Over 30 heads of state will be participating this coming week in the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism,” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In honor of this event, permit me to share with you the remarkable story of Charles Lutz.
A friend visiting Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov community was walking on Charles Lutz Street. The street sign mentioned that Lutz was among the chasidei umot ha’olam—righteous among the nations—which piqued his interest, so he googled the name. After reading the first paragraph about Mr. Lutz, my friend sent me the following WhatsApp: Gedaliah, you must write an article about this mystery man!
Charles—known as Carl—Lutz is credited with saving over 62,000 Jews during the Holocaust, but somehow his activities went mostly unnoticed. In comparison, Raoul Wallenberg of the Swedish foreign ministry, with whom Lutz sometimes collaborated, saved under 10,000 people—no small feat either, I might add—but became famous for his humanitarian efforts. How in the world did Lutz save over 60,000 people, literally half of Budapest’s Jewish population? Secondarily, why did Wallenberg become so famous and Lutz’ heroic activities flew under the radar?
Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who arrived in Budapest in January 1942 and, due to Switzerland’s stance of neutrality, also represented the interests of many countries that had severed diplomatic relations with Hungary during World War II, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Lutz understood the German mindset that admired discipline and valued being rule-oriented—and used that knowledge to save many Jewish lives. He leveraged his position as the UK wartime representative and created an emigration certificate to allow safe passage to British-controlled Palestine. Lutz then negotiated a deal with the Hungarian government and the Nazis to allow 8,000 Hungarian Jews to use these protective letters to escape certain death and move to Palestine.
Although receiving permission to issue only 8,000 letters, Lutz—attempting to save as many lives as possible—broadly interpreted the document as applying to families, rather than individuals. In addition, he worked with members of the Zionist youth underground to forge thousands more of these protective letters.
Lutz was an organizational genius and brilliantly patched together a network comprised of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, local Zionist organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, diplomats from five neutral countries, including Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, and sympathetic Hungarians to create 76—and by some accounts 122—“safe houses” around Budapest to store the people who had these emigration certificates until they could be sent to Palestine. By using ingenious and daring diplomatic tricks and masterfully twisting the tenets of the Geneva Convention, Lutz successfully managed to provide diplomatic protection to tens of thousands of Jews in these safe houses.
After the war, instead of receiving accolades for his extraordinary humanitarian achievements, Carl Lutz received an official reprimand from the Swiss government for overstepping his diplomatic authority and disobeying the law, effectively blocking him from advancing his diplomatic career.
In 1964, Lutz and his first wife were awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Years later, the Swiss government finally restored his tarnished image, but it was too little and way too late. Lutz died in 1975 a disillusioned man who felt betrayed by the Swiss government, which never fully recognized his moral clarity and superhuman efforts during one of history’s darkest periods.