Most of us are aware of the work of Oskar Schindler thanks to the film Schindler’s List. Less well known are the “Righteous Among the Nations.” These are non-Jewish people recognized by Israel as having put their own lives on the line during the Holocaust to rescue Jewish people from the Nazis. Like Schindler, they worked at great personal risk to help men, women, and children escape from Nazi occupied territories to freedom. Some rescued a few, some rescued thousands, but all are remembered for their bravery and compassion.
10. Morris Saxe Took 79 Jewish Orphans to Canada
Georgetown, Ontario, Canada was a long way from any of the fighting in WWII. But that was the place Morris Saxe, a Jewish dairy farmer, called home. He had come to Canada in 1902 and by all accounts was a hardworking man. When he learned what was happening to Jews in Europe in the lead up to the war, he wanted to help but there were only so many options available to a farmer in Canada. So he made an appeal to the Canadian government – he asked for 79 Jewish orphans from Poland who lost their parents in the First World War to be sent to Canada on the condition that he train them as farmers.
Canada’s government allowed it to happen and Saxe ended up opening a farm school in 1928, years before the formal start of WWII. The school only lasted for two years, apparently a result of poor funding and trust issues with the main funder, but by then the 79 visas had already been issued.
9. Mary Elmes Smuggled Hundreds of Children in Her Trunk
Mary Elmes was an Irish Quaker who had worked with the London Ambulance Unit and later at a children’s hospital during the Spanish Civil War. When France became occupied during the Second World War, Elmes worked with other Quakers to help save Jewish children as Jews were being rounded up with French police.
She would take children under the age of 16, with their parents’ permission, from the Riversalte concentration camp and drive them into the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. She hid them in the trunk of her car.
By 1942, 2,289 Jews were taken from Riversalte to the Drancy internment camp where they would ultimately be transported to the extermination camps. It’s said 84% of the children escaped deportation, mostly thanks to Mary Elmes. There is no formal accounting of numbers but it’s estimated to be in the hundreds.
8. Abdol Hossein Sardari Saved Thousands
Iran declared itself neutral just as World War II was starting and thus was not involved in combat on either side. But that doesn’t mean Iran had no involvement at all. Abdol Hossein Sardari was the Consul General of Iran and the sole diplomat in Paris after the Iranian ambassador left the city in 1940.
At the time, Iran was declared an Aryan nation by Germany because of strong trading between the two countries. This gave Sardari an in as he fought to declare Iranian and other Middle Eastern Jews as ethnically the same as any other Persian and not technically Jewish. He claimed that those Jewish people, called Jugutis, might still practice Judaism but biologically they were not Jews and were therefore exempt from any efforts to restrain their movements or imprison and harm them.
It’s believed Sardari may have saved as many as 2,000 Iranian Jews and others from the region in this way, by appealing to Nazi officials using their own language and ideals against them and convincing them that those he was trying to save were not really who the Nazis were opposed to in the first place.
7. Ho Feng Shan Gave Thousands of Chinese Visas to Jews in Vienna
We chiefly think of WWII as being a war between several superpowers and then smaller nations that were allied with one side or the other in a lesser or support capacity. One country that is often overlooked in the history of the war is China, who was allied with American and British forces chiefly against Japan. They formally joined the alliance in December 1941.
Dr. Ho Feng Shan was a Chinese diplomat posted in Vienna during the war. From 1938 to 1940, Ho issued Chinese visas to Jews trying to flee Austria in numbers we may never know. It’s possible he helped tens of thousands of Jewish people escape, but many of the records are long gone so a proper accounting cannot be made. At least one surviving visa issued was numbered above 4,000, so it’s a safe bet that at least that many escaped thanks to his efforts.
It’s believed Ho was one of the first diplomats in the world to start helping Jews at a time when many others were still on the fence, not eager to start any potential issue with the Nazi regime. Ho issued visas to anyone who wanted them, whether or not they even wanted to go to China. He wasn’t pretending to do anything other than save as many people as he could. All of this was done in direct opposition to the wishes of his superiors who wanted no visas issued.
Ho never told anyone what he did for his entire life. He died at age 96 in 1997. Not even his wife and children knew.
6. Chiune Sugihara Defied Orders to Give Japanese Visas to Jews
Despite their military involvement in the Second World War, not everyone in Japan agreed with their country’s position. One such individual was Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s diplomat in Lithuania during the war. As people fled Germany and other occupied territories, Lithuania was one of the countries that saw a massive influx of refugees.
