Photo: Yad Vashem
Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who, as Vice Consul in Budapest, Hungary, saved over 62,000 Jews – nearly half the Jewish population of the city – in one of the largest rescue operations of Jews in the Second World War.
Shortly after being appointed Vice Consul in the Hungarian capital in 1942, Lutz wasted no time in trying to save as many Jews as he could. Taking full advantage of his country’s famously neutral diplomatic status, he issued safe-conduct documents that allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children to leave Axis-aligned Hungary.
In 1944, the Nazis took over the country and began deporting Jews to death camps; Lutz took the initiative and negotiated a special deal whereby he would issue protective visas to 8,000 Hungarian Jews that allowed them to leave the country. The clever diplomat intentionally interpreted this arrangement as applying to 8,000 families rather than individuals, thus including thousands of relatives (mostly children).
With the support of his superior, Maximilian Jaeger, Lutz also set up nearly 80 “safe houses” around the city, declaring them as part of the Swiss diplomatic delegation and thus off limits to the Nazis or their Hungarian accomplices. Just one of these buildings had provided refuge to 3,000 Hungarian Jews. Such was the reputation of Swiss neutrality that even the Axis honored it; Lutz even managed to persuade the likes of Adolf Eichmann – one of the sadistic and unrepentant architects of the Holocaust – to at least tolerate his protection of Hungarian Jews.
In addition to his courage as a diplomat, Lutz was capable of incredible personal bravery. He once witnessed fascist militia open fire at Jews, causing one of them to fall into the Danube River. He jumped into the water to save the wounded woman, swimming back with her and then demanding to speak with the officer in charge of the firing squad. He declared the rescued woman a Swiss citizen, reprimanded them for violating diplomatic protocol, and left with her in his car. No one stopped him.
Unsurprisingly, Lutz developed a reputation as a major obstacle to the Final solution, leading one German diplomat in Budapest to ask his government for for permission to assassinate him; the request was never answered.
Lutz returned to Switzerland after the war and enjoy a quiet and successful life. In 1965, he was the first Swiss national named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Before and after his death in 1975, many memorials were dedicated to him in Budapest and elsewhere, including one of his safe houses and the quay from which he jumped to save the wounded Jewish woman.