Carl Lutz, together with his wife, Gertrud, was instrumental in rescuing some 62,000 of Budapest's Jews from the Nazis, after he was appointed Swiss Vice-Consul there in 1942. This is largely unknown, even in his native Switzerland. I certainly had never heard of him before this BBC News article. Perhaps Lutz's List isn't a good movie title.

I understand why Switzerland has chosen to be a neutral country, and there are many reasons why such countries are needed, despite the widely-attributed (and mis-attributed) aphorism, "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." The Lutzes are ample evidence that political neutrality does not necessarily lead to personal, moral neutrality.

(from the BBC article)

As an envoy for neutral Switzerland, Lutz represented the interests of countries who had closed their embassies in Hungary, including Britain and the United States. So he began by placing under Swiss protection anyone connected to the countries he represented. ... But to save Budapest's Jews, Lutz needed to go further. He persuaded the Germans to let him issue diplomatic letters of protection, 8,000 of them. He then applied the letters not to individuals, as the Germans had intended, but to entire families. And once he reached 7,999, he simply started again at number 1, hoping the Nazis would not notice the duplication. Historians estimate the letters saved up to 62,000 people. "It is the largest civilian rescue operation of the Second World War," says Charlotte Schallié. ... Lutz's efforts frustrated Nazi officials in Budapest so much they requested permission from Berlin to have him assassinated - although this was never carried out.

As it became clear that Germany would lose the war, Nazi operations in Hungary became more and more brutal. Rather than organise deportations, they began taking Jewish families to the banks of the River Danube and shooting them. In response, Carl Lutz set up 76 safe houses. Technically in Switzerland's territory, the shelters took in thousands. Sweden and the Red Cross set up safe houses too. Altogether there were 120 across Budapest.

Sometimes the work became more personal.

(from Wikipedia)

One day, in front of the fascist Arrow Cross Party militiamen while they fired at Jews, Carl Lutz jumped in the Danube River to save a bleeding Jewish woman along the quay that today bears his name in Budapest (Carl Lutz Rakpart). With water up to his chest and covering his suit, the consul swam back to the bank with her and asked to speak to the Hungarian officer in charge of the firing squad. Declaring the wounded woman a foreign citizen protected by Switzerland and quoting international covenants, the Swiss consul brought her back to his car in front of the stunned fascists and left quietly. Fearing to shoot at this tall man who seemed to be important and spoke so eloquently, no one dared to stop him.

There was a hero, indeed. Not that his own country was eager to recognize him as such, fearing damage to their neutrality, and danger for other Swiss diplomats in Budapest, who had been arrested by the Russians. Another reason, according to historian Francois Wisard, is that the Swiss are reluctant to celebrate heroes. (They clearly make an exception for William Tell.)

"In Switzerland you do not like the cult of personality. Other countries may have more of this. I think what he did was quite extraordinary, but I am reluctant to use the word hero."

I'd use the word hero. But the Swiss may be on to something. If they are too reluctant to recognize heroic actions, Americans are far too eager to embrace even modest good works as heroism, and to glorify people to the point of idolatry.

The story of Carl Lutz is proof enough that great deeds do not make one immune to temptation to personal betrayals: Shortly after the end of the war, Carl Lutz divorced his heroic Gertrud to marry one of the women he rescued.

Perhaps it's better to look at the flip side of that: It does not take a hero to accomplish heroic work. It takes a normal, flawed human being who is willing to do what is right. As Carl Lutz's step-daughter said about him (back to the BBC article again),

"He was a very shy man, it was not necessarily in his nature to do what he did. But he saw the misery of the Jews and he thought he had to help."

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 23, 2018 at 9:35 am | Edit
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