Sugihara began issuing visas to Jews that would allow them to stop in Japan on their way to somewhere else, places like Curacao, for instance. Others wanted to head to the US or Canada or Australia. The fact they didn’t actually have a destination visa didn’t actually matter, of course. The goal was just to get them out of danger by fleeing to safer places. The end result was that, over six weeks, Sugihara issued an astounding 2,139 handwritten visas and potentially saved over 6,000 Jews. All while his superiors in Japan kept demanding he stop doing so as refugees kept showing up with no money and no actual destination plan.
5. Aristides de Sousa Mendes Issued Thousands of Visas
Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes was stationed in France during WWII. Portugal was officially neutral during the war but dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar has banned Jews from entering the country and offered no aid. Fortunately, Sousa Mendes did not feel the same.
Disobeying the rules set down from his superiors, Sousa Mendes began issuing passports to Jews in France. He was in Bordeaux from 1939 to 1940 and what he had done did not go unnoticed. But it was the dedication to getting it done that made the difference. He worked tirelessly, issuing literally thousands of passports in a relatively short time, and managed to distribute a staggering 30,000 of them. The refugees were able to flee France for Lisbon in Portugal before spreading out all over the world. Many traveled to the United States as Portugal’s neutral status made travel much easier.
4. Ángel Sanz Briz Issued Thousands of Fake Spanish Passports
Diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz was instrumental in saving the lives of at least 5000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. He forged fake passports claiming that they were Spanish citizens. He got permission from the Hungarian government, where he was stationed, to issue passports to just 200 Jews of Spanish birth. He surreptitiously turned that into 200 families. Then from there he just kept increasing the number for as long as he could.
Briz was able to pull off his scam by invoking a law from 1924 that granted citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews who were all kicked out of Spain back in 1492. It was a farce, to be sure, but one that saved lives.
3. Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer Saved 10,000 Jewish Children
Sometimes called Auntie Truus, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer was a Dutch banker and seemed to have been motivated to get into social work after the First World War. Though she had no children of her own she worked tirelessly to help Jewish orphans and refugees, relocating them to the Netherlands and the UK. It’s said she and those who helped her did everything from bribing train officials to charming Nazis when necessary. At one point she even took a personal meeting with Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, and convinced him to let her take 600 Jewish orphans to the Netherlands.
Wijsmuller organized the Kindertransport, transporting children from any Nazi occupied areas ranging from Germany to Austria to France and seeing them safely to Allied territories. Even as borders closed and her ability to transport them diminished, she would still bring food and supplies when she could. As many as 10,000 children were saved thanks to her efforts.
2. Constantin Karadja Saved Tens of Thousands
Constantin Karadja was a Romania diplomat during the war when his country was allied with the Germans. He saw firsthand the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, including Jews of Romanian origin, and requested many times that officials in Bucharest do something to help their people. Unfortunately, there were strong threads of antisemitism in Romania at the time as well and Karadja’s pleas often fell on deaf ears.
When Romania opted to include “Jew” as a label on Romanian passports, he successfully fought against the change, arguing it would do nothing but make things worse for people. And while his protests may have had some effect, it was his continued issuing of travel documents that had the greatest impact and led to around 51,000 people being saved from deportation and Nazi death camps.
1. Carl Lutz of Switzerland is Credited With Saving 62,000 Jews
It’s startling that Switzerland’s Carl Lutz is not more well known than he is. Lutz may have single-handedly saved more lives during the Holocaust than any other person and though it’s by no means a competition, his story is one that more people should know.
Stationed in Hungary as a diplomat, Lutz has been credited with leading the largest diplomatic rescue operation of the entire war. Hungary began deporting Jews to Germany in 1944 and when Lutz’s protests failed to make any changes, he took matters into his own hands. He started by issuing letters of protection which put Jews in Hungary under Swiss protection.
Now here’s the thing about Lutz’s letters. They were all numbered from 1 to 7,800 or 8,000 (sources differ on that matter). They were to be issued one per person. Lutz issued them not to individuals but families. And when he ran out, he started again at one. His hope was that the Nazis would not look into it enough to realize he was reissuing numbers.
After that move, Lutz rented 76 buildings that then became Swiss diplomatic sites, all of which he set up to house more Jews under Swiss protection where they received food, shelter and medical care. He and his wife literally walked with Jews during the death marches, pulling them out of line and showing papers to Nazi officials declaring them under Swiss protection.
Historians believe, thanks largely in part to his ruse with letters of protection, that Lutz may have saved as many as 62,000 Jews.