OTHERS WHO SAVED LIVES
Now, every government and church says,‘We tried to help the Jews,’ because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn’t help, because six million Jews perished; but those [people] in the government, in the churches, they survived. No one did enough.” — Jan Karski, Holocaust whistleblower who met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for more than an hour at the White House in July of 1943.
The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland and other places all over the world helped to save Jews.
According to historian Sir Martin Gilbert, nobody saved as many Jews during the Holocaust as Rudolf Vrba & Alfréd Wetzler, whose reportage was augmented and verified by the reportage of Mordowicz & Rosin six weeks later.
Nowadays, if asked to name even one heroic lifesaver of Jews for a quiz show, most people on the planet would be stumped. A few would have an answer–Oskar Schindler–thanks to a 1993 movie that glorified a Nazi Party industrialist for the Third Reich who benefited from using 1,200 Jews as slave labourers in his factory. Not including Schindler, who was sympathetically portrayed by Liam Neeson in Steven Spielberg’s movie, here, in alphabetical order in terms of the countries where lives were saved, are the men and one woman who can each be credited with saving 1,000 or more Jews during World War II.
Before proceeding with the aforementioned list of outstanding saviours, it deserves mentioning that the only continental country in Europe that had more Jews inside its borders at the end of World War II than at the beginning is the only predominantly Muslim country in Europe, Albania. As a matter of national honour, in keeping with a code of conduct known as Besa, the citizens of Albania at large resisted the persecution of approximately 2,000 Jews who had entered their country, fleeing persecution, from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece (Macedonia) and Yugoslavia, after Italy took control of Albania in 1939. Albania did not give up one Jew.
In March of 1942, Italian soldiers handed over 51 Jews to the Germans and these were transported and murdered at the Sajmiste concentration in Croatia, but even after the German occupation in 1943, Albania—with a Muslim majority—continued to protect their Jews to such an extent that there were ten times more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than beforehand.
In June of 1944, the Albanian collaborationist government refused German demands to produce a list of the country’s Jews. Most Jews subsequently immigrated to Israel. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has recognized at least 75 citizens of Albania as Righteous Among the Nations. Although there are no individual Albanians who saved extraordinary numbers of Jews (and who might therefore merit inclusion in this listing of heroic saviours), the little-known decency of tiny Albania merits some inclusion here. See Denmark entry for somewhat similar reasons.
[Most of these saviours of Jews listed below — in this alphabeticized list below — are far better known than Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler even though they are credited with saving 200,000 people due to their convincing reportage that resulted in the cessation of transports of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz that had begun on May 15, 1944.]
World War II humanitarian heroism is difficult to uncover in Austria. A Chinese Consul in Vienna named Ho Feng Shan defied his superiors and freely issued visas to Jews from 1938 to 1940. These visas enabled their holders to travel to Shanghai, an open port city without immigration controls, occupied by the Japanese army.
Those who were issued these visas would not necessarily travel to Shanghai, but their legitimacy enabled legal transit to other destinations. The heroism of Feng Shan Ho was never divulged, not even to his family, until many decades later. He was recognized by Yad Vashem in the year 2000, a figure that coincides with the approximate number of signed Shanghai visas that he distributed.
It wasn’t widely-known until 1988 that the famous Kindertransport (German for “children’s transport”) trains from Prague to Britain that saved the lives of 669 mostly Jewish children on the eve of World War II were largely financed by the British banker Sir Nicholas George Winton (1909-2015), who died at age 106. Winton also had to find homes for all the escaping children before they could be allowed to emigrate.
Winton’s parents were German Jews. The original family name was Wertheim. The crucial role of the long-lived financier was only revealed some fifty years later when he was invited to appear on a BBC television program, That’s Life, re-united with some of the grown children he saved. Winton had spent one month in Prague and left in January of 1939, six weeks before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. He wrote to foreign leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking them to take some of the Jewish refugee children on his trains but only Sweden agreed to nominally participate. From a family of Czechoslovakian Jews, Canadian Correspondent and journalist, Joe Schlesinger was one of the many children he saved. Winton maintained that at least another 2,000 lives could have been saved.
A transshipment from Prague, slated for September 1, 1939, was curtailed on the same day Hitler invaded Germany. It was later determined that only two of the 250 children scheduled to be sent by train into The Netherlands on that day (then to be sent by ship to England), had survived WW II. Of the six essential people Winton acknowledged for expediting this rescue system, he singled out Trevor Chadwick in particular. “Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded… he deserves all praise.”
Initially, Winton was a conscientious objector at the outset of WW II, but he joined the RAF in 1940 and achieved the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Before his role in Kindertransport was acknowledged, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1983 for his work establishing care homes for the elderly. In 2003, he was knighted. He was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government in 2010, having received the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk from Czech President Václav Havel in 1998. The Czech government unsuccessfully nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. A minor planet has been named in his honour by Czech astronomers.
Even though Winton was baptized as a Christian, Yad Vashem in Israel disqualified him for being declared a Righteous Among the Nations because he had two Jewish parents. Judi Dench narrated Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, recipient of the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 2001. Among numerous film and stage productions arising in the 21st century inspired by his life, Antony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn both portray Winton for the movie, One Life.
South American tin baron Maurice Hochschild, the so-called “Bolivian Schindler,” persuaded Bolivia’s president President German Busch Becerra to provide entry visas for an estimated 10,000 Jews—far more than the 1,200 Jews saved by the industrialist Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, whose life was celebrated in the Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List. Jews had been in Bolivia since the 16th century.
An avid mountain climber who first came to Bolivia in 1921, the German-born Jew was one of Bolivia’s three foremost tin barons in the early part of the 20th century. Like Schindler, Hochschild used business as a rationale for saving Jews. He successfully argued that Jewish immigrants could undertake farm work in the coca-growing region of Yungas, east of La Paz.
Recent articles have suggested that Hochschild, although seemingly a ruthless capitalist, could have been responsible for saving as many as 20,000 Jews. One such article can be found here.
As a politician who initially favoured Bulgaria’s alliance with Germany and who also acquiesced to anti-Jewish legislation, Dimitar Peshev later turned against his own governing party and expressed strong disapproval of plans to deport Bulgaria’s Jews to concentration camps. Ultimately, he was forced to step down as the country’s vice-president and he was ostracized, but Peshev’s courageous stance percolated widespread popular support for his views. The Bulgarian government rescinded its deportation orders for Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews and also ceased the transport of Jews from adjoining Macedonia and Thrace as of March 29, 1943. Peshev was nonetheless sentenced to fifteen years in prison for anti-Semitism and for collaboration with the Nazis when the Soviets gained control of Bulgaria in 1944. He served only one year. He was given the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1973, the year of his death.
