Carl Lutz’s 30th Anniversary of Death Commemoration
Park East Synagogue
May 11, 2005
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Carl Lutz was the first Swiss national elevated to the rank of Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. So, we are privileged to honour him on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death.
Let me first welcome and thank Mrs Agnes Hirschi, both his daughter, and the guardian of Carl Lutz’s legacy of courage and heroism. I also thank the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Park East Synagogue for organizing this commemoration, together with my Consulate General.
Federal Councillor, and former President of Switzerland Joseph Deiss, who is also member of the Wallenberg Foundation Honorary Board, ask me to convey to you his endorsement for today’s ceremony and to empress on his behalf his feelings of deep gratitude and admiration for the great deeds of Carl Lutz.
Let me make three points:
1. Carl Lutz was a hero!
He started his diplomatic career in 1923, at age 28, in Washington. From what I have read and heard about him, he was hardly a typical civil servant. Rather, Lutz was an unusually gifted, quite religious and sensitive man who often was at loggerheads with the Swiss federal administration.
In 1935, he strongly fought the Foreign Ministry’s intention to transfer him to the Swiss Consulate in Jaffa, Palestine, but he was without success.
Yet in the end, that posting to a politically tense region prepared Carl Lutz well for the difficult and crucial work that, many years later, would make him a Righteous diplomat.
Late in 1941, the Swiss Foreign Ministry reassigned him from the Near East to the Legation (or Embassy, as we now call it) in Budapest, where he was put in charge of the Foreign Interest Section. Because only a few countries still maintained diplomatic relations with Hungary, Lutz had an important diplomatic task. In 1942, the Swiss Legation represented the interests of no fewer than 12 other countries, including USA, the UK and Egypt.
Having served in the British-administered Palestine, Carl Lutz was of course well acquainted with the controversy of Jewish immigration into that part of the world. As long as the Hungarian government was still in control of state affairs (i.e., until mid-March 1944), the country’s Jews were able to obtain emigration certificates to Palestine. Vice-Consul Lutz, in his capacity as protector of British Interests, cooperated with the Hungarian authorities on an ”orderly departure program,” as we call it today.
For two years, his efforts were so successful, that, week after week, 50 to 100 individuals, mostly young people and children, obtained exit permits to leave for Palestine. According to the records of the Swiss Federal Archives, Lutz helped around 10’000 people leave Hungary prior to March 1944.
When the Germans occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944, the Hungarian Jewry faced a dramatically worsened situation. At that time, Adolf Eichmann began to implement Hitler’s ”Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” meaning immediate suspension of all emigration, and massive and barbarous relocations to concentration camps, particularly to the extermination camp at Auschwitz, Poland.
In this extreme situation, Carl Lutz showed his real metal. At his urging, the Swiss Legation protested strongly against the one-sided cancellation of the Jews’ right to emigrate, which had, after all, been based on international agreements signed by Hungary. Reacting to this protestation, the German authorities agreed to allow a final 8000 Jews, who were registered with the Swiss Legation, to leave the country. Without telling anybody, Lutz also issued tens of thousands of letters of protection, ensuring that many more than the original 8,000 remained alive and were not deported. Acting without a mandate from the Swiss government, he clearly realized that in challenging Nazi power so directly, he was taking enormous risks, both personally and for his country.
Tragically, Lutz and the other diplomats from other neutral states in Budapest were ultimately powerless against the deportation of about 350,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz between mid-May and early July 1944.
These deportations were stopped temporarily by the order of Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian Regent, who briefly yielded to international pressure. Consul Lutz wisely used this short, quiet interval in mid-1944 to increase his protection of Jews, placing some 30,000 holders of letters of protection in 76 protective houses, for which he obtained diplomatic immunity. This unprecedented initiative was to be copied by other diplomats, including Raul Wallenberg.
But notwithstanding these efforts, the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry entered its final stage when the Red Army crossed the country’s eastern frontier, at which point the German occupation authorities installed a new puppet government.
Undaunted by these events, Carl Lutz continued to physically free kidnapped holders of protection letters from the hands of the police and to defend protective houses. Engaging in these activities, he and his wife were in danger of being put to death more than once. Fortunately, during this dangerous final period of Nazi rule in Budapest, Lutz was no longer alone. He was now able to count on the cooperation of, among others, Angelo Rotta from the Apostolic Nuncio, Friedrich Born, a fellow Swiss, from the ICRC, and Raul Wallenberg from Sweden, who had arrived in July 1944 to invigorate the Swedish rescue efforts.
Simon Wiesenthal, who had met Carl Lutz in the early 1960s, said about these diplomats: ”This was a remarkable and mutually supportive team which attracted Hungarians who were ashamed of what their country was doing to the Jews. Together, they saved several thousand Jews who had been deported on foot along the Vienna Road in November 1944. They also saved the inmates of the large Ghetto of Pest in January 1945. This dedicated group, of which Consul Lutz was the leading figure, saved no less than 100,000 Hungarian Jews.”
2. Visiting the past for a better future
After his return to Switzerland in May 1945, Carl Lutz did not receive a hero’s welcome. Rather, to counter sensationalistic newspaper articles accusing the Swiss Legation in Budapest of unprofessional behaviour and because of the capture of two Swiss diplomats by the Red Army, the Foreign Ministry launched an administrative investigation concerning the Legation’s work. Consul Lutz was accused of having exceeded his authority, which, viewed from the perspective of a narrow-minded bureaucrat who had spent the war years in Berne, he certainly had! What we would label today as an ”independent and heroic humanitarian spirit” was qualified in Berne as ”high-handed disobedience”.
