Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

More than half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis and the Arrow Cross, their fascist Hungarian supporters, but more than half of the 120,000 who survived the Shoah were saved by Charles “Carl” Lutz who, through his valor and courageous action, prevented half the Jewish population of Budapest from deportation to concentration camps and death. In the single largest rescue operation of Jews during the Holocaust, he is credited by most authorities, including the United States Holocaust Museum, with saving over 62,000 Jews, including some 10,000 Hungarian Jewish children.

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Lutz was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and was formally recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1965. His wife, Gertrud Lutz-Fankhauser, who worked alongside him and whom he divorced after the war, was similarly honored in 1978.

Born into a devout, pacifist, and humanitarian Methodist family in Walzenhausen, Switzerland, Lutz (1895-1975) was raised in a puritanical community which, according to many historians, is responsible for the lasting sense of social commitment and personal responsibility that would later underscore his moral heroism during the Holocaust. He began work as an apprentice in a textile mill at age 15 shortly after his mother, a religion teacher at the Methodist chapel, died of tuberculosis. Immigrating to the United States in 1913 at age 18, he worked in Granite City, Illinois, to earn money to attend college. However, when the United States entered World War I in April 1917 and President Wilson pushed the Selective Service Act through Congress, Lutz, in furtherance of his pacifist values, took steps to avoid the conscription authorities.

For three years after the war, he attended Central Wesleyan College in Warrenton, Missouri, initially studying Latin and theology and hoping to become a pastor, but he changed course when he accepted a position in the consular corps at the Swiss Legation in Washington. Following the advice of the Swiss Ambassador, who encouraged him to study diplomacy, he completed his education at George Washington University – even then, an institution known for graduating America’s top diplomats – and earned a bachelor’s degree in law and history in 1924. He was appointed as chancellor at the Swiss Consulate in Philadelphia (1926-1933); was transferred to the Swiss Consulate in St. Louis (1933-1934); and served as Vice-Consul at Swiss General Consulate in Jaffa (1935-1941) and as executive in the Law Section of the Federal Political Department in Berne.

In January 1942, Lutz was appointed Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, in which capacity he was responsible for representing 12 countries, including the United States, Great Britain and other countries that had cut off formal ties with Hungary. Pursuant to the British White Paper of 1939, which became the governing policy for the British Mandatory Authority in Eretz Yisrael, Great Britain had permitted 75,000 European Jews to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael from 1939 through the end of 1944 and, charged with administering the White Paper, Lutz immediately commenced efforts to get Jews out of Hitler’s Europe. Between January 1, 1942, and March 19, 1944, when the Nazis invaded Hungary and shut its borders to emigration, he worked with the Budapest office of the Jewish Council for Palestine to send more than 10,0000 Jews to Eretz Yisrael.

Hungary had pledged allegiance to Nazi Germany and formally joined the Axis alliance in 1940, and the Hungarian Jewish community was one of the last surviving European populations in the Holocaust. Although Hungarian Jews were regularly exploited and murdered, there was no formal policy of genocide, and Hitler turned to other matters, even when Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy later refused to implement the mass deportations of Jews – Horthy was no great humanitarian; he was, rather, hedging his bet because he believed that the Axis powers would lose the war. However, when Hitler discovered in March 1944 that the Hungarians had been conducting clandestine armistice negotiations with the Allies, he quickly reversed course, invaded Hungary, and annexed it to the Third Reich. Almost immediately, the Shoah arrived full force in Hungary, as the Nazis commenced deporting Jews en masse to Auschwitz.