The Czar of Bulgaria from 1918 to 1943, Boris III, also known as Boris Klemens Robert Maria Pius Ludwig Stanislaus Xaver, met with Hitler in 1943, shortly prior to the Czar’s death. It cannot be proven that his confrontational meeting with Hitler resulted in his death. Boris III is sometimes accorded credit for the actions that were instigated by Peshev’s consistent public stance to save Bulgarian Jews. Previously Boris III, essentially a dictator, had not prevented the deportation of 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace.
Japanese Lieutenant General Kichiro Higuchi, as commander of the Japanese-occupied Chinese Harbin Special Branch, has been credited with saving the lives of 20,000 Jewish refugees while in charge of Chinese territory in 1937-1938. He and his associate Yosuke Matsuoka were chiefly responsible for the so-called Otpor Incident whereby stranded Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression were able to cross the border from Otpor, then in the USSR, into the Japanese-created state of Manchukuo in parts of China and Mongolia at the time, en route to Harbin or Shanghai. Subsequently, Jewish refugees were able to take refuge in Japan.
Higuchi’s grandson, Professor Ryoichi Higuchi, visited Israel in 2018 in efforts to have a tree planted at Yad Vashem in honour of his ancestor but his appeal was denied due to lack of evidence.
Possibly, the institution was deterred by the fact that Higuchi, posted to Manchuria because he was fluent in Russian, had been part of a military delegation that went to Germany in 1937 and met Adolf Hitler.
After the surrender of Japan, Stalin requested Higuchi be sent to the Soviet Union and be prosecuted for war crimes but the World Jewish Congress hastily and successfully lobbied the Commander of Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, to prevent Higuchi’s extradition. He was subsequently invited to attend the independence celebrations for the State of Israel. He died at age 82 in 1970.
Hans Hedtoft, who later served as the 14th Prime Minister of Denmark from 1947 to 1950, and again from 1953 until he died in 1955, was fundamental to the complex process that enabled 99% of Denmark’s Jewish population to survive World War II.
After Adolf Hitler decided Danish Jews should be rounded up for deportation on Rosh Hashanah, on October 1 and 2, 1943, the German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz leaked the plan to H.C. Hansen and Hedtoft who notified the Danish resistance movement.
With the cooperation of the Danish people at large, helping strangers, Denmark managed to evacuate 7,220 of the country’s 7,800 Jews, mostly to neutral Sweden. As well, 464 Danish Jews deported to the Theresienstadt transit camp were retrieved due to intercession by Swedish nobleman Folke Bernadotte and Danish leaders such as Hedtoft.
By the time Hungary was invaded by Germany in 1944, George Mantello, an Orthodox Jew, had already used his many skills and connections to save himself, his wife and his child from Nazi deportation by escaping from Rumania to Switzerland. There, he became the First Secretary of the General Consulate of El Salvador between 1942 and 1945. Concerned about what he was hearing in regard to the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, he sent his friend, a Romanian diplomat, to discover the truth of what was happening. Within six days of receiving two damning reports, one of which was an abridged copy of the Vrba Wetzler Report, he published them widely. Horrified by what he had read, and with the collaboration of consul Castellanos Contreras, he issued between 10,000 and 15,000 sets of citizenship papers to Jews living in German occupied countries.
The report’s publication caused large, vocal protests in Switzerland and resulted in Winston Churchill’s letter:“There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….” As a result of the subsequent press coverage, world leaders issued appeals and warnings to Hungary’s Regent, Miklós Horthy, and the mass transports of 12,000 Jews a day for three weeks, ended on 9 July 1944.
In recognition of his great contributions to humanity, Mantello received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University, New York. As a Jew, he was not eligible to be awarded the title, “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Although France in general was very compliant with German demands to register and hand over Jews, there were a few foreigners in France whose responses were exemplary. In particular, the General Consul of Mexico in Marseilles, Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, issued Mexican visas to approximately 40,000 Spaniards, political refugees and Jews, enabling them to escape Nazi persecution. Having fled Paris for Vichy France, Bosques Saldivar rented a castle and a summer holiday camp in Marseilles for the protection of refugees, claiming it was Mexican territory under international law. The Gestapo arrested Bosque, his wife and three children, along with 40 consular staff, in 1943, and they were detained in a hotel until the president of Mexico arranged for an exchange of imprisoned German citizens in Mexico. Bosques and his family returned to Mexico in 1944. His heroism remained unknown for sixty years. He died at age 103. He is the subject of a 2010 documentary made by Lillian Lieberman, Visa to Paradise, and Google celebrated his 125th birthday with a Google Doodle in 2017.
Similarly, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, head of the Islamic Center of France, issued fake IDs to more than 1,000 Jews of Paris during the German occupation and Brazilian diplomat Luis Martins de Souza Dantas issued fake Brazilian diplomatic visas to hundreds of Jews in France during the Vichy Government. As well, the First Secretary of the Spanish embassy in Paris, Eduardo Propper de Callejon, signed countless visa and passport requests from Jews for four consecutive days in 1940 to enable Jews to reach Spain and Portugal. As Head of Consular Affairs at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, Abdol-Hossein Sardari provided 500 blank Iranian passports to be issued to non-Iranian Jews to enable them to flee from France.
[See entry for Portugal for a separate information about the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes.]
As a British undercover agent in Berlin, Frank Foley saved about 10,000 people (not all of them Jews) by issuing false passports for travel to Britain or the British Mandate of Palestine.
As the Consul General at the American Embassy in Berlin, Raymond Herman Geist issued some 50,000 visas from 1929 to 1939 to individuals threatened with possible incarceration by the Nazis—both Jews and non-Jews. This sounds impressive–but it’s not if one looks deeply into the allowable quotas. It is true that Albert Einstein and his family were among those who owed their safe passage out of Germany to Geist even though FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had told Geist not to provide Einstein with an exit visa until the scientist provided a signed declaration that he was not a member of the Communist Party. Einstein refused to buckle. Geist, according to some reports, disobeyed Hoover, much to the benefit of the United States and the world. For his supposed humanitarianism, Geist received the Order of Merit from the German Federal Republic in 1954. But this occurred during a period when the former War Refugee Board fixer John J. McCloy was put in charge of America-controlled Germany and he was releasing convicted Nazi war criminals left and right [see NAZI WAR CRIMINALS on this site].
