Carl Lutz: Gently Shaking the World

November, 14 2018
under swiss protection

Under Swiss Protection: Jewish Eyewitness Accounts from Wartime Budapest

Edited by Agnes Hirschi and Charlotte Schallié. Foreword by Timothy Snyder

Ibidem Press, Stuttgart, 2017, 401 pp. $30

Gratitude—hakarat hatov—is a cardinal Jewish precept. The first words that many Jews recite each morning are the prayer, Modeh Ani (“I thank”). So one might expect Jews to revere someone who rescued thousands of their brethren during the Holocaust. But while Jews honor heroes like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, the name of Carl Lutz (1895-1975) is virtually unknown.

Charlotte Schallié, a German professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and Agnes Hirschi, Carl Lutz’s stepdaughter, aim to rectify Lutz’s obscurity with their insightful book, Under Swiss Protection: Jewish Eyewitness Accounts from Wartime Budapest, originally published in German.

Lutz, the Swiss Vice Consul in Hungary during the Nazi occupation, rescued Hirschi, along with her mother, Magda. In 1949, Lutz divorced his first wife and married Magda.

Schallié and Hirschi undertook the monumental task of interviewing 36 survivors around the world—almost half in Israel and one-fourth in the United States—who were rescued by Carl Lutz. Their narratives, with photos, are arranged alphabetically in four chapters entitled “Resistance Movement,” “Profiles,” “Testimonies” and “Tributes/Letters”. An introductory chapter provides a perspective of Lutz’ rescue activities.

In selecting 36 subjects, the editors were unaware of a striking coincidence: Chai, the Hebrew letters that represent the number eighteen, means “life,” and 36 equals “double chai.”

The son of a stonemason, who died when Carl was fourteen, Lutz displayed remarkable initiative. In 1913, at age 18, he left Switzerland and immigrated to the United States by himself. To earn money for college, he worked in a factory, an office and eventually, at the Swiss Legation in Washington, DC. In 1924, he graduated from George Washington University with a B.A. in law and history.

The Swiss legate recommended Lutz to the ministry in Bern. Following several assignments in the United States, Lutz was posted to Palestine in 1935. While there, he witnessed the lynching of an unarmed Jewish worker by an Arab mob. Lutz felt powerless to intervene, for fear of being lynched himself. This brutal attack helped crystalize his empathy for the Jewish victims of genocide in Europe.

Carl Lutz was promoted to vice-consul in Budapest in 1942-1944. In that capacity, he displayed the same resourcefulness as in his teenage years.

In one interview, survivor Alexander Schlesinger relates how he was conscripted for a labor brigade, digging ditches. Being without food for several days, he and a friend dug up a few carrots from a field. The Nazi soldiers overseeing the brigade seized them for “stealing” and ordered them to dig their own graves. Miraculously, Carl Lutz arrived in a car bearing the insignia of the Swiss flag and saved them from imminent death.

To implement his rescue operation, Lutz placed the Hungarian branch of the Jewish Agency under Swiss protection. He also created “safe houses.” The Glass House, headquarters of 76 Swiss safe houses established by Lutz, was a converted glass factory in Budapest. It became an annex of the Swiss Embassy and a center for producing forged documents. At one time, it housed 25,000 Jews. It is now a museum.

Many survivors interviewed for the book mention the Schutzpasse (safe conduct passes) that Lutz devised for the persecuted Jews. He applied for 8,000 passes, but circumvented that limit by treating them as passes for families, rather than individuals, and by repeatedly reissuing new passes, always numbered between 1 and 8,000.

These techniques enabled Lutz to provide Schutzpasse to at least 62,000 Jews. This figure—the largest and most successful rescue operation of Jews during World War II—roughly equals the population of Utica, New York, Daytona Beach, Florida or Nazareth, Israel.

Oskar Schindler, by contrast, rescued two percent of that total, or 1,200 Jews. So, while Lutz is sometimes called “The Swiss Schindler,” Schindler might more aptly be titled “the German Lutz.”

The embassies of other neutral countries adopted Lutz’ strategies. Among those who collaborated with Lutz was the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

To highlight the constant danger that Lutz faced, survivor Mordechai Neumann describes the fate of Arnold Weisz, landlord of the Glass House. On January 1, 1945, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party apprehended Weisz for protecting the Jews who sought refuge in the Glass House. Weisz never returned.

Charlotte Schallié explains that Lutz remains largely unrecognized, even today, because of his unassuming nature. He maintained such a low profile that most of those whom he rescued never saw him or heard his name. Paul Fabry, a member of the Resistance, points out, “It was actually the luck of the whole movement that Lutz was not known…If Lutz had been as well known as…Wallenberg, he would have been arrested and taken away in the same fashion.”

Yet Lutz’ anonymity has a more sinister aspect, discussed in a biography by Theo Tschuy. After the war, instead of bestowing some recognition for Lutz’ valiant sacrifice, the Swiss government subjected him to a judicial investigation and a reprimand for exceeding his authority in his rescue efforts. This treatment deeply hurt Lutz, economically as well as emotionally.

In his testimony, Mordechai Kremer explains that an article in an Israeli-Hungarian newspaper, on the occasion of Lutz’ 75th birthday, mentioned that Lutz—incredibly—was having financial difficulties. Encouraged by the article to send a donation, Kremer sent $50 and received a personal letter of thanks from Lutz.

For almost 50 years, Switzerland suppressed any acknowledgement of Lutz’ noble deeds. Despite this travesty, the Swiss Parliament recognized Lutz in 1957. In 1995, Switzerland apologized for its decades of neglect. But for Lutz, the apology arrived 20 years too late; he had died in 1975.

In 1964, Yad Vashem cited Lutz as one of its first Righteous Among the Nations. He was also nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lutz epitomizes the teachings from Pirkeh Avos (Ethics of the Fathers): “Emor me’at ve’aseh harbeh” (“Say little and do much”) and “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.” With their moving portrayals, Schallié and Hirschi demonstrate that Carl Lutz accomplished more, with less fanfare, than any other Holocaust rescuer. He personifies Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

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