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The Fake Spaniard

His name was Santos Montero

Samuel Skornicki was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who became legal advisor to the Spanish Consul and saved hundreds of Jews and non-Jews from the Nazis.

Samuel was born in Poland in1899 to a family of secular intellectuals. He married Raizel Sliwinsky from Lodz, and they moved to Paris in 1923, where Samuel studied law and became a civil attorney. Their daughter Arlette later remembered, “My father wanted to live in France, the land of freedom and human rights.”

After the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, the Skornicki family moved to Toulouse. As the situation became more dangerous for Jews in France, Samuel and Raizel left Arnette with a Christian family where she would be safe.

Samuel had something everybody wanted – a valid passport and a visa to the United States, where his mother and siblings lived. Instead, Samuel chose to remain in France and help the resistance movement. In Toulouse, Samuel ran a textile factory and distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets and provided Jews with false documents. A master networker, Samuel made connections with important people in Toulouse.

He met with the Spanish Consul, who was overwhelmed with the amount of visa requests from Jews trying to leave France. With legal training and organizational skills, Samuel was well-positioned to help the Consul, and he was appointed legal advisor to the embassy in St. Etienne. Samuel and Raizel were given new identities as Spanish citizens: Santos and Rosa Montero. Neither one of them spoke any Spanish.

In 1942, the Consul returned to Spain and appointed Samuel/Santos as his replacement. Before leaving France, the Consul threw a lavish farewell party where the guests included top officials of the collaborationist Vichy Regime, German Army officers, and off-duty Gestapo storm troopers. The event featured an official swearing-in ceremony where “Santos Montero” was installed as acting Spanish Consul. The Nazis present didn’t realize they were celebrating the promotion of a Jew.

As the acting Consul, Samuel turned the Consulate into a center of the Resistance. He supervised the forging of documents and hiding of weapons, and provided refuge for Jews and members of the Resistance. Meanwhile, he was conducting diplomatic meetings with local Nazi officials, including Gestapo officers with lists of Jews scheduled for deportation on their desks. Samuel read the names upside down and memorized them so he could warn the people on the list.

Since Samuel didn’t speak Spanish, he relied on the Spanish Consulate staff to keep his secret. They were mostly Republican opponents of Spain’s ruler, the fascist Francisco Franco, who was allied with Hitler. As part of that alliance, Franco was sending thousands of Spanish citizens to Germany to provide labor. Samuel and his staff got exemptions for thousands of Spaniards.

In March 1944, the French Resistance attacked a German train near St. Etienne. Determined to catch the French perpetrators, German policemen conducted a house-to-house search. They reached the Spanish Consulate, and before they could even knock on the door Samuel burst out angrily and kicked a German police sergeant! He shouted at them, “Get out of here! I am the Spanish Consul!” The policemen were embarrassed and quickly left. That night, the German Police Chief of St. Etienne visited the Spanish Consulate to apologize in person, and to give Samuel a gun for protection against the dangerous Resistance. Samuel gave the gun to the fighters who’d attacked the train – and were hiding in his cellar!

France was liberated in 1944, and the Skornickis returned to Paris. Since he’d hosted Nazis at the Spanish Consulate, Samuel was suspected of being a collaborator, but people he’d saved wrote letters of thanks proving that he’d been a hero rather than a villain. One of the letters, by Itzkin Rubin, who was hidden in the Consulate, read, “How can I express my gratitude, and the gratitude of my family, for all we owe you? You didn’t hesitate to risk your life in order to save ours. Knowing that we were being hunted by the Gestapo and the (French) Militia, you hid us in your home in those pivotal months before the liberation. If we are fortunate enough to live in peace and to be free, it is thanks to your heroic goodness and your courage. At a time when so many of our friends were tormented or died in terrible physical and emotional suffering, while so many children were separated from their parents, I am blessed to be surrounded by my whole family.”

For saving hundreds of lives after boldly taking on a fake identity, we honor Samuel Sknornicki as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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