The Jerusalem Post has alleged that Geist’s actions were not heroic at all. Far from it. According to the Jerusalem Post, “A total of 77,751 German nationals – approximately 70,000 of whom were Jews – immigrated to the United States during the years 1933-1939. But more than twice that number – 184,525, to be exact – could have been admitted, according to the US immigration quota for Germans that was in force at the time. In other words, the German quota for that period was only 42% filled. As for the other 58% who were turned away – well, tough luck. Of the 12 years Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, the German quota was filled in just one (1939). In most of those years, it was less than 25% filled. The policy of the Roosevelt administration – implemented by Geist and his fellow consular officials in Germany – was to suppress Jewish refugee immigration far below the legal limits.” They did it by piling on extra requirements to qualify for visas, and looking for every conceivable way to reject applicants.
The Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, with their distinct dialect, remain one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe due in no small part to the diplomatic heroism of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens during World War II.
After the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz death camp began in March of 1943, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens was visited by a delegation of Thessaloniki Jews. Thereafter, he invited the chief of police in Athens to his office and reputedly proclaimed, “I have taken up my cross. I spoke to the Lord, and made up my mind to save as many Jewish souls as possible.”
Damaskinos advised his Greek Orthodox priests to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews in and around Athens and to hide other Jews for whom it was not possible to forge certificates. It has been estimated that 27,000 Jews were saved by those certificates alone. It is therefore easy to suggest that the activities and leadership of Archbishop Damaskinos saved more than 30,000 Jews.
Jews had lived in Athens since the third century BCE and there were remains of an ancient synagogue at the foot of the Acropolis. Consequently, on March 23, 1943, Damaskinos went to the office of Nazi SS commander (who had led the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising prior to taking charge of Germany’s occupation of Greece) and personally presented him with an open letter of protest and defiance, also addressed and sent to the quisling Prime Minister, that was unique in World War II history. In it he specifically and strenuously protested the mistreatment of Jews. This letter was actually written for him by the Greek poet Angelos Sikilianos and was endorsed by many members of the Athens intelligentsia.
When the shocked and outraged commander threatened to kill the Archbishop with a firing squad, the Archbishop famously referenced the barbaric lynching of Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople in 1921. “According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church,” he wrote, “our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!” He was temporarily placed under house arrest in 1944 but his defiance had already emboldened other Greek priests. On the island of Zakynthos, when the Nazi SS asked the mayor and the bishop to hand over the names of the resident Jews for deportation to Auschwitz, he received a list containing only two names, the mayor’s and the bishop’s. Similarly, when Joachim, Metropolitan of Volos, was asked for a list of Jewish residents, he replied “I am a Jew” and mobilized local Greeks to evacuate 702 Jews of the city to the relative safety of mountain villages.
On March 25, 1944, German officials did succeed in rounding up 1,690 Jews in Athens—many of whom were refugees from Thessaloniki—for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it has been estimated by the U.S. Holocaust Museum that 66 percent of Athens’ Jews survived thanks to Damaskinos’ leadership and the issuance of false identification cards by Athens Police Chief Angelos Evert.
Born as Dimitrios Papandreou in 1891, Archbishop Damaskinos was initially a soldier in the Greek army before he was ordained in 1917. In the 1930s, he went to the United States as ambassador of the Ecumenical Patriarch where he organized the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Soon after he was first elected Archbishop of Athens in 1938, the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas objected to his liberalism and cancelled his election. After the German invasion in 1941, his supporters were able to have him re-instated, with agreement from the Nazis, because his right-wing successor had failed to appear at an oath-taking ceremony for investing the new, German-selected quisling Prime Minister, Georgios Tsolakoglu.
With the termination of Nazi reign in Greece, Archbishop Damaskinos served as both the interim Regent (ruler) of Greece and as a (self-appointed) Prime Minister. The ousted Greek King George II in exile had succeeded in besmirching the Archbishop’s reputation in England, but Winston Churchill completely changed his opinion of him after they first met on Christmas Day, 1944, aboard HMS Ajax. On his way home from the Yalta conference, Churchill again visited Athens on February 14, 1945, and rode with Damaskinos in an open car, cheered by 40,000 Athenians. As soon as the king was formally recalled on September 28, 1946, Damaskinos rescinded all political authority as an interim leader. He died in Athens in 1949.
At least ten diplomats as a group — Anger, Wallenberg, Danielsson, Lutz, Briz, Perlasca, Contreras, Mantello, Sampaio Garrido and Branquinho—can be credited with saving the lives of between 40,000 and 60,000 Jews in Hungary, all prompted to do so by the Vrba-Wetzler Report.
After some contents of the Vrba–Wetzler Report reached Washington, D.C., the War Refugee Board—not Sweden—sent the Swede Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest and financed his activities. It is seldom acknowledged that Wallenberg arrived in Budapest three days after the Admiral Horthy had already agreed to halt the deportation of Jews. Wallenberg emulated the process of issuing Swedish provisional passports and certificates to protect Jews that had already been created and practiced by Swedish diplomat Per Anger. (The American president and the British prime minister were much disturbed by Sweden’s “one-sided neutrality” whereby Sweden was crucial to the Third Reich, supplying essential raw materials for the Nazis’ war efforts, in particular, German bombers. The Vrba–Wetzler Report was used as leverage to persuade Sweden to deviate from its self-serving stance of neutrality and assist with the hiring of Wallenberg to save Hungarian Jews.) Over decades, it has become customary to conflate the actions of lesser-known diplomats, such as his fellow Swede Carl-Ivan Danielsson, to estimate the number of lives that Wallenberg saved.
Similarly, as Vice-Consul at the Swiss Embassy, Carl Lutz negotiated with the Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, to issue lifesaving “protective letters” enabling many Jews to gain sanctuary in an overcrowded, former glass factory in Budapest. Charlotte Schallie and Agnes Hirschi’s Under Swiss Protection: Jewish Eyewitness Accounts from Wartime Budapest (Columbia University Press, 2017) has recounted Carl Lutz’s rescue operations, as verified by Jewish eyewitnesses in Canada, Hungary, Israel, Switzerland, the UK and the United States. It has been estimated that Lutz—with the help of his wife, Gertrud Lutz-Fankhauser, as well as Moshe Krausz, the director of the Palestine Office in Budapest, fellow Swiss citizens Harald Feller, Ernst Vonrufs, Peter Zurcher, and the underground Zionist Youth Movement—issued as many as 50,000 lifesaving letters of protection. [For more information on Lutz, see the entry for SWITZERLAND.] Carl Lutz was far more effective saving Jewish lives than the much better-known Wallenberg.