With a list of 8,000 Hungarian Jews who, pursuant to the White Paper, were awaiting immigration to Eretz Yisrael, Lutz met with Eichmann to negotiate a special deal to permit him to issue Schutzbriefe (Letters of Protection) to the 8,000 Jews for immigration to Eretz Yisrael. (Lutz inspired the far better-known Raoul Wallenberg, who followed his lead in saving Jews; as such, Wallenberg should more properly be known as “the Swedish Lutz” rather than Lutz being characterized as “the Swiss Wallenberg.”) At a meeting with Lutz, Eichmann ridiculed him and mockingly compared his effort to save the Jews of Budapest with Moses’ effort to rescue the Jews from Egypt but, nevertheless, after Lutz engaged him in philosophical discussions regarding the existence of G-d and the nature of evil, he passed Lutz’s request on to Germany. Hitler, recalling Lutz’s dedicated service on behalf of Germany while serving as Vice-Consul at Swiss General Consulate in Eretz Yisrael (1935-1941), authorized the issuance of the Letters of Protection.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, thereby launching World War II, it had asked Switzerland to represent its interests in Eretz Yisrael. Based in Jaffa, Lutz intervened on behalf of 2,500 German nationals in Eretz Yisrael who were about to be deported by the British Mandatory Authority as enemy aliens; assisted German prisoners of war and worked to improve their conditions; successfully managed German property worth over 25 million British pounds; and provided time-sensitive reports to the Nazi government about developments in Eretz Yisrael. The Third Reich was deeply appreciative of his work, and he earned personal congratulations from Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In a lesser-known act of saving Jews, Lutz used protective papers to prevent the British from deporting Jews in Eretz Yisrael holding German passports; besides saving countless Jewish lives, this effort surely served as a predicate for his later activities on behalf of the Jews of Budapest. While stationed in Eretz Yisrael, which he characterized as “six unforgettable years in Palestine,” Lutz, an avid photographer, created his personal archive of life there, including images of the beginning of the immigration of Jews escaping Hitler’s Europe before World War II. He and his wife witnessed an unarmed Jew being lynched by a crowd of Arabs, and his horror and the feeling of helplessness at his inability to help this innocent Jewish victim never left him; some commentators suggest that this incident may have played an additional role in his sympathy for Jewish victims of the Holocaust and his determination to help them.

Jews throng outside the Glass House seeking Lutz’s help (October-November 1994). The Glass House is now a museum dedicated to Lutz.

In Budapest, Lutz, unable to ignore the fate that he knew awaited the countless desperate Jews congregating daily in front of the Swiss legation seeking help, unilaterally determined to apply the 8,000 permits to families rather than to individuals as Eichmann intended, and he proceeded to issue about 50,000 Schutzbriefe, each numbered between one and 8,000. But he didn’t stop there; when he hit his limit, he nonetheless continued to issue Letters of Protection beginning anew at number one while understanding that he would likely be put to death if the Nazis discovered his subterfuge.

After the Arrow Cross coup in October 1944 and the Nazi installation of Ferenc Szalasi as head of the Hungarian government, Lutz, in the single greatest use in history of the International Convention Laws, established 76 “safe houses” in the greater Budapest area, each declared to be an annex of the Swiss legation, marked accordingly with a Diplomatic Plate and, hence, off-limits to Hungarian forces and Nazi soldiers; Jews there were protected, housed, fed, and received medical aid. The most renowned of these buildings was the “Glass House,” which he renamed the “Department of Emigration of the Swiss Legation,” to which he moved the staff of the Jewish Council from Palestine, Mizrachi, and Hashomer Hatzair. He placed all these organizations under his diplomatic protection and coordinated his efforts with 500 Eretz Yisrael pioneers who organized rescue and relief efforts for the Jews of Budapest, facilitated his communications with the Hungarian underground, and alerted him in real time regarding planned transfers of Jews, deportations, death marches and actions by the Nazis and Arrow Cross. Some one hundred of these chalutzim were murdered for their efforts to help their fellow Jews.

The Glass House was an old glassware manufacturing building that had been previously owned by Arthur Weiss, a Hungarian Jew whose business was seized by the Nazis and who subsequently disappeared, reportedly to Switzerland. Lutz rented the empty space and, over the next few months, over 3,000 Hungarian Jews found refuge there.

