Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust by providing them with transit visas and creating safe houses throughout Budapest.
Carl was born in 1895, in Walzenhausen, Switzerland, to a devout Methodist family. When he was 14 his mother died of tuberculosis. The next year he left school and started working at a textile mill. Carl yearned to explore the wide world outside his sleepy mountain town, and at age 18 he moved to the United States, settling in Granite City, Illinois. For five years he worked and saved money for college, then in 1918 enrolled in Central Wesleyan College in Missouri.
In the summer of 1920, Carl took a summer job in Washington DC working at the Swiss Embassy. He loved the international environment and the rewarding work. Carl’s gracious personality and keen intelligence made him well suited for diplomacy. He enrolled in George Washington University, graduating in 1924 with a BA in law and history. Two years later, Carl moved to Philadelphia, and then St. Louis, to serve as Swiss Consul in those cities. Around this time he married Gertrud Fankhauser, a Swiss human-rights activist,
Carl was sent to Jaffa in 1935, where he was Swiss Vice-Consul. In 1936, he and Gertrud watched an unarmed Jew being lynched by a mob of Arabs. They were horrified and helpless to do anything. The tragic incident haunted Carl and perhaps contributed to his later stunning heroism in Europe.
The Swiss government recalled Carl from the Middle East in 1942 and sent him to their embassy in Budapest, Hungary. He represented not only Switzerland, but also countries that had broken ties with Hungary after it allied with Nazi Germany. As soon as Carl arrived in Budapest, he began working with the Jewish Agency for Israel to provide Hungarian Jewish children with transit visas, enabling them to emigrate to Palestine, then under British Mandate.
In 1944, the Nazis occupied Budapest and immediately started rounding up Jews and sending them to death camps. It was late in the war, and the Nazi war machine had gotten chillingly efficient at murdering Jews. During a two month period, 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Carl Lutz kicked into high gear to save lives. As a diplomat, part of his job was to cultivate relationships with Hungarian officials, as well as German Nazi leaders in Budapest. He used these connections to negotiate a special deal – he could issue protective letters to 8000 Jews, enabling them to move to Palestine.
Carl used clever tricks to increase the amount of Jews he could save. He enabled each letter to cover an entire Jewish family of any size, rather than just one person. Taking the ruse further, he issued tens of thousands of protective letters, making sure each had a number between 1 and 8000, so that busy officials wouldn’t realize that more than 8000 letters had been issued. “The Germans are very correct people. They admire discipline and order. So when Nazi commandants saw these letters, they accepted them,” said Eric Saul, founder of “Visas for Life,” a project that honors diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
As thousands of Jews were being shoved onto cattle cars and taken to their death, Carl was desperate to save as many as he could. With the integral help of his wife Gertrud, he set up 76 “safe houses” all over Budapest, designating them as under the control of the Swiss government, and therefore beyond the reach of Hungarian or German authorities. One of them was the Glass House, a former glassware manufacturing facility previously owned by Arthur Weiss, a Hungarian Jew. In the summer of 1944, Weiss’ business was forcefully taken from him and he disappeared, leaving the large building empty. Carl rented the space to open the newly created Swiss Embassy’s Emigration Department for Representing Foreign Interest. Over the next few months, over 3000 Jews found refuge in the Glass House.
During this time, the Nazis overthrew the Hungarian ruler and installed the fascist Arrow Cross Party as the new government. The Arrow Cross was viciously anti-Semitic, and after taking power they started massacring Jews in the streets. One day, Carl was strolling by the Danube River when an Arrow Cross officer shot a Jewish woman right in front of him. Bleeding, the woman fell into the river – and Carl, in his suit and tie, jumped in after her. He rescued her from the water, and demanded to speak to the Hungarian officer who’d ordered the shooting. Projecting confidence and authority, he proclaimed that the wounded Jewish woman was a citizen of Switzerland and was protected by international law. As the Nazis stood mouths agape, Carl quickly helped the woman into his car and took her to safety.
In November 1944, the Arrow Cross gathered 70,000 Jews from transit camps and hiding places and forced them on a death march to concentration camps in Austria and Germany. Carl and Gertrud followed along in their car next to the exhausted marchers and used every opportunity to surreptitiously pull people out of line and provide them with protective documents. Carl later described the scene, “For these people it was the last glimmer of hope, for us, this was the worst form of spiritual torture. We saw the people being lashed with dog-whips and lying in the slime and mud with bloody faces…. Whenever possible I would drive alongside these people on their way to the concentration camps to try and show them that there was still hope.”
After Hungary was liberated in early 1945, Carl and Gertrud returned to Switzerland. Without a shared humanitarian mission, the marriage fell apart and they divorced in 1946. Three years later, Carl married Magda Csanyi, a Jewish woman he had saved, and adopted her daughter Agnes.
Carl was not honored for his heroism for many years. On the contrary, when he got back to Switzerland he was criticized for exceeding his authority by saving Jews; the government didn’t want their neutrality called into question. In 1958, the Swiss understanding of World War II started to change, and Carl Lutz was “rehabilitated” and honored as the great man he was. The riverside promenade where he saved the wounded Jewish woman from drowning is now the Carl Lutz Rakpart. A street in Haifa, Israel was named after him, and in 1965, Carl became the first Swiss national to be honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. There are other memorials to him in Washington DC, Israel, Switzerland, and Budapest, where the Glass House is now a small museum. Carl died in 1975 in Bern, Switzerland.
For saving the lives of over 62,000 (!) Jews, we honor Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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