Jewish Journal

Righteous Reflection

Diplomat Carl Lutz's dramatic story overshadows author's Christian apologetics.

by Dennis Gura

Posted on Feb. 8, 2001 at 7:00 pm

"Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews" By Theo Tschuy; preface by Simon Wiesenthal. (Eerdmans Publishing Company, $25.00.)

In "Dangerous Diplomacy," Theo Tschuy introduces a forgotten hero of the Shoah, Carl Lutz, a man who certainly deserves to take his place among the Wallenbergs and Schindlers.

Lutz, the son of devout, pietistic Swiss Christians, led a diplomatic initiative that saved somewhere between 30,000 and 62,000 Jewish lives. He did so against the expressed wishes of his superior in the Swiss Foreign Ministry but with the tacit support of his immediate superiors in the Swiss Consulate in Budapest, Maximillian Jaeger and later Harald Feller. Raoul Wallenberg, the special Swedish envoy; Angelo Rotti, the papal nuncio; Friedrich Born, the Swiss representative of the Red Cross; and the Spanish and the Portuguese ambassadors to Hungary all worked within the orbit of Lutz's Emigration Department of the Swiss Embassy.

As the neutral Swiss vice-counsel to Hungary since the beginning of World War II, Lutz was charged with handling the leftover affairs of Great Britain and the United States. Prior to March 19, 1944, when the Nazis effectively took control of the their previously allied Hungarian Fascist government, Lutz had arranged for the emigration of 10,000 Jews to British-mandate Palestine. After the takeover, Lutz still had 8,000 outstanding certificates.

Using these certificates as diplomatic leverage with the Hungarian authorities, Lutz labored assiduously to save not only the 8,000 named on the certificates but as many Jews as he could. He worked with officials of the formal Hungarian Jewish organizations, the Zionist youth groups, forgers and anyone else he could corral into helping to save lives.

He "negotiated" with Edmund Veesenmayer, the German counsel to Hungary, and Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann. He confronted Hungarian officials. He evaded sanction by his Swiss superiors. He passed out Swiss schutzbrief (protective letters) by the thousands. By the end of the war, he had declared more than 72 buildings in Budapest under Swiss extraterritorial protection. Towards the end, sometimes literally facing down the gun barrels of Arrow Cross thugs, Lutz and his courageous wife Gertrud protected the buildings and their thousands of occupants. He used his training in bureaucratic maneuvering, international legalisms and finely split hairs to raise the ante and gain more time and more people.

In the midst of the deportations of Hungarian Jewry from the provinces, Lutz saved lives, precious few compared to the hundreds of thousands exterminated, but precious lives nonetheless.

One wishes that such a story and such a book could be recommended without qualification. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Eerdmans, a respected Christian publishing house, has produced a book marred by a number of problems. Some stem from the fact that this volume is a casual English rendition of Tschuy's "larger, more scientific study" written in German and published in 1995. As a consequence, both notes and an index are lacking. His tone is also melodramatic: the drama and tension inherent in Lutz's story is sufficient. Similarly, he neglects to give a clear history of Hungary. We are rather abruptly thrown into the March 1944 German takeover without a clear accounting of, for example, the Horthy government or the role of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross. Worse, his understanding of the roots of Hungarian anti-Semitism is naive and simplistic. At one point, Tschuy claims a long strife-free Hungarian-Jewish symbiosis; at another times, he condemns Hungarian "Christians" for carrying out their ancient anti-Semitic impulses.

The book carries an undertone of Christian apologetics. European Christians certainly have much to apologize for, and Tschuy chastises the various churches for their failings, as befits one whose previous career was with the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. Threading subtly through the work is another Christian apologetic, that Lutz was the real Christian, not the others whom Tschuy calls "Christians" (his quote marks). Whether this is a failing of the book or not depends on one's tolerance for certain types of pietistic literature. The occasional reflection does not seriously mar the story.

But the majesty of Lutz the man overshadows the book's failings. We are offered clues as to Lutz's motivations but never are told clearly and precisely what they were. Towards the end, around Christmas 1944, as the Lutz household in the American Legation hunkered down for the siege of Budapest, with their crowd of desperate refugees, Gertrud reflected on her and Carl's growing marital estrangement. "Perhaps Professor Tier was right when he said that Carl was imbued with greatness. But then Tier tended to exaggerate, and what she herself saw was not an imposing strength, but an ordinary being, whom circumstances had propelled to battle demons. Carl, she admitted, was nevertheless fighting extremely well. If he had been an ordinary person, for instance a simple bureaucrat, like many other consuls, he would have said that saving Jews was none of his business, because officially it was not. Such people didn't even have to be anti-Semitic. Indifference and laziness sufficed, because involvement always meant trouble, problems with superiors, blocked careers, danger from enemies."

What was Lutz's motivation but that "as a religious person he was sure the Almighty still held his hand over them"? For a few thousand Jews in Budapest in 1944, Lutz was that hand.

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