusz Romea

Read about the help he provided through the Polish Embassy in Japan »

In 1943, thousands of refugees were interned in the Hongkou district of Shanghai, where they remained until the end of the War. Help for them was also organised by Recha and Itzchak Sternbuch of Montreux, who established the organisation “Help for Jewish Refugees in Shanghai”. Initially, they provided help to orthodox Jews in occupied Poland, working together with the Polish Delegation in Bern. With the help of this Polish institution, they made contact with the United States and also received funds for Shanghai yeshivas. 

Head of the Polish mission was Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963), head of the “Bern Group”, consisting of Polish diplomats and Jewish political activists who, in Switzerland in 1941–1943, issued South American passports in order to save Jews from the Holocaust. They worked together with Abraham Silberschein (1882–1951) of the World Jewish Congress and with Zurich rabbi Chaim Eissa (1876–1943). Silberschein wrote:

At the Polish Delegation in Bern, I met with Mr Ryniewicz and Mr Rokicki. Both of them drew my attention to the fact that there were certain people in Switzerland who are involved in the issuing of South American passports to Poles finding themselves in German-occupied countries. These passports enabled their holders to improve their situation. We were dealing with a “black market” in passports.

Apart from Ładoś, the group also consisted of Polish Consul Konstanty Rokicki (1899–1958), Polish Delegation Counsellor and Deputy Stefan Ryniewicz (1903–1987) and Polish legation attache and expert on Jewish organisations, Juliusz Kühl (1913–1985).

The Story of Aleksander Ładoś

Read about the aid provided by this representative of Poland in Bern »

Other diplomats carried out “dual-activities”, sabotaging the activities of their superiors. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz (1904–1973) was a German attaché in Denmark. Officially, he was responsible for looking after German ships which entered Danish ports. Secretly, he provided help to repressed Danes and to the Jewish community in that country.

In September 1943, he received a note regarding the planned extermination of Danish Jews. He intervened with Berlin, but his opposition proved fruitless. Under the guise of commercial matters, he travelled to Sweden where, with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, he discussed a plan to save the Jewish minority from being deported to their deaths. As a result, boats containing 8,000 refugees, around 95% of the Danish Jewish community, sailed from Copenhagen to neutral Sweden. After completing that task, Duckwitz did not risk to do anything further. The world learned of his actions only after the War.

Diplomats disobeying the instructions of their own governments often resulted in tragic consequences for their reputations and careers. Portugese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes (1885–1954) was sacked and lost his retirement pension as the result of his disobediance. According to a 1939 instruction from Portugese Prime Minister, António de Oliveir Salazar, it was forbidden to issue Portugese visas without first consulting that country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This included the case of “Jews who were expelled from their countries of origin”. 

In the Portugese Consulate in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued more than 30,000 visas to refugees from Belgium, the Netherlands and from Central and Eastern Europe. A long queue of tired and desperate people waited at the door to the Consulate, hoping to leave France before it capitulated. Those waiting also included Polish citizens, among them being Rabbi Chaim Kruger, his wife and five children. Thanks to the Portugese visas, the Kruger family were able to continue their journey to New York.

In a telegram dated 21st June 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes wrote:

In accordance with instructions, I advise that, from yesterday evening, in the Bordeaux Consulate, transit visas were issued free-of-charge to anyone who submitted an application. Both the applications and the visas were completed in accordance with all orders and instructions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite that, the Consulate in San Sebastian does not respect my decisions. I therefore request intervention in San Sebastian and I await further instructions.

The following day, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a message was sent stating that “I hereby inform Your Excellency that the Portugese Consul in Bordeaux is permitting the issue of forbidden visas to all foreigners who make application to the Consulate”. Aristides de Sousa Mendes felt the consequences of his activities for the rest of his life. In 1954, he died poverty and forgotten. 

Nine years later, his story was recalled by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem which honoured him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. This Portugese became the first diplomat to be honoured in this manner. 

Diplomats Honoured

In the years that followed, the title of RIghteous Among the Nations was also bestowed upon other diplomats. Below is a list diplomats honoured with that title (as as February 2019):

  1. Per Anger (1982)
  2. José Barreto (2014)
  3. Friedrich Born (1987)
  4. Ángel Sanz Briz (1991)
  5. Jose Castellanos (2010)
  6. Carl Danielsson (1982)
  7. Georg Duckwitz (1971)
  8. Harald Feller (1999)
  9. Ho Feng-Shan (2000)
  10. Francis Foley (1999)
  11. Constantin Karadja (2005)
  12. Elow Kihlgren (2001)
  13. Joseph Kolkman (2013)
  14. Carl Lutz (1965)
  15. Florian Manoliu (2001)
  16. Manuel Munoz (2011)
  17. Giorgio Perlasca (1988)
  18. Ernst Prodolliet (1982)
  19. Eduardo Propper (2007)
  20. France Punčuh (2004)
  21. Sebastián de Romero (2014)
  22. abp. Angelo Rotta (1997)
  23. Albert Routier (2016)
  24. Carlos Sampaio (2010)
  25. Fernando Serra (2013)
  26. Henryk Sławik (1990)
  27. Luis Martins de Souza Dantas (2003)
  28. Ján Spišiak (2006)
  29. Chiune Sugihara (1985)
  30. Irineos Typaldos (1969)
  31. Selahattin Ülkümen (1989)
  32. Raoul Wallenberg (1963)
  33. Vladimir Vochoc (2016)
  34. Jan Zwartendijk (1997)

Many diplomats have never been honoured.

In the abovementioned essay “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt concluded that: “Forced from one country to another, Jewish refugees constituted an avant-gardę […] For the first time, Jewish history did not stand on its own, but was intertwined with the history of other nations. The community of European nations collapsed when it allowed its weakest member to be cursed – it fell because they allowed it to happen”.

Mateusz Szczepaniak / Academic consultant: Dr. Krzysztof Persak, English translation: Andrew Rajcher, February 2019


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