As early as 1937, Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich were persecuting Jews in several European countries. Many people helped Jews avoid deportation to the concentration camps in various ways. I include here a brief history of four people: a Swiss, a Brit, a German, and an American, who succeeded, by fair means or foul, in rescuing thousands of Jews during the war. I also include the mysterious disappearance of a fifth man known to aid Jews, and an American actor of Hungarian heritage who gave aid many years later.
Carl Lutz (March 30, 1895 – February 12, 1975) was a Swiss diplomat who served as the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, Hungary from 1942 until the end of the war. He is credited with saving over 62,000 Jews, the largest rescue operation of Jews of the war. He received the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” the Israeli government’s highest honor awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives aiding Jews during the holocaust.
One of his efforts was a special deal with the Hungarian government and the Nazis. He gained permission to issue protective letters to 8,000 Hungarian Jews for emigration to Palestine. He deliberately interpreted his permission for 8,000 as applying to families rather than individuals, and proceeded to issue tens of thousands of additional protective letters, all of them bearing a number between one and 8,000. He also set up 76 “safe houses” around Budapest, declaring them annexes of the Swiss legation and thus off-limits to Hungarian forces or Nazi soldiers. About 3,000 Hungarian Jews found refuge in these building.
It’s still unclear how many Jews made it to Budapest safe houses or how many passes were issued or forged.
Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton planned to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague, Czechoslovakia, as it then was, and help Martin Blake, who had asked him to help in Jewish welfare work. Winton established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. In November 1938, the British House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands en route to England. Winton succeeded thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children. The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on September 1, 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler‘s invasion of Poland on the same day, the war had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war.
Winton’s rescue achievements went unnoticed for half a century until, in 1988, his wife found a detailed scrapbook in their attic, containing lists of the children, including their parents’ names and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. She gave the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher and wife of media magnate Robert Maxwell. Letters were sent to each of these known addresses and 80 of “Winton’s children” were found in Britain.
The wider world learned about his work in February 1988 during an episode of the BBC television program That’s Life! when he was invited as a member of the audience. At one point, Winton’s scrapbook was shown and his achievements were explained. The host of the program, asked whether anybody in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and if so, to stand – more than two dozen people surrounding Winton rose and applauded.
Our guide told us of a book called Nicky’s Family, which contains pictures children prisoners drew of daily activities. The pictures were not found until after the war. The original pictures are on display at the Jewish museum (formerly a concentration camp) at Terezin, 40 miles from Prague.
Queen Elizabeth knighted Winton for “services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi Germany-occupied Czechoslovakia.” On October 28, 2014, he received the highest honor of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class). He died in 2015 at age 106.
Oskar Schindler (April 28, 1908 – October 9 1974) is now probably the most famous person aiding Jews during the war. A German industrialist and a member of the Nazi Party, he is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories in occupied Poland and, later, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
He’s the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark and its 1993 film adaptation, Schindler’s List, which reflected his life as an opportunist initially motivated by profit, who came to show extraordinary tenacity and courage to save the lives of his Jewish employees.
In 1939, Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed at the factory’s peak in 1944 about 1,750 workers, of whom 1,000 were Jews. His connections helped Schindler protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe.
By July 1944, Germany was losing the war; the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and deporting the remaining prisoners westward. Schindler convinced officials to allow him to move his factory to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of the war, by which time he had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers.
When he went bankrupt in 1958, Schindler returned to Germany, where he failed at several business ventures and relied on financial support from a group known as “Schindler Jews,” the people whose lives he had saved during the war. He died in Hildesheim, Germany, and was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be honored in this way. He and his wife Emilie were named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli government in 1993.
Roddie Edmonds (August 20, 1919 – August 8, 1985), a master sergeant of the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Infantry Regiment in the United States Army during World War II, became the ranking U.S. non-commissioned officer at the Stalag IX-A prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. There – at the risk of his life – he prevented an estimated 200 Jews from being singled out from the camp for Nazi persecution and possible death.
Edmonds, along with other inexperienced troops, arrived in the combat zone December 1944, arriving only five days before Germany launched a massive counteroffensive, Battle of the Bulge. During the battle, on December 19, 1944, Edmonds was captured by Nazi forces, and sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag IX-B. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred, with other enlisted personnel, to another POW camp, Stalag IX-A. As the senior noncommissioned officer at the new camp, Master Sergeant Edmonds was responsible for the camp’s 1,275 American POWs.
