Swiss diplomat saved the lives of 62,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II.
By James Irwin
Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, B.A. ’24, who saved the lives of 62,000 Jews from Nazi persecution, will posthumously be awarded the George Washington University President’s Medal on March 3. The ceremony is open to the GW community.
While stationed in Budapest from 1942 to 1945, Mr. Lutz served as head of Switzerland’s foreign interests section, representing the interests of a dozen countries that had severed ties with the Hungarian government (then aligned with Germany). During this time, he used protecting power mandates (allowing Switzerland to protect citizens of other countries living in Hungary) and led one of the largest and most successful rescue operations of the 20th century, saving Jewish families from extermination.
When the Germans began occupying Hungary in 1944, Mr. Lutz set up 76 safe houses around Budapest, declaring them annexes of the Swiss Legation — among these locations was the legendary Glass House, where 3,000 Jews found refuge and the Zionist Youth Movement was headquartered. Mr. Lutz negotiated with the Hungarian government and the Nazis to issue letters of protection to 8,000 Hungarian Jews, guaranteeing their safety. In an audacious feat of diplomatic skill, he deliberately misinterpreted his permission for 8,000 as applying to families rather than individuals, and secretly issued tens of thousands of additional letters, sometimes literally pulling Hungarian Jews out of concentration camp marching lines and handing them protection documents.
“He’s just a marvelous example of someone who was a quintessential bureaucrat in that he was very orderly and concerned with doing everything right, but he also had this rock-solid core of being a humanitarian and a deeply religious Christian,” said Adrienne Rulnick, recently retired associate vice president for alumni relations and development, who is managing the event. “Lutz took this mandate he had from the British government to create exit visas for people to go to Palestine, then moved on to create special passes that basically designated people as Swiss citizens. He was ingenious and dedicated and courageous.”
The event honoring Mr. Lutz will be held in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Harry Harding Auditorium at 4 p.m. Registration is required. Mr. Lutz’s daughter, Agnes Hirschi, will accept the award on his behalf.
Mr. Lutz has been honored many times for his bravery. In 1957, he was recognized by the Swiss Parliament, and in 1999, a national postage stamp was issued by the Swiss Confederation. In 1991, the city of Budapest established the Carl Lutz Monument, located at the entrance to the city’s former Jewish quarter. He is credited with saving the lives of half of the 125,000 Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust.
“He was up against [Nazi Lt. Col Adolf] Eichmann, who was absolutely determined, in the face of Germany losing the war, to ship as many Hungarian Jews as possible to Auschwitz,” Ms. Rulnick said. “He also was up against the [nationalist, pro-German] Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. Lutz was just somebody who seemed to be very focused and very effective at finding common interests — he collaborated with the Vatican and the American Red Cross. It really was miraculous.”
Established in 1988, the George Washington University President’s Medal is bestowed by the president of the university to recognize individuals who have exhibited courage, character and leadership in their chosen fields and who exemplify the ability of all human beings to improve the lives of others. Previous recipients of the award include musicians Dave Brubeck and Judy Collins, journalist Walter Cronkite, philanthropist Albert H. Small, Nobel laureates Mikhail Gorbachev and Shimon Peres, and labor leader James P. Hoffa.