Mostly through the Swiss Consular office of Carl Lutz, the El Salvadoran consul general in Geneva, Jose Castellanos Contreras, and a Jewish-Hungarian business man in Transylvania, Gyorgy Mandl, aka George Mantello, are also credited with saving approximately 13,000 Jews, primarily Hungarian, by providing them with false papers of Salvadoran nationality, In order to do so, Castellanos appointed Mandel-Mantello as the consulate’s “First Secretary,” a fictitious title that was never used in the hierarchy of Salvadoran diplomacy. Portuguese diplomats Carlos Sampaio Garrido and Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho also helped Jews escape Nazi oppression in Hungary.
The Spanish Charge d’Affaires Angel Sanz Briz has also been credited with saving 5,000 Sephardic Jews in Hungary. He became the subject of a dramatic film by Luis Oliveros, The Budapest Angel. Having served in Francisco Franco’s army, he became a Spanish diplomat and tricked Hungarian officials into believing that Spain had granted citizenship to all descendants of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled in 1942. This was true to a point. In 1924, dictator Primo de Rivera made such a law, but it had been revoked in 1930. Madrid condoned his ruse, perpetuated by Giorgio Perlasca who pretended to take the place of Angel Sanz Briz who fled Budapest with the approach of the Red Army in 1944.
In a country not known for heroism during World War II, the actions of Giorgio Perlasca, when he posed as a Spanish ambassador in Hungary, stand out. There are claims that he saved 5,218 Jews.
Perlasca had volunteered to serve in the Italian army that invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and he served in Italian forces that assisted the dictator Francisco Franco in Spain from 1936 to 1939. For the latter, he received a letter for commendation from the Spanish government that would prove extremely useful only a few years hence. Opposed to anti-Semitism, he later found himself working as an import-export agent for the Italian army in Budapest. Because he expressed his allegiance to the deposed Italian monarchy instead of Mussolini, he was interned as an enemy alien in a prison camp near the Austrian border. He escaped in October of 1943 and made his way back to Budapest.
When the Nazis seized power in March of 1944, Perlasca took refuge in the Spanish consulate where he received a Spanish passport with the name Jorge Perlasca largely because he was able to prove, with the aforementioned letter, that he had fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. When he learned Spanish Consul Angel Sanz Briz was issuing “letters of protection” for Jews seeking asylum in neutral Spain, Perlasca offered his assistance.
When Ángel Sans Briz and other officials received emergency orders to vacate immediately, he left a note for Perlasca warning him to also leave—but Perlasca chose to remain and went instead to the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with his false Spanish passport, and pretended to be the newly-appointed Spanish Consul. He continued to issue protective passes (safe-conduct passes to Hungarian Jews that falsely asserted they were Spanish-born) and organized food, medical aid and protection for 5,200 Jews in the Consulate’s apartments. The passes read: “The relatives of all Spaniards in Hungary require their presence in Spain. Until we are able to re-establish communications and the journey back is possible, they will remain here under the protection of the government of Spain.”
Perlasca, posing as a Spaniard, worked in concert with the likes of Raul Wallenberg, Angelo Rotta from the Vatican and Friedrich Born from the International Red Cross to protect and save Jews. When consular funds evaporated, he used his own money or asked for funds from Jews he was hiding. He and Wallenberg had a near-fatal altercation with pistol-wielding SS major at the train station who he later learned was Adolf Eichmann. When the Soviets finally liberated Budapest in January of 1945, many of the Jews that Perlasca had kept in hiding were free, but he was forced to work as a street cleaner.
Perlasca returned to Italy via Istanbul and lived in relative anonymity, claiming his wife did not believe his stories. Eventually, the Hungarian Parliament awarded him its highest honor in 1989 and a statue was dedicated to him in Budapest. Israel accorded him honorary citizenship and dedicated a tree to him at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The Raanana Symphonette Orchestra in Israel commissioned an original orchestral piece, “His Finest Hour,” from composer Moshe Zorman as a tribute. The piece had its debut at a concert attended by Perlasca’s son Franco and daughter-in-law Luciana Amadia. The Spanish king awarded him the Order of Isabella and a pension. He became the subject of a book and a feature film in Italy.
He died at age 82 in 1992.
Claims that an Italian police official named Giovanni Palatucci can be celebrated as the “Italian Schindler” have been debunked by Trieste historian and educator Marco Coslovich, in association with a 2013 panel of historians led by the Centro Primo Levi. Celebrated throughout Italy as a rare paragon of virtue regarding the Holocaust, Palatucci was stationed from 1937 to 1944 in the Fascist-occupied, Croatian town of Fiume, today called Rijeka, one of the collection points for transporting Jews to Trieste. In Trieste, a rice warehouse known as Risier di San Sabba became the only death camp on Italian soil. It was administered directly by the Third Reich.
Coslovich has investigated World War II events in the border region between Italy and Yugoslavia for most of his life, writing extensively about deportations. He claims Fiume police documents reveal Palatucci was just another opportunistic fascist. “They show that he extorted money from Jews and confiscated their goods. He carried out his job fully, as a willing enabler of the Fascist regime. The only time he used gentler treatment of some individual Jews was because his superiors had extorted payments from them for a safe passage.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington subsequently removed Palatucci from a summer exhibit in 2013. “There is no concrete evidence whatsoever that Palatucci saved 5,000 Jews as many believe,” Coslovich said. “Those are crazy numbers that do not correspond to the historical record; they’re unfounded, not believable.”
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum honoured Palatucci with its Righteous Among the Nations designation in 1990 but that was based on testimony that asserted he had helped one Jewish woman. Historian Anna Foa of Sapienza University of Rome wrote in a Vatican newspaper article that any decision to re-classify Palatucci as a collaborator was hasty, but she conceded, “Palatucci may have saved only a few dozen lives instead of the 5,000 attributed to him.”
As a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara saved the lives of some 2,000 Jewish refugees by issuing transit visas to the Japanese Empire, many in conjunction with the efforts of the Dutch consul in Lithuania, Jan Zwartendijk, credited with saving about 1,000 Jews in Lithuania by signing false permits for migration to the Caribbean island of Curacao and other Dutch colonies, including Surinam.