On their first day in Stalag IX-A, January 27, 1945 – as Germany’s defeat was clearly approaching – the commandant ordered Edmonds to tell only the Jewish-American soldiers to present themselves at the next morning’s assembly so they could be separated from the other prisoners.
Instead, Edmonds ordered all 1,275 POWs to assemble outside their barracks. In a fury, the commandant placed his pistol against Edmonds’ head and demanded that Edmonds identify the Jewish soldiers under his command. Instead, Edmonds responded, “We are all Jews here.” He told the commandant that, if he wanted to shoot the Jews, he’d have to shoot all the prisoners. Edmonds also told him that, if he harmed any of Edmonds’ men, the commandant would be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes after the conflict ended. He cited the Geneva Conventions requirement that prisoners only had to give their name, rank, and serial number. Religion was not a requirement. The commandant backed down.
Edmonds survived 100 days of captivity, and returned home after the war, but kept the event at the POW camp to himself. He also served during the Korean Conflict. He died in 1985, having never received any official recognition, citation, or medal for his defense of the Jewish POWs.
On February 10, 2015, Israeli authorities recognized Edmonds as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The awards ceremony was held January 27, 2016, at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., where then-President Barack Obama praised Edmonds for action “above and beyond the call of duty,” and echoed Edmonds statement of solidarity with Jews. Chris Edmonds received the Righteous medal and certificate of honor on his father’s behalf, at the ceremony.
As late as February 2017, Edmonds’ act had never received official recognition by the U.S. government. His son continues his efforts to have Congress award the Medal of Honor posthumously. So far, the congressional reason has been that Edmonds’ action was not in battle; therefore, he isn’t qualified.
What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Germans in the waning days of the Second World War. From the summer of 1944 until late in the year he protected Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports and sheltering them on properties designated as Swedish territory under diplomatic and international law.
When the Soviet Army besieged Budapest, Russian authorities arrested Wallenberg on suspicion of espionage. Over a decade later, the Soviets reported his death to have occurred in July 1947, with the cause of death being heart failure.
After that “death” report, several former prisoners and even guards reported having seen Wallenberg, at least as late as the 1980s. Reports indicated Wallenberg was in Soviet custody in the infamous Lubyanka Prison. Reasons for his being held by the Soviets have been largely speculation, ranging from his alleged connections with US intelligence to his having been involved in espionage activities against the Hungarians.
Wallenberg was reported as being murdered by the Gestapo in 1945, dead of natural causes in 1947, murdered by the Russians while in custody in 1947, alive on Wrangel Island in 1962, and alive in another Soviet prison in 1987. Swiss authorities officially declared dead in 2016.
Wallenberg’s relationship with US intelligence, as well as his activities subverting the pro-Nazi Hungarian government during the war are still the subject of speculation, with the governments of several nations, including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary, the United States, and Sweden, all issuing conflicting statements regarding his actions. The story of Raoul Wallenberg, which includes his often visibly contentious relationship with representatives of Nazi Germany in Budapest, remains a mystery which becomes more entangled the more one attempts to unravel it.
Regardless of how others interpret Wallenberg’s actions, the people of Budapest hold him in highest regard. He had no diplomatic experience, yet he led one of the most successful rescue efforts saving tens of thousands of Jews from deportation to the Auschwitz death camp. When Soviet forces liberated Budapest in February 1945, more than 100,000 Jews remained, mostly because of the efforts of Wallenberg and his colleagues, including Carl Lutz.
Behind the Great Synagogue (Doheny Street Synagogue), we found the Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park dedicated to the man they honor as hero. The Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1989, stands in Wallenberg Park above the mass graves in memory of Hungarian Jewish martyrs. A name of a martyr is on each leaf of a metal weeping willow tree.
Another American, Tony Curtis (nee Bernard Schwartz, June 3, 1925 – September 10, 2010) well-known actor, deserves some attention for his aid to Jews resulting from World War II. He, of course, was too young to serve.
Beginning in 1990, Curtis and his daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, took a renewed interest in their family’s Hungarian Jewish heritage, and set up a foundation to help finance the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue in Budapest. (Today, this truly stunning synagogue is the Doheny Street Synagogue.) The largest synagogue in Europe today, it dates to 1859 and suffered severe damage during the war.
In 1998, Curtis also founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, and served as honorary chairman. The organization works for the restoration and preservation of synagogues and the 1300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. It is dedicated to the 600,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary and lands occupied by the Hungarian Army.