University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Role of Diplomat Rescuers

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese diplomat stationed in Kovno, Lithuania who issued thousands of transit visas to Jews. Transit visa, issued by Chiune Sugihara to Susan Bluman.

A number of foreign diplomats and consuls working in Nazi occupied Europe recognized that they were in a unique position to save Jews. They seized what we now know was a unique opportunity, to actively participate in the protection and rescue of thousands of Jewish families from the Holocaust. Taking advantage of their special position, diplomats were often ingenious in the tactics they adopted. Some stretched the interpretation of their countries' foreign policies, used loopholes or feigned a misunderstanding of directives in order to skirt regulations, others purposely violated their orders and the refugee policies of their home countries and issued the life saving visas that allowed Jews to cross borders and reach safe havens. Other diplomats issued "protective" passports or established extra territorial sites within which Jews could be housed.

Diplomat rescuers, those acting on behalf of their governments' policies and those acting out of a moral imperative, are recognized as the group of rescuers who saved the largest number of Jews and other refugees during the Holocaust. One diplomat rescuer, Charles Carl Lutz, the consul in charge of visas at the Swiss Embassy in Budapest from 19421945, issued protective letters to thousands of Hungarian Jews. These letters, reluctantly recognized by the Nazis enabled Lutz to save nearly 62, 000 Jews from certain deportation to Nazi death camps.

As the word spread through the Jewish communities that some diplomats were issuing transit visas, pressure was brought upon them from all sides. They were inundated with requests from Jews desperate to save their families. In France, in just three days, Portugese diplomat Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, with the encouragement of his wife and the help of his two sons, issued over 30,000 entry visas. Daily, they wrote and stamped from eight in the morning until two or three o'clock the next morning. After exhausting their supply of official forms, they used ordinary paper stamped with the consular seal. Applicants walked for days to reach the office, and stood in long lines waiting for the life saving papers. Lines outside of embassy buildings drew a great deal of public attention to diplomat's actions, which were often taken as the official policy of the countries they represented thereby giving an even broader political implication to their actions.

Those carrying out the policies of their home government did so with support and resources and often became heroes. Raoul Wallenberg, assigned as attache to the Swedish legation in Budapest, Hungary, worked with a staff of over 300 people to bring Jews under Swedish protection. Financed by the Foreign Ministry in Sweden, and the War Refugee Board in the United States heĀ  able to rent numerous buildings and to apply the diplomatic territorial status to each, allowing them to protect Jews by housing them safely. He also issued protective "papers" called Schutzpasse.

Even though some consuls are known to have sold document for personal gain, and others acted in complete accordance with the policies of their home countriesĀ  it is those that found the strength and courage to defy their countries' order and to act alone out of personal moral conscience, who are among the most significant rescuers of the Holocaust. A diplomat's decision to take this humanitarian route and to disobey his government's orders in order to rescue Jews, had dire personal and political consequences, often permanently affecting their reputations and diplomatic careers.

Several diplomats, particularly those active early in the Wa such as Dr. Feng Shan Ho in Vienna, Austria; Pio Peruchi an Candido Porta in Milan, Italy; Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara in Kovno, Lithuania; and Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux, France, all acted against their countries official foreign policies. In each case they were discredited am punished for their actions. Consul Chiune Sugihara believed he was forced out of the diplomatic service for his role in rescuing Jews in Lithuania. De Sousa Mendes was fired from diplomatic service, was denied his pension and consequently was not able to support his family. Others such as Perucchi an Porta were immediately dismissed from the diplomatic service.

It has taken many years for the rescue efforts of these members of the foreign service to be fully documented and their rescue efforts formally recognized. Some are just now being honoured for risking their lives and professional reputations in the service of their ideals.

- Robert Kremer

Additional Information

Chiune Sugihara - Sugihara's visas went mainly to Jews who had been born or lived in pre-1939 Poland or international zones such as Memel but when living in Lithuania when the Soviet occupation began in 1940. Lithuanian Jews especially from Kaunas (Kovno) also received visas. The Soviet authorities allowed such Jews to transit the USSR eastbound by paying a fee five times higher than normal plus bribes. They wound up in various places of refuge depending on individual histories: Shanghai, Japan, Canada and the United States.