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An Angel Named Angel

He made them citizens of Spain.

Angel Sanz Briz was a Spanish diplomat in Budapest who saved over 5000 Jews from the Nazis after Germany invaded Hungary in 1944.

Born in Zaragoza in 1910, Angel trained as a lawyer and in 1933 enrolled in diplomat school in Madrid. His first posting was to Cairo, Egypt, and in 1942 he was sent to Budapest, where he served as first secretary of the Spanish legation.

In March 1944, Germany invaded Hungary and the Nazis quickly began rounding up Jews for deportation. At this point in the war, Nazi genocide of the Jews ran like a well-oiled machine, and the Jews of Hungary were arrested with shocking speed.

Horrified at what was happening, Angel came up with a clever plan to save Jews. He told the Hungarian authorities that Spain was offering citizenship to Jews  “of Spanish origin” – meaning Sephardic Jews, who trace their ancestry to Jewish communities that were kicked out of Spain in 1492. It was true that Spanish dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera had issued a decree to that effect in 1924, but Angel neglected to mention that the decree was canceled in 1930.

Unwilling to risk a dispute with Spain, Hungarian authorities begrudgingly told Angel he could issue passports to 200 Jews. Cleverly, Angel changed the order to read 200 Jewish families. When he reached the 200 family limit, he discreetly falsified documents to change the number, and he did this several times.

Officially, the Jews Angel was saving were supposed to be Sephardic, descended from Spanish refugees. However, the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were Ashkenazi rather than Sephardic. Undeterred, Angel simply claimed that all the Jews he was saving were Sephardic. He used his extensive contacts in Hungary to place the Jews in safe houses, where he personally gave them lessons in basic Spanish. This was enough to convince the Hungarian authorities, most of whom did not know any Spanish, that their “Spanish heritage” was genuine. When Angel ran out of Hungarians willing to take Jews into their homes, Angel purchased inexpensive properties with his own money. He decorated the buildings with prominent Spanish flags, marking them as officially part of Spain and therefore off-limits to the Nazis and Hungarian collaborators. The Jews staying in these safe houses couldn’t leave, so Angel brought them food, medicine, and other necessary supplies. Incredibly, he persuaded the Red Cross representative in Budapest to put Spanish signs on hospitals, clinics and orphanages where Jews were hiding to make sure everybody knew the occupants were under the protection of Spain.

Between June and December 1944, Angel issued fake Spanish passports to 5200 Jews, saving them from Nazi death camps and enabling them to live safely in Spain until the war ended.

Angel continued to serve as a diplomat after the war, with postings in San Francisco, Washington DC, Lima, Brussels and China, among other places. In 1977 he was appointed Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome, where he died in 1980. In 1991, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem posthumously honored Angel Sanz Briz as Righteous Among the Nations, and in 1994 Hungary awarded him the Cross of the Order of Merit. A Spanish TV series about Angel Sanz Briz, called “El Angel de Budapest” aired in 2011. In 2015 a street in Budapest was named after this brave Spaniard.

For saving 5200 Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps by making them citizens of Spain, we honor Angel Sanz Briz as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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