Jerusalem — Agnes Hirschi said she felt “quite ashamed” at the standing ovations she recently received in Israel at every stop at which she was introduced. “It’s not for me,” she said of the applause, “it’s for my father. I wish he could be here. I hope he can look [down] from heaven and see it somehow.”
Her father was Carl Lutz, the Swiss consul general in Budapest, Hungary, from 1943 to 1945. During the spring and fall of 1944, he issued protective letters to thousands of Jews and is credited with saving more than 41,000 of them.
Until her father’s death last year, Manli Ho said she knew virtually nothing of the heroic efforts of her father, Feng Shan Ho, who as the Chinese consul general in Vienna in 1938 saved thousands of Jews by issuing them Chinese visas.
Hiram Bingham, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Marseilles, France, defied his superiors and issued visas and letters of safe passage to 2,000 Jews. His son, David, said it was an “emotional experience” to connect with the Jews of Israel. The “incredible thing,” said David, “is that almost one out of every 10 people in the whole Jewish nation had some connection to one of these [diplomatic] families.”
Although the rescue efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg are well known, the actions of these and other diplomats have largely gone unnoticed. The story of 11 of them — who together are believed to have saved more than 200,000 Jews — is documented for the first time by Visas for Life, whose exhibit is scheduled to run through April at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and archives.
The project’s director, Eric Saul, said that since the exhibit opened last spring, he has learned that there were at least 39 diplomats from 19 countries who rescued Jews. As a result, what began as a tribute to a handful of diplomats has ballooned into a major worldwide search for other diplomat rescuers, Saul said.
“This is really the lost history of the Holocaust,” he added. “Yad Vashem recognizes 19 diplomats. We found 20 more — including three Americans — and three of the diplomats are still alive. We’re collecting data on them all and passing it along to Yad Vashem in the hope that they too will be recognized.”
There are three copies of the exhibit, which the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles is helping to fund. One of the displays will begin a month-long run in Bern, Switzerland, Nov. 18. And Saul said he hoped to bring the exhibit to the United Nations next year to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II.
Children of six of the diplomats featured in the exhibit flew to Israel last spring as guests of the Wiesenthal Center to see the exhibit here.
Standing in front of the display telling of her father’s achievements, Hirschi, now 60, said she and her mother were two of the Jews her father saved by hiding them in the cellar of the British Embassy in which he lived. He later married her mother, and died in 1975.
“He died quite frustrated because he was always in the shadow of [Raoul] Wallenberg,” said Hirschi, whose father is credited with issuing diplomatic papers to more than 30,000 Hungarian Jews to prevent their deportation to Nazi death camps. “Wallenberg arrived in Budapest only in July 1944 and so did not have the possibility of saving as many Jews are Carl Lutz did.”
Hirschi said Wallenberg’s disappearance after his arrest by the Russians in 1945 gave him a notoriety that escaped her father. But she insisted that it was not a quest for fame that prompted her father to act, but rather his faith as a “deeply religious man who came from a Methodist family [and was] born to help people.”
Among the 11 diplomats in the exhibit are two of the best known, Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consular officer in Lithuania. Sugihara issued more than 6,000 visas to Polish Jews that allowed them to escape to Japan and then to Shanghai, which Japan conquered in 1937.
Among one of the least familiar diplomats, Feng Shan Ho had been known only by reputation until his obituary appeared in a local newspaper last year. After his death at the age of 96, his daughter found logs, in which Feng Shan Ho recounted some of his efforts to issue visas to Jews from 1938 to 1940.
Also on the trip was the granddaughter of Paul Komor, a Hungarian diplomat stationed in Shanghai who founded an organization that helped find housing, education, jobs and in some cases identity cards for 20,000 Austrian and German Jews who found refuge there during the war.
John Paul Abranches, son of the diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, said such rescue activities were not so unusual for diplomats. His father is credited with issuing more than 30,000 visas in three or four days while Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France.
“I feel that the other diplomats [being honored] had exactly the same ideas,” said Abranches while touring the exhibit. “It was a typical kind of mentality, I would say. So my father, I don’t know if he was exactly the first one of the diplomats to do that, [but] he did it in April or May 1940.”
Abranches pointed out that after the Nazis penetrated into France, his father began issuing “visas to anyone and everyone without pay or anything. To those who didn’t have a passport, my father gave a little piece of paper stating that anyone possessing this document would be welcomed in Portugal and could enter.”
Despite orders to “forget these people,” de Sousa Mendes helped the refugees in the belief his government’s “instructions were immoral, illegal, unconstitutional. … He explained that he would rather be with God against man than with man against God.”
Relieved of his post and ordered home, de Sousa Mendes stopped in another French city under his jurisdiction and directed Portuguese officials there to keep issuing visas.
When he reached the Spanish border with hundreds of refugees in tow, he spotted a sign stating that Portuguese visas issued at Bordeaux were illegal.
“My father knew of another access into Spain and so he led the refugees — the number is said to be in the hundreds or the thousands — to the other place he knew. He introduced himself to the Spanish guards and showed his identification. The guards looked at him and the identification and believed that what my father was saying was the truth. So my father finally crossed the border and got into Spain with all the refugees.”
Abranches said his father died in 1954, penniless.
Asked if he died without any public recognition, Abranches replied: “That’s right. Just God.”