The Beginnings of an Entrepreneur Adventurer
Carl Lutz was born on March 30th, 1895 in a small town, in the east of Switzerland, Walzenhausen. His family was Methodist and deeply religious. Very quickly he realized that his future was not to be in Switzerland. At the age of 18, he decided to emigrate to the US.
He followed classes at the college of Warrenton to become a pastor. Very soon, he realized that he was not set up to become a pastor. He looked for a summer job and an opportunity occurred at the Swiss Legation of Washington, where his presence was noticed by Ambassador Marc Peter, who encouraged him to study the Diplomacy at the prestigious George Washington University. He graduated in 1924.
For the next 10 years, he will move from one Swiss Consulate to another in the United States.
In the US, he met his wife, German Swiss as well, Gertrude Frankhausen. They will marry in 1935.
Palestine : a decisive experience
The period 1935-1940 will be a key one which will certainly explain the later behavior of Carl Lutz in Budapest. In January 1935, he was appointed to the Jaffa Consulate in Palestine, which was at that time under British Administration.
In 1939, when the war broke out Germany asked Switzerland to represent its Diplomatic interests in Palestine. Carl Lutz was in charge. Germany remained always grateful to Lutz and Switzerland for having defended so well their interests in Palestine.
Creation of a diplomatic protection system in Budapest
In December 1941, Lutz is summoned by the Head of the Foreign Interest Department to lead this service in Budapest. Lutz will be in charge to represent 12 countries, among them United States and United Kingdom. He is promoted Vice-Consul.
At that time, The British had edited White Papers allowing 75,000 European Jews to emigrate to Palestine from 1939 to the end of 1944. As a representative of the UK, Carl Lutz was in charge of the administration of this White Papers.
Between January 1st, 1942 and March 19th, 1944, more than 10,000 Jews (mostly children) were able to emigrate to Palestine.
WWII Largest Diplomatic Rescue Operation
On March 19, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, fearing that Regent Horthy would change sides, as Italy had done. Overnight, the Jews entered a period of nightmare with the arrival in Budapest of Adolf Eichmann Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer in charge of organizing the “Final Solution”: wearing of the yellow star, confiscation of all property, arbitrary arrests and deportations.
On June 19, 1944, while the massive deportation of Jews from Hungary was underway, Carl Lutz leaked what came to be known as the “Auschwitz Protocols” to a visiting Romanian official. This document, detailing the extermination camp, was brought back to Geneva, Switzerland, and distributed to the Swiss and international press. It made headlines in early summer.
Under pressure, the Hungarian government announced the suspension of deportations on July 7, 1944.
At this moment, according to the White Papers, Lutz has a list of 7,800 people allowed to emigrate to Palestine.
The truth is that those 7,800 Jews will never leave Budapest before the end of the war, but Lutz will leverage that number in his discussions with the Nazis and different Hungarian departments to save half of the Jewish population of Budapest.
Lutz decided to issue letters of protection (“Schutzbrief”) to those 7,800 Jews. Those letters stipulated that the holder has been authorized to emigrate to Palestine and meanwhile was “under Swiss Protection”, preventing them to be called for Forced Labors or eventually deportation.
Originally, the Germans and Hungarians agreed to the departure of a contingent of 7,800 “units”, a formulation used to dehumanize the Jews. Carl Lutz turned this against its authors, announcing on July 21 that the quota was not 7,800 “individuals” but 7,800 “heads of family”, artificially raising it to 40,000 people.
His approach provoked bitter exchanges between the capitals in the summer of 1944. In the end, they all rejected the 40,000 figure, and the official quota of 7,800 was once again the only figure accepted in negotiations.
Carl Lutz refused to accept this state of affairs. Without the authorization of his superiors in Bern or London, but also in Berlin and Budapest, he continued to distribute protection papers in excess. To conceal the fraud, all letters of protection were numbered from 1 to 7,800, then again from 1 to 7,800, giving the illusion that the limit has been respected.
To reinforce their validity, Lutz also spontaneously created “collective passports” to protect Jews as a family.
Lutz was aided in his action by his wife Gertrud and the Halutzim, a group of Jewish men and women who provided the logistics for the rescue operation. Other diplomats from the Swiss Legation supported the rescue operation: Minister (Ambassador) Maximilien Jäger, Ernst Vonrufs, Peter Zürcher and Harald Feller.
Disobedience to save lives
In order to strengthen the protection of Jews beyond papers, Carl Lutz imagined extending it to buildings. He painstakingly negotiated permission to place 76 buildings on a single street (Pozsonyi út.) under diplomatic protection, housing over 20,000 Jewish refugees threatened with deportation.
This enabled him to call the police if Hungarians or Germans entered the premises, as it was now Swiss territory.
Every day, Lutz and his wife went there and risked their lives fighting against the illegal raids carried out by the fascist Hungarian militia (Arrow Cross).
Today, a commemorative plaque is affixed to the bottom of every building, and the quay adjacent to the district bears the name of Carl Lutz.
At the end of the war, Carl Lutz, like other diplomats, was expelled by the Russians. He returned to Switzerland, where he received an indifferent welcome. In 1946, Lutz divorced Gertrud and married Magda Grausz, a Jewish woman who had come to ask his protection for her and her daughter Agnes.
Professionally, although Lutz was not formally sanctioned by his superiors (who were unaware of the extent of his action), he remained bitter about his country’s lack of recognition.
He ended his career as Honorary Consul General in Bregenz (Austria). He retired in 1961 and died in Berne on February 12, 1975.
Carl Lutz was the first Swiss Citizen to be named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem in 1964. He was granted the Order of Merit of the Republic of Germany and nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, one of which by the President of Israel.
In 2021, Geneva paid tribute to him with an exhibition opened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, while the United States dedicated the main room of its Embassy in Budapest to him.
The magnitude of Carl Lutz’s rescue is often misrepresented, with excessive estimates taken from a letter written in 1948 by Mihaly Salamon (62’000 souls). These figures are a personal estimate that is not documented. It is considered unreliable by several leading historians, and deemed excessive by the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial. The reality is probably lower than this estimate.
Using previously unpublished archives, the Society carried out research on this subject, presented during a symposium in Warsaw in 2021 (references on request).
In the absence of precise figures, it is more accurate to say that Carl Lutz saved “dozens thousands of people”.
Today, the thousands of families saved by the Swiss Legation live in Hungary and throughout Europe, in Switzerland, Israel and the United States.