Accessibility links

UN: 'Righteous Diplomats' Honored For Saving Jews

  • Robert McMahon

A special exhibit at UN headquarters in New York honors diplomats from 24 countries who took extraordinary steps to save Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Their stories, some of which have emerged just recently, are varied -- but all are examples of courage and creativity which led to the saving of an estimated 300,000 lives. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 21 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A Japanese consul in Lithuania issued thousands of Japanese visas to Polish Jews. A Turkish consul-general in Cyprus saved more than 40 Jewish families from deportation to Auschwitz. A Bulgarian diplomat in Paris rescued Jews by issuing papers permitting them to travel to Bulgaria.

They are among the 84 diplomats who made exceptional efforts to save Jews and other refugees as war convulsed Europe from 1938 to 1945. A UN exhibit that opened earlier this month pays tribute to these diplomats. The tribute sheds new light on a small number of individuals who risked their lives and careers to intervene on behalf of Jews.

The new exhibit is called "Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats." Its director, Eric Saul, said at the exhibit opening that more than half of the diplomats honored were fired from their jobs. But the names of many are being rehabilitated today

"We believe there are more than 500,000 people alive today as a result of diplomats who mostly defied the orders of their governments to issue visas to every country in the free world."

One of the notable revelations of the exhibit is the wide range of backgrounds of the diplomats. Some came from countries under dictatorship like Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Chiune Sugihara, who was Japan's consul in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1940 issued thousands of Japanese visas to Polish Jews in defiance of the orders of his own government. Many of these refugees escaped to Japan after transiting the Soviet Union, and from Japan they were able to reach other countries. After the war, Sugihara was forced to resign from the diplomatic service.

Turkey's consul-general in Rhodes, Selahattin Ulkumen, interceded to help the Greek island's Jewish inhabitants. He saved from deportation to Auschwitz 42 families of Turkish nationality totaling more than 200 people. In retaliation, the Nazis bombed his house, fatally wounding his wife. Their son, Mehmet Ulkumen, was born a week before she died. Mehmet is now UN chief of protocol in Geneva.

In Paris, junior Bulgarian diplomat Boyan Atanassov found himself alone when the rest of his embassy moved to Vichy, France. He continued to issue visas, allowing dozens of Jews in Paris to travel to Bulgaria. The exhibit says his is one of the newly discovered cases of diplomatic heroism.

The Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, France, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, issued 30,000 visas in June 1940, including 10,000 to Jews. He lost his job and all his property and died in poverty in Lisbon in 1954.

His youngest son, John Paul Abranches, said at the exhibit's opening ceremony that his father was simply following his conscience.

"My father did what he did because, as he said, 'I'd rather be with God against man than with man against God.' And that meant that the instructions that he had were immoral, inhumane, and he would not comply with them. So he did what a voice told him to do. And that was to save the refugees, anyone and all of them, or as many as possible."

Another diplomat even more prolific than de Souza Mendes was Karl Lutz, the Swiss consul in Budapest from 1942 to 1945. He is credited with inventing the protective letter for Jewish refugees and establishing safe houses. The Swiss diplomat issued more than 50,000 protective passes, saving more than 62,000 Jews.

His stepdaughter, Agnes Hirschi, said at the exhibit's opening that Lutz was a deeply religious Methodist who felt he had to do all in his power to save Jews he saw under threat.

"The laws of life are stronger than man-made regulations. That was the philosophy of my father, and I think also of the many diplomats we have here."

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a concentration camp survivor, attended the exhibit's opening to honor the diplomats. He also asked aloud why more diplomats didn't intercede. Wiesel said the process, in retrospect, was simple, amounting to a letter, or a stamp, or a handshake.

The exhibit runs through the end of April.