Putting the Dictates of God Before Those of Man: The Life of Carl Lutz

Little is known about Carl Lutz, a man who helped save the lives of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II. Lutz was born in Switzerland in 1895, but immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. He stayed in this nation for more than 20 years, studying at Central Wesleyan College (Warrenton, Miss.) and George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and pursuing a career as a Swiss diplomat in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and St. Louis. He ultimately left the United States in order to become the vice-consul at the Swiss Consulate in Jaffa, Palestine (now Israel). While there, his diplomatic work allowed him to negotiate the release of German prisoners, an action that provided leverage in his later dealings with the Nazis while in Hungary.

After his assignment in Jaffa, Lutz took on the role of vice-consul with the Swiss consulate in Budapest, Hungary. Shortly after his arrival in 1942, Lutz began cooperating with the Jewish Agency for Palestine, issuing an estimated 10,000 letters of safe conduct to Jewish children whose parents were willing to send them to Palestine. Presumably, Lutz’s desire to work with the Jewish agency stemmed from his time living and working in Palestine, as well as his deep faith in the God of the Bible.

A Man of Faith, A Man of Action

In early 1944, as the Nazis stormed into Hungary and news of the German death camps spread across the world, Lutz began to take action on behalf of the Jews of Budapest. Lutz brought the Jewish Agency under his diplomatic protection and renamed it the “Department of Emigration of the Swiss Legation.” He then worked out a special arrangement with the Hungarian government whereby he was able to issue 8,000 protective letters to Jews for immigration to Palestine.

Lutz’s daughter, Agnes Hirschi, notes, “What’s important to understand is that the Germans are very correct people. They admire discipline and order. So when Nazi commandants saw these letters, they accepted them.”

Lutz then deliberately misinterpreted his own arrangement, handing out 8,000 protective letters to Jewish families, rather than individuals. Once he had extended this option fully, he further misconstrued the arrangement, handing out tens of thousands of additional letters of protection, each of which was assigned a number between 1 and 8,000.

“The Nazis spoke of Jews as units,” explains Lutz’s daughter. “They weren’t viewed as human beings. So when my father issued [protective letters], he issued them to family units instead of individual units.”

Like other diplomats of neutral nations, Lutz also set up safe houses around the city, declaring them annexes of the Swiss embassy. The number of Swiss safe houses ultimately totaled 76. Though it is impossible to determine exactly how many Hungarian Jews were saved through the actions of Lutz and the Swiss embassy (most estimates suggest at least 60,000), it is clear that much of the credit for the 120,000 Jews who remained in Budapest at the time of the Soviet invasion goes to Lutz and his wife, Trudi.

A Life of Sacrifice

“My father was a very spiritual man,” Hirschi explains. “He was raised as a strict Methodist, and taught Sunday school. He saw the atrocities being committed and felt he had to do something.”

Sadly, Lutz was returned to Switzerland after the war and rendered a persona non grata for having exceeded his authority. According to his daughter, he never again received a promotion. As such, his amazing work on behalf of the Jewish community went virtually unrecognized until the early 1960s, and was not honored by the Swiss government for decades after that. Lutz died in Bern, Switzerland, in 1975.

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