Born on January 1, 1900, in the remote Japanese village of Yaotsu, Chiune Sugihara studied foreign languages in Harbin, China, converted to Christianity and married a Russian woman. Divorced in 1935, he remarried in the same year to his Japanese wife, Yukiko, and received a diplomatic posting to Helsinki, Finland. They left Yokohama and arrived in Vancouver on August 30, 1937. The Sugiharas next took a train from Seattle to the East Coast in order to reach Helsinki, Finland. Later, he was re-posted to a new consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, reporting to ambassadors in Riga and Berlin. The Japanese foreign minister, Matsuoka, had known Sugihara in Harbin. Essentially, Sugihara was a Japanese spy, monitoring Soviet and German movements. He arrived just four days prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, accompanied by his wife and three sons.
After an anti-Nazi, Dutch government-in-exile was established in London, in charge of all Dutch embassies, the Dutch ambassador in Riga, Latvia, L.P.J. de Decker, dismissed his pro-Nazi Lithuanian honorary consul and replaced him with Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch engineer heading Philips electronics in Kaunas. Zwartendijk became the Dutch consul in Kaunos, Lithuania.
Vancouverite George Bluman has explained what happened next. “Two young Dutch rabbinical students approached Zwartendijk, requesting documentation to go to Curacao, a Dutch colony in the West Indies with the aim of travelling east through the Soviet Union, Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal to tiny Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, about 1/6th the size of metro Vancouver. They also sought permits for their mostly Polish classmates.
“Why Curacao? Because no visa was required to enter Curacao. The local governor had sole authority to permit entry. But this was rarely granted! But Zwartendijk was given permission by de Decker, the Dutch ambassador in Riga, to issue permits to Curacao to their fellow rabbinical students that stated, in French, ‘A visa for entry is not required,’ leaving out the condition of the Governor’s permission. Moreover, Zwartendijk courageously agreed to issue such permits to all Jewish refugees who applied for them.
“A Jewish refugee delegation approached Chiune Sugihara about obtaining Japanese transit visas, a necessary step for the fake scheme. Without permission from Tokyo—and after getting Soviet approval, signed by Stalin, for refugee transit through the Soviet Union—Sugihara issued transit visas valid for a stay of ten days in Japan initially based on the seemingly sufficient Zwartendijk Curacao permits. Zwartendijk signed 2300 such permits until his office was forced to close on the day Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union. About 1,000 of those covered by these permits received transit visas from Sugihara.
“Initially, Sugihara issued handwritten transit visas to all who requested them with Zwartendijk permits. Three days later he had three rubber stamps made for all issued transit visas, two in English and French, the other in Japanese which contained the following, in English, ‘Transit Visa, Seen for the journey through Japan (to Surinam, Curacao and other Dutch colonies).’ In Japanese it stated that the visa was via Tsuruga, for Surinam, and was valid for 10 days.
“After Zwartendijk left Lithuania, he returned to occupied Holland and said nothing about what he had done since his family would otherwise be in even graver danger. Sugihara was able to stay on for a further four weeks to continue writing transit visas. Three times Sugihara cabled Tokyo and each time was not encouraged to issue transit visas for the Curacao travelers. Furthermore, seeing all the desperate refugees with nowhere else to turn for help, Chiune Sugihara, showing extreme chutzpah, decided on his own, after Zwartendijk’s departure, with more careful scrutiny, to issue transit visas with the same rubber stamps for Jews without Zwartendijk permits.”
In 1985, Chiune Sugihara received the Righteous Among the Nations award from Yad Vashem in Israel and his descendants were given perpetual Israeli citizenship. The much lesser-known Dutch diplomat Jan Zwartendijk was likewise honoured in 1997. Sugihara is the subject of a feature film, Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sigihara (2005), directed by Cellin Glick. For information on those receiving Sugihara visas, click here.
It’s not prominent, but if you search in the cement concourse of the plaza outside the entrance to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you can find a tree with an inconspicuous marker that honours one of the most admirable defenders of decency and children who ever responded to Nazi barbarism: Irena Sendler.
Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Irena’s Children (Simon & Schuster 2016) is a biographical tribute to the heroic Polish social worker Irena Sendler who saved the lives of an estimated 2,000 Jewish children during World War II. Her life is typically over-shadowed by that of the children’s author and pedagogue Dr. Janusz Korczak, the principal and fundraiser at their orphanage that provided sanctuary and schooling for Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Born in Warsaw in 1878, Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit. He had operated an orphanage in Warsaw prior to the Nazi invasion. Forced to relocate to within the walls of the ghetto, Korczak handled the complex politics and fundraising. Stefania Wilczynska managed the day-to-day affairs of education and hygiene. Irena Sendler is now revered for having masterminded the countless, death-defying escapes of orphans who were continuously being smuggled to freedom in safe houses beyond the ghetto. In 1942, instead of saving his own life, Korczak famously opted to march side-by-side with the orphans from the Warsaw Ghetto, alongside Stefa, to the deportation point from which they would all go to the Treblinka death camp to be murdered. Sendler was not with them.
As they walked as a cavalcade, each child carried a blue knapsack and a favourite book or two. An eyewitness named Joshua Perle later recorded: “Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as if they were being carried to the altar.”
Sendler was later dubbed “the female Oskar Schindler.” As a Roman Catholic, she was tortured and sentenced to death for her child smuggling but was released when a guard was bribed. Before she died at age ninety-eight in a Warsaw nursing home, she became one of the first Righteous Gentiles to be honoured at Yad Vashem in 1965.
In 2017, The Belfry Theatre in Victoria, Canada, presented a critically acclaimed production of Hannah Moscovitch’s play about the orphanage, The Children’s Republic, in which Kerry Sandomirsky brilliantly depicted the fortitude and wisdom of Korczak’s lesser-known female cohort Stefania (Stefa) Wilczynska who first met Korczak in Warsaw in 1908 and remained his closest associate for thirty-four years. They worked together ever since he founded his first Jewish orphanage at 92 Krochmalna Street in 1911.
A believer in the Montessori education system, “Stefa” has been largely overlooked in the shadow of Sendler’s reputation. Rather than accept papers that would have enabled her to leave Poland, she chose to stay with sick children and be the main comforter for the orphans until she, too, marched to her death with the orphans.
