Carl Lutz saved more than 50,000 Jews from extermination during the Holocaust, but many people don’t know his name.
The Mid-Atlantic – Eurasia Business Council held a virtual celebration on June 30 to honor the Swiss diplomat’s life and educate audience members about his heroism.
“He was an exceptional person, who was able to grow in the most challenging circumstances,” said Val Kogan, president of MAEBC.
An in-person celebration was originally scheduled for Lutz’s 125th birthday, March 30, but it was postponed until November due to the pandemic.
During the celebration, audience members viewed a 10-minute sneak peak of “Dangerous Diplomacy,” a new documentary about Lutz’s life that is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
The film narrates the story of Lutz’s career, starting with his immigration to the United States from Switzerland in 1912. He attended George Washington University and worked at the Swiss Legation in Washington, D.C., before he was appointed chancellor at the Swiss Consulate in Philadelphia.
During World War II, he moved to Budapest to work as the head of the Swiss Legation’s Department of Foreign Interests, where he kept lines of communication open between nations and protected foreign citizens stranded in Hungary.
The devout Methodist issued Swiss protective papers, or Schutzbriefs, to 10,000 Jewish children — mostly orphans whose parents had been sent to concentration camps — to allow them to immigrate to what is now Israel.
When the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, Lutz continued issuing Schutzbriefs to Jews, disregarding Swiss neutrality and defying Hitler.
The Germans referred to Jews as “units,” and Lutz was able to reinterpret the term so that immigration papers offered protection to family units rather than individuals. He was able to save thousands of lives through these efforts.
Producer Michael Moehring first encountered Lutz’s story when he was filming interviews of Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation.
“I recorded probably about 60 interviews, all of them very troubling, very horrific interviews, but along the way I heard of individuals who were using their office as diplomats to actually help people in Europe,” Moehring said.
Director Bryan Boorujy, who was born in Philadelphia, said the original plan to finish the documentary in two or three years didn’t pan out due to fundraising challenges.
Writer Chris Easterly said the story has held up well over the 20 years it took to complete the project.
“I know (Moehring) and (Boorujy), and I just feel really honored to be stewards of this story and we’re honored to tell it,” he said.
MAEBC also screened a prerecorded interview with Agnes Hirschi, Lutz’s stepdaughter.
Hirschi and her mother were living in Budapest when the Germans invaded. As British citizens and Jews, they were in danger of being deported. Lutz agreed to employ Hirschi’s mother in his residence rather than simply issuing them papers.
In November 1944, the bombardment of the city began. Hirschi and her mother were evacuated to a bomb shelter along with Lutz, his first wife and other families. Hirschi celebrated her seventh birthday in the shelter, and Lutz presented her with chocolate he had saved despite severe food shortages.
After the war, Lutz divorced his first wife and married Hirschi’s mother.
“He took very big personal risks. He risked his life, he risked his career, and he even sacrificed his health because he was very nervous and he had to care day and night,” she said.
Eric Saul, founder and executive director of the Visas for Life Project, spoke about Lutz and other diplomats who used their positions to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
He said 347 diplomats rescued between 250,000 to 350,000 Jews, “yet the state of Israel has only recognized 37 of these diplomats.”
He noted that more than 20,000 Jews and 200 Jewish organizations worldwide rescued European Jews during this time.
“The vast majority of rescuers, who are heroes of the ages, have yet to be honored,” he said.
Speakers from Philadelphia, Switzerland and Hungary also highlighted Lutz’s accomp-
“The type of leadership and creativity and perseverance, and even defiance, that he displayed in Budapest to save thousands of lives, that is the kind of leadership people hunger for today,” said Lauren Swartz, deputy commerce director of International Business & Global Strategy for the City of Philadelphia.