The judge heading the investigation ultimately concluded that the Swiss Legation had conducted the affairs of the nation honourably under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. He also criticized the government for launching the investigation in the first place, considering it an insult to the persons involved. Although the government did not apologize, Carl Lutz was promoted and given new diplomatic assignments until his mandatory retirement in 1961.
Understandably, the attitude of the Swiss authorities deeply hurt Consul- General Lutz. And in 1995 only, twenty years after his death, the Federal Government officially apologized for its long neglect, declaring Carl Lutz to be one of the outstanding citizens in the nation’s history.
His case shows how difficult it can be for nations to revisit their past. Today, we can affirm that the Swiss have done their homework, and so we have a clearer picture of what happened, both good and bad, during World War II. On December 10, 1999, a team of nine international historians (1) ppointed by the Swiss Government (2), headed by Switzerland’s Jean- Francois Bergier, issued a 10’000-page report (3) that included an analysis of Swiss refugee policy during the Nazi years. Bergier and his colleagues concluded that Switzerland, like many other countries, had its shortcomings in responding to the Nazi threat (4).
This quite unique national process of introspection was painful. Even for the post-war generations, it was difficult to face the facts (5). But this process was necessary and ultimately salutary. Today, in addition to participating in the ”devoir de mémoire” (duty or responsibility of memory), we want to actively contribute to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism. Besides establishing ten years ago its own Federal Commission against Racism (6), Switzerland has been actively supporting all effective means to fight intolerance, discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism (7) in conjunction with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In this context, the Swiss government recently gained full membership in the Task Force for Cooperation on Holocaust Education,Remembrance and Research.
The fight against anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia is a central duty of a democratic state and so, Switzerland is committed to pursuing its efforts on Holocaust education.
By decree8 of the Swiss Government in June 2001, CHF 15 million (around $15 million) was allocated to support teaching and other projects aimed at fighting anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Each year, from 2001 to 2005, institutions and individuals have been invited to submit projects related to these topics, while a special administrative unit within the Department of Home Affairs was created to coordinate these efforts9. A few months ago, the government has decided that these efforts should be pursued for the next five years In addition, the Swiss people voted in favor of a special provision in our criminal law to forbid anti-Semitic texts or speeches, and to allow for suing their authors. Finally, Swiss schools are starting to celebrate Holocaust Memorial Day each year on January 27, the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, with special teachings about these terrible days.
All of these efforts are lights of hope combating the darkness of evil and destruction. As we saw during the last worldwide conflict, many lights, of hope – true acts of bravery and heroism – are often anonymous. Carl Lutz was one of these lights, and one of the brightest.
3. Carl Lutz as Role model for the Future
What does the life of man like Carl Lutz teach us for the future? We can learn much.
One lesson is never to be fatalistic about, or resigned to, even the most terrible situation. Even in a dangerous wartime context, it was possible for courageous men like Lutz to struggle against evil. His story reminds us that there is always something humanitarian you can do and that there is no reason to accept any situation as fatalistic, even when you have quite limited means at your disposal against an overwhelming power. His life teaches us that we should always keep our minds open and alert, joking for new tools and solutions to confront unexpected or dramatic situations.
Carl Lutz used his cleverness to transform his limited resources into an arsenal of measures to save many innocent lives. He was always reaching, and sometimes surpassing, the limits of what he ”could” do, and he brilliantly exploited the weaknesses of the German authorities.
Switzerland has old mythic heroes like Wilhelm Tell or Winkelried. It also has modern heroes, such as Carl Lutz, who provide us with compelling examples of courage, pugnacity and creative thinking. He is model of humane behaviour from recent history whose life-saving acts could and should be replicated in many parts of the world torn apart by conflicts.
Great men like Carl Lutz provide us with benchmarks to face the future.
May he, whose unique deeds have become part of world history, inspire all those today and in the future who struggle for racial justice and fight for peace.
- Son président était Jean-François Bergier. Elle comptait 8 historiens (4 Suisses et 4 étrangers) et un juriste.
- Si la CIE a été mise sur pied par le Parlement (13.12.1996, vote unanime), ses neuf membres ont été, quant à eux, nommés par le CF (19.12.1996)
- Le rapport sur les réfugiés contient, outre le rapport proprement dit, 5 annexes, dont une (Sinti, Roma) n’a été publiée qu’en 2000. Au total, il compte plus de 1’000 pages.
- ”Declined to help people in mortal danger” and that ”by creating additional barriers for them to overcome, Swiss officials helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals, whether intentionally or not.”
- Other findings included:
- In the summer and fall of 1938, Switzerland urged Germany to stamp the passports of Jews with a blood-red J, making their migration to other countries practically impossible. At an international refugee conference earlier that year, many countries had registered their reluctance to take in Jews for fear of importing anti-Semitism.
- Many Jewish refugees were robbed of their possessions after crossing the border, tortured, beaten and delivered back to German soldiers at the frontier by Swiss police or army personnel.
- In 1941, when Germany deprived its Jews of citizenship, Switzerland followed suit, lifting the Swiss citizenship of German Jews, some of whom had lived in the country for a generation. In doing so, they turned them into stateless refugees.
- In the summer of 1942, when Nazi troops occupied the southern part of Vichy France, sending Jews scrambling for refuge, Switzerland closed its borders and declared Jews non-political refugees who could not be admitted, despite their knowledge of the fate that awaited the Jews. (The panel found evidence that the Swiss knew by 1942 what was happening in concentration camps.)
- The historians found no evidence to back up Swiss claims that Germany had threatened invasion in retribution for their taking in 21,000 refugees or that refugees had been turned away because admitting them would have caused food shortages. Switzerland, they said, could easily have taken in more refugees. The panel found deeply-rooted anti-Semitic attitudes dating back to the turn of the century, and the Swiss naturalization authority’s classification of Jews as ”elements who are difficult to assimilate.”