Anyone who looks very carefully in Yad Vashem will find a brief testimonial from someone named Yitzchak Belfer: “Stefa was with us 24 hours a day. We felt her presence even as we slept. We were also aware of how she worried about our every need.” Her enduring selflessness remains overshadowed by Korczak and Sendler.
Since 1963, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, has recognized more than 25,000 people who they consider worthy of Righteous Among the Nations recognition for assisting Jews during the Shoah. This round-up of the major saviours in no way discredits the sacrifices made by other individuals who saved Jews in smaller numbers. This summation is intended only to illustrate the pre-eminence of Rudolf Vrba for his hitherto under-acknowledged actions in support the prosecutions of pro-Nazi criminals, his lifelong efforts to vanquish Holocaust denialists, his efforts to identify and confront the “conspiracy of silence” and, most importantly, for his co-creation of the Vrba–Wetzler Report.
As Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, Aristides de Sousa Mendez disobeyed the dictates of then Prime Minister Antonio Oliveira Salazar and issued thousands of visas between the end of 1939 and June 1940 that saved Jews and non-Jews alike from Nazi persecution and concentration camps. Estimates for the exact number of visas issues vary wildly, from a few thousand to thirty thousand. As well as saving artists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens, his visas spared members of the royal family of Luxembourg (the Habsburgs) and the Rothschilds. He was consequently fired from the Portuguese Foreign Service and lived the rest of his life as an outcast, losing his home and dying in poverty on April 3, 1954. The dictator Salazar’s fury was such that Sousa Mendes’ name could not be uttered publicly in Portugal. Strangely, Lisbon had simultaneously welcomed some international Jewish organizations—including HIAS, HICEM, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Congress, and Portuguese Jewish relief committees—during World War II.
His son, Sebastião de Sousa Mendes, an American, began his lifelong efforts to resurrect his father’s reputation with a novella, A Flight Through Hell, in 1952. Eventually, in 1995, Portuguese president Mario Soares proclaimed Aristides de Sousa Mendes to be “Portugal’s greatest hero of the twentieth century.” The European Union organized international homage ceremonies held in Strasbourg, France, in 1997. On the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2004, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation organized tributes to him in fifty cities around the world (New York, Paris, London and Jerusalem). He is the subject of a biography, Sousa Mendes, Le Consul of Bordeaux, by Joao Correa, who also co-directed the film The Consul of Bordeaux.
Constantin Jean Lars Anthony Démétrius Karadja was a Swedish-Romanian prince, scholar, bibliophile and London-trained lawyer who spoke nine languages. From 1933 onward, he was appalled by Hitler’s policies towards Jews when he was serving as Romanian consul in Berlin. After Kristallnacht in November of 1938, Karadja urged Romania to demand Germany must compensate its Jewish victims and he conceived a plan to provide Romanian Jews in Germany with Romanian passports. When he was put in charge of passports at the Foreign Ministry in Bucharest, Karadja defied his own government and worked tirelessly to repatriate Romanian Jews who were stranded in states occupied by the Nazis. Karadja argued that Romanian government officials could be charged with complicity in Nazi genocide.
Little-known in the West, Karadja succeeded in rescuing 51,000 Jews by refusing to include the word Jew in their passports. Unappreciated and litigated by the Communist regime that took control of Romania, he died in poverty in 1950.
Lesser known, Trajan Popovici (October 17, 1892 – June 4, 1946), as the Romanian mayor of Cernăuți (or Chernivtsi), saved 20,000 Jews of Bukovina. As a lawyer, Popovici, an anti-fascist, had taken refuge in Bucharest upon the Soviet occupation of Bukovina in 1940 and he subsequently refused a request by the military dictator Ion Antonescu to serve as mayor. Friends persuaded him to reconsider.
Soon after he arrived in Cernăuți and was told to generate a barbed wire ghetto for Jews, he refused to comply. He was accorded the nickname, “jidovitul” (“turned-Jewish”). In 1941, he refused to comply with an order to transport all Jews to Transnistria. He personally appealed to Antonescu, arguing the Jews were essential to the local economy.
He was allowed to nominate 200 Jews who were essential until labour replacements could be found; instead Popovici expanded the list to 20,000 Jews who had to be protected.
Possibly the greatest female saviour of Jews during the Holocaust was Gisi Fleischmann, born in Bratislava into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1894. The founder of the Slovakian chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, she was sent to London and Paris to try and persuade foreign governments to help Jews in 1939. She discovered foreign governments were not interested in saving Jews escape from the Nazis.
Fleischmann met with Jewish leaders in Hungary with the hopes of enacting a plan to stop transports to concentration camps in return for ransom payments of between one and two million dollars. (Rudolf Vrba scathingly dismissed this proposal, instigated by the likes of Rabbi Weissmandle and Rudolf Kasztner, as “hare-brained” and entirely detrimental as far as the fate of Hungarians Jews was concerned.) This scheme failed to come to fruition in 1943 but, as the only female member of The Working Group for this ransom plan, Fleischmann became privy to the verbal accounts of Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, in the spring of 1944, convincingly alleging the murder of 1,765,000 people, primarily Jews, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A cousin of Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl (1903-1956), the first European Jewish leader to ask Allied leaders to bomb the railway tracks leading to Auschwitz, Fleischmann seemingly helped to circulate their own 29-page summary to the likes of George Mantello in Switzerland who published its contents. It was this report—derived from Vrba and Wetzler—that enabled Winston Churchill to threaten Hungary’s regent Nicholas Horthy with post-war retribution if he did not take measures to curtail the transports of 12,000 Jews per day from Hungary to Auschwitz. Horthy subsequently halted deportations on July 9, 1944. A briefer version of The Working Group’s report undertaken by Weissmandl appended a plea for the Allies to bomb the tracks leading Auschwitz and this was sent to Jewish organizations in Switzerland, Turkey and Eretz Israel.
Gisi Fleischmann succeeded in smuggling many Slovakian Jews, particularly children, into Hungary and, most notably, she and Weissmandl succeeded in paying a $50,000 bribe to the Nazi official Dieter Wisliceny to halt the deportation of Jews. Remarkably, no further Jews were deported from Slovakia from the autumn of 1942 until October of 1944. It is not possible to estimate how many Jewish lives Fleischmann saved as leader of The Working Group also comprised of Weissmandl, Andrew Steiner, Dr. Tibor Kovacs, Dr. Oskar Neumann, Avraham Abba Frieder and Wilhelm Fürst. (Vrba adroitly skewered the manipulations of Weissmandl in particular, and expressed criticisms of Neumann.)
