Unsung heroes

The widely observed Holocaust Memorial Day has been marked internationally (less in Israel which marks its own Yom Hashoah on April 16) by a series of ceremonies and events on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The entry to that concentration camp revealed graphically the reality of what had long been reported verbally by the few who had evaded the Nazi machine. And, as the details of the death camps multiplied, the civilised world’s angry horror evolved into the resolve of “never again!”

Inevitably, Memorial Day events included the description of the suffering endured in the Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe”), but there are ever fewer survivors to relate their personal tragedies or escapes. The humane sympathy evoked inspires the urge to educate the next generation to whom the brutalities of National Socialism are long past history; yet there is also the sad realisation that some of the sins of that era are resuscitating today in racist attitudes, in Islamophobia or in antagonism to Israeli policies which come dangerously close to (and share the tropes of) outright anti-Semitism.

Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yom Hashoah. have more to bring than sad memories. There are heroes as well as villains to be recalled; people who defied violent authority with sheer guts, people who cheated Nazi overlords or tricked them with forged documents to save literally many thousands of lives. Everyone knows of Oskar Schindler and his list, from Thomas Keneally’s book and Steven Spielberg’s heart-rending film. Scots, where I live, may know of Jane Haining, Church of Scotland missionary who cared for Jewish children in Nazi-controlled Budapest and ended her days in Auschwitz. Some may have heard of Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing unauthorised Swedish protective passports. When the Russians entered Hungary he was “disappeared” and no reliable account of his fate has ever been revealed.

Now, how about Carl Lutz and Paul Grüninger. Who?

These two Swiss state officials are connected by being listed as “Righteous among the Nations” on the roll of honour at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. That Israel National Holocaust Memorial takes is name from the verse in Isaiah 56, 5:

I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial and a name . . . I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

The institution is mandated to preserve the memories and names of Holocaust victims in millions of records and also to record and honour the courage of those righteous people who sheltered and rescued Jewish victims despite dangers to themselves.

During World War II, Carl Lutz was a diplomat appointed vice-consul of neutral Switzerland in Budapest, with Hungary an ally of Nazi Germany and only beginning to realise the horrors of oppression to come. Early on, Lutz contrived to aid 10,000 Jewish children emigrate from Hungary to then Palestine, where Lutz had earlier served.

In March 1944, the Germans entered Hungary along with their obsessive determination to destroy Jewry everywhere. Adolf Eichman was given the job of organising the elimination of Hungary’s 750,000 Jews.

As long as Swiss neutral status continued to be recognised, Lutz started to hand out vast numbers of “Letters of Protection,” far beyond his authority and eventually they were massively forged. Lutz was summoned to certify these documents’ authenticity and even confronted Eichmann himself. He managed incredibly to take over 72 “protected” houses and sheltered 17,000 desperate people.

According to documentary film producer Daniel von Aarburg:

“By skill, impertinence and courage they manage to reach that the Swiss Letters of Protection and protected houses should be respected more or less by the Nazis and their Hungarian followers, the so-called Arrow-Cross, until the end of the war, and thus 50-70,000 people could be saved from deportation and extermination.”

It is something of a shock to realise that far more Jews—62,000—were saved by this one Swiss diplomat than by the combined efforts of the other righteous four mentioned here and honoured by Yad Vashem.

Paul Grüninger is another Swiss unsung hero who operated in Switzerland itself on an effective if more modest scale to circumvent unfeeling bureaucracy. He was a police commander (and earlier a football champion) in St Gallen. That canton lies at the north-east of the country, shares a land border with Austria and lies across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) from Germany.

After the Anschluss, when Hitler seized Austria to incorporate it in the Third Reich, Jews rushed to flee where they could. Grüninger understood their panic and got round the strict border control by backdating visas and simply falsifying documents to indicate entry into Switzerland at a date when legal admission of refugees was possible. It was not long before his mercifúl but illegal activity was discovered and he was dismissed from the police force, but not before some 3,600 Jewish refugees were saved.

The swift bureaucratic and vindictive reaction did not stop there. Paul Grüninger not only lost his post after being convicted of “official misconduct,” but he was fined 300 Swiss Francs, a considerable sum at that time, and was deprived of his pension. He died in poverty in 1972.

The higher-grade diplomat fared a little better. Carl Lutz, although supported by the Swiss Ambassador in Budapest, Maximilian Jäger, was reprimanded by the government for exceeding his authority and failing to provide detailed records of expenditure. He was in effect demoted and died in 1975, lonely and embittered, with no recognition in his homeland.

However, the humane achievements of these two Swiss were earlier known and honoured in Israel where many of the rescued finally settled. As well as their two names being inscribed on the roll of the Righteous Among the Nations, Lutz was declared an honorary citizen and a street named after him in Haifa; Grüninger was similarly honoured by a street in his name in Jerusalem.

Belatedly the Swiss government rehabilitated both men—posthumously in 1995—in terms of public reputation and recognition of achievement. St Gallen court cleared Grüninger of all charges and the government paid compensation to his descendants.

In June 2014, in Budapest. Daniel von Aarburg premiered the documentary he had written and directed. In 90 minutes Carl Lutz, the Forgotten Hero traces the career of the diplomat with archive footage of his time in Hungary and testimony from the now elderly survivors whom he rescued. Von Aarburg confesses that he discovered the story of Carl Lutz by accident and to his amazement. He felt the story had to be told and spread as a tribute to his countryman’s reputation. The recorded interviews, he writes, are “a great treasure in terms of oral history” which deserve optimum attention.

The documentary film received its British premiere on 18 January this year in Glasgow, sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland. It is scheduled to be shown at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, Texas, on 12 February, this time sponsored by the Swiss Consulate in Texas.

Dr Ezra Golombok directs the Israel Information Office in Scotland

About the Author
Graduate BSc and PhD (chemistry) from Glasgow University. Post doctorate research at the Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland.