Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture: History Channel to Feature Stories of Diplomats Who Saved Jewish Lives

November 17, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

During the darkest days of the Holocaust, 63 diplomats from 24 countries risked their careers, and in some cases their lives, by issuing unauthorized visas and protective letters to save an estimated 200,000 Jews.

The deeds of four of these brave envoys are honored in the documentary film “Diplomats for the Damned,” to air over U.S. cable’s History Channel on Nov. 26 at 10 p.m.

The rescuers were not highly placed ambassadors and plenipotentiaries, but middle-level consuls and attaches, who had every incentive to play it safe and follow orders from above.

Chronicled in the documentary are American Hiram Bingham, Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal, Charles Lutz of Switzerland, and Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz of Germany.

As U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, France, in 1940, Bingham defied orders and issued safe passes, letters of transit and falsified visas to save some 2,000 Jews — among them artists like Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.

Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux during the fateful month of June 1940, when France fell and refugees desperately sought to escape the advancing Nazi army.

Against direct orders from Lisbon, Sousa Mendes not only issued 10,000 visas to Jews and 20,000 to others, but personally helped hundreds of Jewish refugees through a checkpoint at the French-Spanish border. For his courage, Sousa Mendes, the father of 13, was dismissed by his government, lost all his property and died in poverty.

Lutz was the consul for Switzerland in Budapest during the last two years of the war. He invented the “protective letter” for Jews — later adopted by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg — set up a string of 76 “safe houses” and even managed to channel 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine.

Jewish relief agencies estimate that he saved as many as 62,000 lives.

While the American, Portuguese and Swiss diplomats paid for their humanitarianism with stunted careers, Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member, bet his life in saving Denmark’s Jewry.

As trade attache at the German embassy in Copenhagen, he learned that, the Nazis planned to deport the country’s 7,000 Jews to death camps on Rosh Hashanah 1943. He first flew to Berlin to try, unsuccessfully, to change his government’s mind, then to Sweden to arrange safe haven for the refugees. He later tipped off the Danish underground, which ferried the Jews to safety.

Fittingly, he was the one rescuer to benefit from his deeds when the postwar German government appointed him ambassador to Denmark.

In a profession known more for bureaucratic punctiliousness than civil courage, these diplomats showed that one brave man can make a profound difference.

Second, Sousa Mendes, a deeply religious Catholic, and Bingham and Lutz, equally devout Protestants, were willing to act on their faith when most of Christian Europe turned its back on the continent’s Jews. As the Portuguese envoy put it, “I would rather be with God against man than with man against God.”

The impact of “Diplomats for the Damned” will not end with the History Channel broadcast. On the initiative of the Committee for Righteous Deeds, founded by Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif., special fund-raising screenings will be held in various cities.

The proceeds will go toward buying thousands of videocassettes of “Diplomats,” complemented by teaching guides for public and private schools.

The Los Angeles premiere was held last month, and future events are planned to Chicago, Washington, New York, Montreal and Geneva.


Recommended from JTA