Gisi Fleischmann was part of the last deportation of Jews from Slovakia to the gas chambers where she was murdered in October of 1944. After the war, as prosecutor at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Gideon Hausner said, “Fleischmann’s name deserves to be immortalized in the annals of our people, and her memory should be bequeathed to further generations as a radiant example of heroism and of boundless devotion.”
[Fleischmann did not save herself by having ongoing liaisons with Nazis, as can be said of Weissmandl. Although he was highly regarded by many, Weissmandl was criticized by Rudolf Vrba for allowing himself be manipulated by the Nazis. In order to feign tolerance of Jewish religious practices for any European official who might visit Bratislava, authorities encouraged Weissmandl to operate a synagogue there, and Weissmandl complied. Vrba wrote: “The visibility of Yeshiva life in the center of Bratislava, less than 150 miles [250 km.] south of Auschwitz, was in my eyes a typical piece of Goebbels-inspired activity and brazen Nazi humour. There–before the eyes of the world–the pupils of Rabbi Weissmandl could study the rules of Jewish ethics while their own sisters and mothers were being murdered and burned in Birkenau. At that time, only two months and 150 miles away from an Auschwitz working at highest capacity, the Yeshiva struck me as merely a circus with Rabbi Weissmandl as its main, albeit tragicomic, clown.” Vrba’s viewpoint is supported by the perspective of Sir Martin Gilbert who wrote, “Deception was a feature of the Nazi intention at every phase of the destruction of European Jewry.”]
The under-heralded Greve Folke Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg, was a Swedish diplomat and Red Cross official who has been credited with negotiating the release of 31,000 prisoners from concentration camps and enabling the exodus of 27,000 people to Swedish hospitals.
An estimated 2,000 Jewish lives were saved due to these initiatives. Ironically, he was assassinated by a paramilitary Zionist group, Lehl, in Jerusalem in 1948, while undertaking work as a United Nations Security Council mediator.
Without consulting Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler asked Bernadotte to convey a surrender proposal to Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman that was rejected in April of 1945.
The Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, as a Vice-Consul in Budapest, has been credited with some 62,000 Jews (according to Wikipedia) or 50,000 Jews (according to Yad Vashem, from 1942 until the end of World War II. He did so in conjunction with the assistance of the Director of the Jewish Agency’s Palestine Office in Budapest, Moshe Krausz and the Zionist youth underground. Lutz somehow persuaded the Nazis to enable him to provide 8,000 letters of protection for Hungarian Jews, whereupon he refashioned these letters to supposedly apply to families rather than individuals. Hence the number of people who could immigrate to Palestine was greatly increased. He meanwhile carefully ensured that all individuals who were transported had letters of protection bearing numbers between 1 and 8,000. It was Lutz who was also chiefly devised 76 “safe houses” to shelter Jews around Budapest by declaring these residences to be annexes of his Swiss legation, supposedly off-limits to Nazi soldiers. Surprisingly, this bold diplomatic gambit worked. Most famously, Lutz was the guiding guardian and creative force behind the famous “Glass House” (Üvegház) at Vadász Street 29 where about 3,000 Hungarian Jews took refuge, spilling over to also occupy a neighbouring building.
After the Arrow Cross Party seized power in Hungary with a coup on October 15, 1944 and some shipments of Jews to Auschwitz resumed, Lutz famously jumped into the Danube to save a Jewish woman who had been shot and left to drown. He then reprimanded the Hungarian office in charge and demanded that the wounded woman be saved as a foreigner under the protection of Switzerland. His audaciousness and eloquence won the day and she survived. The quay where this occurred is now named after him as the Carl Lutz Rakpart.
As a Swiss police commander for canton of St. Gallen, bordering Germany and Austria, Paul Gruninger helped approximately 3,500 Jewish refugees escape from Austria with false papers. He backdated visas and provided false documents to indicate they had entered Switzerland before March of 1938 when legal entry was still permissible. He also used his own money to buy winter clothes for the Jewish refugees. For his efforts, he was dismissed from the police in March of 1939 and fined 300 Swiss francs. As a state employee who had not followed order, he was put on trial for two years and forced to forfeit his pension benefits. He was also fined and forced to trial costs. He claimed he had no regrets. “It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death,” he said in 1954. “How could I then seriously consider bureaucratic schemes and calculations.”
Gruninger was eventually recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1971 just before he died in poverty, pensionless, in 1972. His reputation was further resurrected in Switzerland where his conviction was posthumously annulled, the court of St. Gallen retroactively cleared him of all charges and his descendants received financial compensation. A local football stadium is named in his honour and a book by Stefan Keller, Grüningers Fall. Geschichten von Flucht und Hilfe, has led to a 1997 Swiss documentary, Grüningers Fall, and a 2013 Swiss-Austrian movie.
The first American named one of the Righteous Among the Nations, in 1994, was the American journalist Varian Fry whose rescue mission in Vichy France, in cooperation with the U.S. vice-consul in Marseille, Hiram Bingham IV, is credited with bringing more than 2,000 Jewish and political refugees to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust in 1940-41. Having worked closely with Fry as emissaries of the Unitarian Church, the Reverend Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha became the second and third Americans to be named Righteous Among the Nations in 2006.
“The tragic corollary to the Sharps’ extraordinary bravery,” writes David S. Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews (2007), “was the silence and indifference with which most American Christians responded to the news of the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.” William Hurt, Julia Ormand, Alan Arkin and Lynn Redgrave starred in the 2001 made-for-television movie Varian’s War and there is a street named after Fry in Berlin.
From a wealthy Protestant family in New York, Varian founded Hound & Horn magazine at Harvard University in 1927 before working as foreign correspondent in Europe. At a Berlin café in 1935, he was stunned to see two, unprovoked Nazi thugs single out a mild-mannered Jew who was enjoying a beer and gleefully pinning his hand to the table with a knife. He described the incident for a New York Times article, wrote more about the rising tide of fascism, then became appalled by the apathy of American leaders.
Eleanor Roosevelt failed to respond to his efforts to create the Emergency Rescue Committee for European artists and writers. He soon realized the Roosevelts also had little interest in saving endangered Jews. In 1940, he went to Marseilles with $3,000 to help artists threatened by fascism and began smuggling people to Portugal, North Africa or the U.S. while overcoming resistance from everyone at the American Consulate except Vice Consul Hiram Bingham IV. Expelled by the Vichy collaborationist regime, he wrote, “We did what we could. And when we failed, it was all too often because of the incomprehension of the government of the United States.”