Lutz and his wife, Gertrud, did everything in their power to save Jews, even hiding them in his black Packard and joining forced marches to the Austrian border to save them. When it became obvious to the Nazis in Hungary that they were going to lose the war, they commenced taking Jewish families to the banks of the Danube River and shooting them. In one striking example of his heroism, Lutz jumped into the Danube in front of the fascist Arrow Cross Militiamen to save a bleeding Jewish woman whom they had shot. (The quay at the site has been named for him.) Returning with her to shore, he fearlessly confronted the Hungarian commandant in charge of the firing squad and advised him that the injured woman was a foreign citizen protected by Switzerland who must be protected under applicable international compacts and, with the fascists left standing there agape, he brought her into his car and took off to the Swiss embassy to receive medical care.

Through hard work and finely-honed diplomatic skills, Lutz succeeded in persuading Hungarian and Nazi officials to at least partially turn their heads away from his protection efforts on behalf of Hungarian Jews. His efforts to undercut the Nazi genocide were so audacious and wide-ranging that the Nazi representative in Germany, Minister Edmund Veesenmayer, sought permission from Berlin in November 1944 to assassinate him, but Veesenmayer never received a response. According to most analysts, the reason for this was, as discussed above, because of the role Lutz played in assisting Germany in Eretz Yisrael.

However, although Eichmann may have turned a blind eye to harming Lutz personally, he continued his genocidal murder of the Jews and, in particular, his efforts to stymie Lutz. For example, when, in August 1944, Lutz convinced the Swiss government to provide a safe haven in Switzerland for 200,000 Hungarian Jews, the transfer was never made for two reasons: first, because the British made clear their refusal to permit these refugees to ultimately enter Eretz Yisrael and, more critically, because Eichmann declared that he would murder all the Jews en route.

The Soviet Army invaded Hungary on October 6, 1944, and, as it approached Budapest in late 1944, the Swiss government, aware that the Russians were deporting diplomats to the Soviet Union who had helped Jews (this is believed to be Wallenberg’s fate), it ordered Lutz to leave Budapest. However, he decided to remain as a matter of conscience and, when the Arrow Cross attacked and destroyed the Swedish Legation, several staff members, including Swedish Minister Carl Ingvar Danielsson, barely escaped being killed. Even in the last weeks of his tenure in Budapest, when Eichmann ordered the forced marches of 70,000 Budapest Jews to the Austrian border in October and November 1944, Lutz – along with Wallenberg – followed along and pulled thousands of Jews out of the marching columns and returned them to Budapest.

When the Soviets finally surrounded Budapest on December 25, 1944, Lutz was hiding in his residence at the British Legation in Buda in western Budapest, cut off from his office at the American legation in Pest. Through his lawyer, Peter Zürcher, Lutz threatened SS commanders with war crime charges if the Jews of the Pest ghetto were not protected and, as a result, most of the 70,000 Jews of the Pest ghetto survived until the Russian Army liberated the city on January 18, 1945.

Exhibited here is an official and very rare November 6, 1944, Schutzbrief in Hungarian and German with Lutz’s signature and official ink stamp on behalf of the Swiss Embassy with confirmation for the Jew Jozsef Vamos and stipulating his freedom of movement everywhere:

An original Lutz Letter of Protection for Jozsef Vamos.

We confirm that Vamos Jozsef is a subject of the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and as such is under the Embassy’s protection . . . we call on the authorities to support him in carrying out his work and ensure his free movement. No official action should be taken against him without the knowledge of the Embassy. Budapest, November 1944.


Portrait of Jozsef Vamos.

This is another thrilling example (at least for me!) where my research uncovered fascinating and wholly unexpected results. I purchased this document because of my interest in Lutz; I had never heard of Vamos, and I had no expectation that he was anything more than one of the tens of thousands of Jews saved by Lutz. As it turns out, however, Vamos, too, is a historical figure who was also recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations, making this particular Letter of Protection an incredibly rare association piece involving two Yad Vashem honorees.

The story begins with Grandma Vajda in Hungary, who received frequent letters from her family overseas in the United States and gave the stamps to a young boy next door named Jozsef Vamos, who became a frequent visitor. While performing in an operetta many years later, Grandma Vajda’s daughter, Panny, met and married Dr. Ferenc Fellner, a practicing physician in Budapest well-known for his performances in many European opera houses.

