Woman recounts how dad saved 62,000 Jews

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The Holocaust is an event of such epic dimensions, it is sometimes best understood by the sheer simplicity of numbers — as in 6 million, the number of Jews who died.

Or, as in 62,000 — the number of Jews that one man, Carl Lutz, saved from the death camps over a three-year period, 1942 to 1945.

Carl who? Exactly.

The name of the one-time director of the Swiss consulate in Budapest, Hungary, has remained in relative anonymity.

"Carl Lutz is at the top of the pyramid of righteous people," said Eric Saul, director of an upcoming exhibit on diplomats who rescued thousands of Jews.

"Death and destruction are much sexier topics than altruism. That's why the name of Carl Lutz barely registers a blink here in America. In Hungary and Israel, the name of Carl Lutz is spoken with reverence."

Lutz and other better-known diplomats, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara, are the subjects of "Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats." The exhibit opens next year at the United Nations in New York City.

During an interview Tuesday, Saul joined Agnes Hirschi, Lutz's daughter who still lives in Switzerland, to shine some light in a dark corner of history.

Hirschi visited San Francisco this week as part of a nationwide tour to promote the exhibit. During her stop here, she received an honor from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Lutz was the vice consul at the Swiss consulate in Jaffa, Palestine, between 1935 and 1941. During that period, he secured the release of German prisoners, which gave him leverage is his dealings with the Nazis during his later tenure in Hungary.

As recognition for his diplomatic work and wary of offending neutral nations, Adolph Eichmann allowed Lutz in 1942 to begin issuing Schutzbriefs, or protective letters, to Hungarian Jews who were awaiting safe passage to Palestine.

The letters stated that the bearers were under the protection of the Swiss government, protecting them from being forced into labor camps.

"Eichmann was a rabid dog — an inveterate Jew hater," Saul said. "So for him to allow these letters to be issued was amazing."

Added Hirschi, "What's also 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 was a man of discipline and laws, Hirschi said, but he put the dictates of God before those of man.

"My father was employed by the Swiss government. The Swiss government was adamant that its employees remain neutral. But my father was a very spiritual man. He was raised as a strict Methodist, and taught Sunday school. He saw the atrocities being committed and felt he had to do something."

What Lutz did was tweak the German concepts of efficiency and order to save the lives of thousands of Jews.

"The Nazis spoke of Jews as units," Hirschi said. "They weren't viewed as human beings. So when my father issued the Schutzbriefs, he issued them to family units, instead of individual units."

"Basically, Carl Lutz pulled a fast one on the Nazis, and saved thousands of lives," Saul said.

"But," Hirschi added, "the Swiss government didn't think too highly of that."

In fact, the Swiss government made it difficult for Lutz to advance in his career. According to Hirschi, Lutz was rendered a persona non grata after the war. Noting that her father was unable to get promoted for the duration of his career, Hirschi said that her father's name was only recently rehabilitated.

"Sixty years after the war, and 20 years after his death, the Swiss government acknowledged my father. They have a stamp honoring him."

But for Hirschi, it's a matter of too little, too late.

"My father's nerves were permanently damaged by the war," Hirschi said. "He was an extremely fragile person scarred by a horrible event.

"It was difficult growing up and having to hear all those horror stories. But he needed to tell them. He needed to acknowledge what he had seen in order to survive."

Saul described Lutz as "a frail man" even before the war.

"He was a lifelong bureaucrat who had no experience with massive humanitarian projects," he added. "But he faced down an entire army whose principle occupation was murdering Jews. And he did it armed only with a piece of paper, and a good heart."