Righteous Chilean: Samuel del Campo

His job was to be neutral.

Samuel del Campo was a South American diplomat in Romania who saved approximately 1700 Jews from the Nazis by issuing them Chilean passports.

Born in Linares, Chile in 1882, Samuel was a career diplomat who served in multiple countries around the world. In 1941, with the war in Europe raging, Samuel was sent to a new post as Chargé d’Affaires – Chilean Ambassador to Romania.  At the time, Romania was ruled by a fascist dictator, Ion Antonescu, and allied with the Axis powers, including Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. 

In June, the horrific Iasa pogrom occurred in Romania. It was a genocide of Romanian Jews: one third of the country’s entire Jewish population were murdered in the streets from June 29 to July 6, 1941. The massacre was incited directly by Antonescu, who found it politically expedient to blame the Jews for a recent bombing by the Soviets that killed 600 people. The bombing occurred on June 26, and by the next day Antonescu was ready to blame the Jews. He used state media to whip up public sentiment against “Jewish communists” and chillingly gave the order to his lieutenant to “cleanse” the area of its Jewish population. The first step was to force Jews to identify themselves with yellow stars, after which they banned them from buying or selling food, or using certain public spaces. The persecution was especially bad in the city of Iasi, where most of Romania’s Jews lived. A violent assemblage of police, soldiers, criminals, young people and workers were unhappy and blamed the Jews for their problems. They attacked thousands of Jews in the streets, shooting or stabbing them, and shipped others to death camps, most of them dying in the overcrowded freight trains.

Mild-mannered diplomat Samuel Del Campo’s job was to stay neutral. The Chilean government had a non-interference policy, but Samuel could not turn his eyes from the human rights atrocity being perpetrated against the Jews of Romania. As a diplomat, Samuel had cultivated relationships with many important figures in the Romanian government. Now, he met with all of them, begging them to save desperate Jews. Romanian historian Anca Tudorancea said that “minutes from the Romanian Council of Ministers show that Samuel del Campo became a nuisance at the highest level.” Refusing to wait for anybody’s help, he started issuing passports, genuine documents identifying the holder as a citizen of Chile. He affixed special seals on Jews’ homes, declaring that they were being protected by the Chilean government and that anybody who hassled the residents would be picking a fight with the officially neutral South American country.

In the spring of 1943, the war was turning against the Axis powers, and Chile and Romania became enemies. The embassy shut down, leaving del Campo without a job in the Chilean government for the first time in his adult life. Feeling rejected by the country he loved and had served for so long, Samuel settled in Paris, where he passed away alone in 1960, leaving no relatives behind to mourn his passing. 

Decades after Samuel’s death, in November 2016, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored Samuel del Campo as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Five years later, the Chilean embassy in Bucharest unveiled a memorial plaque in front of the Great Synagogue, built in 1845.

“The story and actions of Samuel del Campo in Romania as the Republic of Chile’s Chargé d’Affaires represent a light of human dignity in a moment of history in which everything was surrounded by darkness,” said Silviu Vexler, a Jewish member of the Romanian parliament. 

For refusing to follow orders and saving thousands of lives, we honor Samuel del Campo as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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