Ferenc had already been deported when the Nazis first entered Budapest and, in November 1944, a large group of Jews were marched westward under heavy guard by the Nazis, amongst them Panny and Georgette, Ferenc’s sister. When, that very day, Vamos, then age 26 and a deserter from the Hungarian army, approached Grandma Vajda and asked how he could help, she responded with an impassioned and seemingly impossible request: bring Panny and Georgette back home.

Taking off on his bicycle, Vamos followed the route of the marching Jews on mud- and ice-covered roads until he finally located them. He rode along the column of Jews and sounded the “secret Fellner family whistle,” which was part of a duet that Ferenc and Panny had sung when they first met and which Vamos had heard many times while visiting his next-door neighbors. Alerted to his presence, Panny and Georgette hid in nearby woods that night, where Vamos found them and brought them to the town of Komarom near the railway station, which was teeming with Nazi soldiers and members of the local Arrow Cross. Personally escorting them all the way back to Budapest, his incredible bravery was marked by the fact that he would be a particularly desirable arrestee – who surely would have been murdered in the most brutal fashion – as both an escapee from the Hungarian army and as a citizen who was aiding and abetting Jews. On May 4, 2008, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.

The Ferenc Fellner story also ended well. After being commanded at gunpoint to sing an aria from his repertoire, he became favored by his Nazi captors and managed to survive to the end of the war. On the day before the Ebensee concentration camp, which had one of the highest prisoner death rates, was liberated by the Americans on May 6, 1945, Nazi officers planned to exterminate the 16,000 prisoners who had somehow survived. They suggested that the Jews could avoid the coming American attack by finding shelter in underground tunnels where the V-2 rockets had been hidden when, in fact, they had hidden a truck packed with tons of explosives which they planned to set off when the expected American attack came. Fellner, who was fluent in German, convinced his fellow Jews not to follow the Nazis’ instructions, arguing that while many would be shot by their captors, most would survive to bear witness to what had happened there. He thereby saved not only his own life but also the lives of thousands of others.

Upon Lutz’s return to Switzerland in January 1945, he was coldly greeted by a Swiss official who simply asked him if he had anything to declare, and no government minister so much as welcomed him back. Not only were his achievements not recognized by his country but he was criticized for exceeding his authority by the Swiss government, which feared that his actions would endanger Switzerland’s neutrality and jeopardize its negotiations with the Russians to secure the return of its diplomats arrested during the war. The Swiss government even went so far as to open an inquiry into his Budapest operation and to bring formal charges against him for his rescue of Hungarian Jews, but he was acquitted of wrongdoing.

“Diplomats – Righteous Among the Nations” Israel sheetlet (1998). Lutz is shown third from left.

Lutz sustained a period of great depression because of his treatment by his beloved country, even spending several weeks in a psychiatric clinic in Zurich, and he experienced financial difficulties for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he went on to serve Switzerland in several insignificant positions for more than a decade before retiring.

Finally, as part of the Swiss reassessment of its role in the war years, Lutz was “rehabilitated,” his public reputation was restored, and his achievements were honored – but, sadly, he did not live to see any of this. In 1995, the Swiss government apologized for having forgotten him and characterized him as “one of the eminent citizens in the nation’s history.” 

Israel Lutz medal presented to VIPs at the February 2004 American Jewish Committee annual meeting in Jerusalem.

A street in Haifa, which runs from the railway station to the northernmost point of the Bat Galim neighborhood, was named for him in 1963 and, two years later, he received the ultimate honor when he became the first Swiss citizen to be named by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations. Other Israeli honors include a stamp issued in his memory in 1998; being named an honorary citizen of Israel in February 2002; and having a scenic lookout built in his memory in Switzerland Forest (near Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights) in 2017.

Swiss Lutz stamp (1999).

Other honors he received include the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; a memorial dedicated to him erected at the entrance to the old Budapest ghetto in 1991; his name being included in The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial at the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest; being honored with a memorial in American Embassy Park in 2006; and being honored by more than 20,000 people in a March of the Living in April 2013.

Yehi Zichrono baruch.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].