Those he helped included Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Franz Werfel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Jean Arp, Max Ophuls, Alma Mahler, Arthur Koestler and Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz who described him as “a race horse hitched to a wagonload of stones.”
As the American governor of the Philippines, Paul McNutt disobeyed directives from the State Department and arranged for more than one thousand German Jewish refugees to immigrate to the U.S. territory during 1937 to 1939. It has become increasingly obvious that FDR’s racially exclusionist conception of American society proved murderous for European Jews. Wyman concludes FDR’s indifference to the systematic annihilation was the worst failure of his presidency.
American media coverage of the Holocaust during the Roosevelt administration through the prism of the New York Times has been investigated by Laurel Leff in Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press 2005). “Understanding the role Roosevelt envisioned for Asian Americans, Jews and blacks in the life and culture of the United States,” writes Wyman, “may provide another clue to the mindset that shaped his policy decisions concerning Jewish refugees from Hitler.”
President Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more unlikely people who have been credited with saving the lives of less than a thousand Jews. An American academic named Louis Stanislaus Gomolak, in a Ph.D dissertation called LBJ’s Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948, first revealed in 1989 by that LBJ had worked covertly to bring European Jews to a refuge in Texas—via Cuba, Mexico and South America—to escape persecution as early as 1938 when he was a Texas Congressman. LBJ reputedly continued to assist Jewish migration to Texas when he was the 36th President of the United States. An on-line campaign to have him awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations (for Righteous Gentiles) was commenced in 2008. LBJ’s grandfather was a Christadelphian and Christadelphians believe Jews are a chosen people, hence LBJ was acting upon the religious beliefs within his family circle.
This statement from the Shoah Resource Center of The International School for Holocaust Studies, based in New York City, bears repeating:
Long considered to be a country that could be counted on as a place of refuge for the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the United States did not live up to those expectations during the Holocaust. The US government would not change its immigration quotas to allow in more Jewish refugees from Europe, nor did it embark on extensive rescue operations. Despite relatively early knowledge of the true meaning of the “Final Solution,” the Americans refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the Auschwitz extermination camp. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, long supported by most American Jews, would not allow the war with the Germans to be depicted as a battle to save European Jewry. The United States’ ambivalent policy regarding Nazi Antisemitism can be viewed as a result of several factors. The country was slowly recovering from the crippling Great Depression, which had left many Americans in poverty. Public opinion condemned the notion of allowing in European refugees who were liable to take away jobs from Americans who really needed them. Many Americans also called for isolationism, with an emphasis on America first.
They did not want the government to adopt a policy of intervention in the affairs of other countries. Furthermore, there were strong antisemitic elements within the American government. Right-wing politicians criticized both Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and American Jews, whom they associated with the liberal president. Laws calling for rescue operations were not passed because those politicians refused to support them. In addition, the State Department itself was responsible for the prevention of the rescue of European Jews from the Nazis.
During the 1930s, American immigration quotas were very low, and even those were prevented from being filled. In July 1938 President Roosevelt convened the Evian Conference with delegates from 32 countries to discuss the growing European refugee problem. However, not one country, including the United States, was willing to selflessly take in any refugees. All the American delegate would commit to was making the previously unfilled quota for Germans and Austrians available to the new refugees. The American-initiated conference did nothing to help those refugees desperately trying to get out of Europe before it was too late. After the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, the American ambassador to Germany was recalled in a gesture of disapproval. However, the United States continued to ignore the refugee problem by refusing to take in or even intercede on behalf of the 937 Jewish refugees sailing on the St. Louis, a ship that had left Germany in May 1939. Those Jews were subsequently turned back to Europe, where most perished in the Holocaust.
In 1939 and 1940, a bill to allow 10,000 Jewish children into the United States was never even put to discussion in Congress. The United States entered World War II in December 1941. From then on, the government’s main priority was winning the war, not saving Europe’s Jews. The anti-refugee activists in the government also began spreading the fear that if refugees would be allowed to enter the country, the Germans would plant spies among them. Thus, they felt that no refugees should be admitted. Roosevelt did not want to alienate those elements of the government by making it look like the war was about the Jews. Thus, at the Allies’ war conferences, the mass annihilation of European Jewry was not even mentioned –despite the fact that the United States had received reliable reports about the dire situation in Europe.
As further reports of Nazi atrocities reached the West by the end of 1942, the British government was put under pressure to do something to help the Jews. They decided to make a small gesture in order to assuage the British public. On December 17, 1942 the United States joined Great Britain, Norway, the Soviet Union, and various governments-in-exile in loudly condemning the Nazis’ “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.” Nevertheless, this was just a gesture.
Another meaningless gesture was made in April 1943, at the Bermuda Conference, convened by the United States and Great Britain. Ostensibly, the conference was called to deal with the refugee problem again, now that the world knew what was really happening in Europe. However, the organizers designed the conference to be as unsuccessful as possible. The venue of Bermuda itself was remote and hard to reach, almost no reporters were admitted in, and no Jewish representatives were invited. The Jewish aspect of the issue was forbidden to be discussed, along with the words “Final Solution.” In the end, the conference was called to shush the growing public outcries for the rescue of European Jewry without actually having to find any solutions to the problem.
During the winter of 1942–1943, the opposite ends of the spectrum in the American government were revealed: certain government officials began pressuring President Roosevelt to issue a rescue proclamation, while the State Department continued to sabotage rescue efforts. When Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, found out about the State Department’s activities, he immediately reported them to the president.
Fearing a scandal, the president decided to establish an agency for the rescue of Jewish refugees. This was called the War Refugee Board (WRB). Fighting America’s previous policy on Jewish refugees, the WRB tried to do its best to rescue Jews. It sponsored the activities of diplomats like Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews, and it pushed for the establishment of a safe haven for refugees in Fort Ontario, New York. However, Roosevelt would not support the institution of other such havens, nor would he agree to the board’s recommendations to publicly condemn the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis and bomb Auschwitz. Thus, the success of the WRB proved to be too little, too late. Only after the war did President Harry S. Truman enlarge America’s immigrant quotas to allow in Holocaust Survivors and support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
For those who are not interested in gauging heroism and altruism numerically, Sir Martin Gilbert’s eighth book on the Holocaust, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (Key Porter 2003), recounts the stories of hundreds of non-Jews who risked their lives to help save Jews from deportation and death during the Holocaust.