Carl Lutz in the inner courtyard of the destroyed British legation © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

Carl Lutz - The Swiss man who saved tens of thousands of Jews

Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, from his post in Hungary, was behind the largest rescue operation during the Second World War. With Switzerland chairing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, let us take a look back at an important yet largely unknown figure.

March 1944. Germany invaded Hungary, pressing the Hungarian government to finally participate in the “final solution” by deporting the country's Jews – who had been relatively spared until then – to Auschwitz. But in Budapest, a network was put in place over the course of several months to save as many of them as possible. Behind all this was a Swiss man – Vice-Consul Carl Lutz – who led “the largest rescue operation during the Second World War,” according to historian Xavier Cornut, public affairs advisor in Geneva and a board member of the Carl Lutz Foundation.

In 1942, Lutz arrived in Budapest with his wife Gertrud on the heels of a six-year assignment in Jaffa. “Unforgettable years,” he called them, immortalised in snapshots he had taken as a talented amateur photographer. In Palestine, which was under British mandate at the time, he defended German citizens in the region.

Carl Lutz in the devastated garden of the British legation © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

Born into a Methodist family in an Appenzell village in 1895, Lutz was “a typical Swiss man, introverted, serious, attached to religious values, but also, paradoxically, an adventurer with a strong sense of initiative. This combination of Christian values and entrepreneurial spirit accounts for the courage and shrewdness it took to set up such a large-scale protection system in the middle of a dangerous country like Hungary,” says Cornut.

The invention of protective letters

As a Swiss diplomat, Lutz also represented the interests of countries that had severed diplomatic relations with Hungary, including the United States and Great Britain. Unwilling to turn away the hundreds of Jews who thronged the entrance to the Swiss embassy every day, he came up with the idea of Schutzbriefe – protective letters – using 7,800 emigration certificates to Palestine that he acquired from Great Britain. The documents, still numbered from 1 to 7,800, were stamped with the word Schutzbrief to prevent deportation.

“Terrified Jews ask for protection letters, October/November 1944 in Budapest” © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi
“Terrified Jews ask for protection letters, October/November 1944 in Budapest” © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

At the time, Lutz was also prohibited by the Swiss government from issuing individual passports. So without consulting his superiors, he decided to issue “collective passports”, each of which covered up to 1,000 people. The first of these collective passports was issued on 29 July 1944.

Another master stroke: he managed to extend diplomatic protection to 76 buildings in Budapest that housed, fed and helped Jews. The Jewish Agency for Palestine, which became the “The Swiss Legation's Emigration Department”, was located at 29 Vadasz Utca, in the “Glass House” that now holds the Carl Lutz Foundation. “It was an unorthodox way of applying the right enshrined in the Vienna Convention,” says Cornut. Lutz’s private life was profoundly affected when he met Magda Csányi, who asked him to protect her and her daughter. He hired her to work in his home and went on to marry her in 1949.

The Glass House

The diplomat obviously did not work alone. The Glass House was the headquarters of the Zionist Youth, who oversaw “the huge logistical task” of fabricating immigration and protection papers, according to Anita Halasz, former representative of the Carl Lutz Foundation in Geneva. They were provided support by the Red Cross, other Swiss and foreign diplomats including the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, to whom Lutz explained his method, along with important Jewish figures like Miklos Krausz.

Jews seeking protection outside a glass building © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi
Jews seeking protection outside a glass building © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

The Swiss authorities were aware that their representative was overstepping his duties and reprimanded him several times via the diplomatic pouch. The Nazi authorities, including Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, with whom Lutz negotiated several times, were also aware of his “troublemaking”. The German proconsul in Budapest even recommended to Berlin that Lutz be eliminated, although his request was never answered, possibly because of Lutz's support for Berlin during his posting in Palestine.

Until the autumn of 1944 when the fascist Arrow Cross Party came to power, Lutz, with the unfailing support of his wife Gertrud, pulled out all the stops, going so far as to hide Jews in his black Packard and interfering with the columns of Jews forced to march toward the Austrian border. In the end, over half a million Hungarian Jews died, while 130,000 survived. Carl Lutz is thought to have saved 62,000 of them.

“Righteous Among the Nations”

Gertrud Lutz Fankhauser, whom Lutz divorced after the war, continued to engage in humanitarian work throughout her life, mainly with UNICEF. In 1978, she was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, on behalf of the State of Israel. She died in 1995. Agnes Hirschi, Magda's daughter whom Lutz adopted, continues to travel the world – she was in Buenos Aires recently – to pay tribute to her father. Lutz himself was reprimanded by Bern for having overstepped his authority and was not rehabilitated until 1958. He always resented this.

Carl Lutz in his office at the United States legation © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi
Carl Lutz in his office at the United States legation © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

Consolation came from abroad: Lutz was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize and was the first Swiss person to be given the title Righteous Among the Nations, in 1964. He died in Bern on 13 February 1975. It took another 20 years for a major biography to be written about him in Switzerland: Carl Lutz und die Juden von Budapest (published in English in 2000 as Dangerous Diplomacy) by Theo Tschuy. “When he was young, Lutz asked God to give him a special mission. He felt that God answered him when Budapest's Jews came to him for help,” says Cornut. “That's the essence of being Righteous Among the Nations: someone who, after others have given up, is able to maintain his human dignity in the direst of circumstances.”

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