The Angel of Budapest
Forty years have passed since the death of the “Angel of Budapest,” a Spanish diplomat so named for saving the lives of some 5,200 Hungarian Jews destined to be killed in the final stages of the Holocaust.
Angel Sanz-Briz [his real name] was a 34-year old diplomat stationed at the Spanish Legation in Hungary from 1942-1944. Witnessing the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944 followed by the rise of the violently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party and the rampant Jew-killing in the streets, Sanz-Briz found it impossible to stand by.
The young ambassador appealed to his government for permission to help the Jews, but while the Franco regime was not actively anti-Semitic, neither was it sympathetic to the plight of Hungary’s Jews.
Failing to elicit instructions from Madrid, Sanz-Briz began to take the law into his own hands, falsifying consular documents to grant Spanish nationality to hundreds of Jews. He ultimately issued almost 1900 official Letters of Protection that granted diplomatic immunity.
Working parallel to legendary Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg and with the same extraordinary courage, Sanz-Briz created a ruse using an obscure Spanish law granting citizenship to any person of Spanish ancestry living in other countries.
The law was in the form of a 1924 Royal Decree passed under the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, and primarily directed at Sephardic Jews –the descendants of the Spanish Jews expelled in 1492.
The unusual decree was promulgated in a burst of Spanish magnanimity aimed perhaps at attracting some Jews back to Spain. Just a few years later, in 1930, however, authorities reconsidered and declared the law had “expired.”
Fabricating Sephardic Roots to Save Lives
Angel Sanz-Briz ignored the law’s “expiration date.” Brandishing the Royal Decree to Hungarian authorities, he succeeded in securing permission to issue 200 protective passes to Jews of “Sephardic extraction,” although the vast majority of the recipients were of Ashkenazi heritage with no connection to Spain.
He secretly converted certificates of diplomatic immunity for two hundred individuals into certification for two hundred families, and these two hundred family documents would often contain up to 15 names per document.
As the Nazis and Hungarian fascists closed in on the city’s Jews, killing thousands of people in the streets and drowning them in the Danube River, Sanz-Briz rented 11 apartment buildings as “safe houses” to shelter the approximately 5,000 people he had placed under Spain’s protection.
Since leaving these premises would expose a person to arrest and deportation, Sanz-Briz undertook to supply the Jews with food and other necessities. When the consulate’s budget was depleted, he used his own money.
He resorted to unconventional methods to protect “his Jews” from deportation, including bribes. After presenting a prominent Budapest official with a substantial sum of money to be used “for the benefit of Hungarian refugees in Soviet-occupied territory,” he found the man to be immensely helpful regarding Jews in Budapest.
“From this moment on, I could count on this governor’s full cooperation,” Sanz-Briz wrote in a report to Madrid. “He immediately ordered his men to honor all buildings that bore the sign, “Extraterritorial building—Owned by the Spanish Legation.” Whenever I learned that a Jew in one of these buildings had been arrested by the police, I managed with a single phone call to the governor to gain his freedom and have him returned.”
The Jews suffered from overcrowding, hunger and lack of hygiene in the safe houses, but overriding the physical privation was the constant fear of being raided by police and deported.
In an interview in 2013 for Spanish public radio RNE, Jaime Vandor who moved to Barcelona with his family after the war, recalled the panic that gripped him, his brother Enrique and his mother, Anna, as they huddled in the Spanish shelters.
“We were 51 people living in a two and a half bedroom apartment, overcrowded, hungry and cold, infested with fleas. With so many people using a single bathroom, hygiene was atrocious. But the worst was the fear…the fear of deportation.”
Budapest’s Bubble Shattered
In the autumn of 1944, the fate of Budapest’s Jews—both those in the city’s ghetto and those sheltering in safe houses—hung precariously between life and death. The bulk of Hungarian Jewry had by then been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of the victims had been gassed upon arrival. This horrifying information was slowly filtering down to the Jews of Budapest, causing panic and despair.
Until March 1944, most Hungarian Jews had felt relatively secure despite the government’s anti-Semitic policies. Among other restrictions Jews were banned from public office, their numbers were limited in universities and certain professions, and they were denied voting rights.
Then in 1940, the country allied with Germany and began forcing Jews to work in labor camps, where conditions were brutal and tens of thousands died of hunger and overwork.
Things worsened drastically for the Jews after Germany’s invasion of Hungary, and the ousting of Prime Minister Miklos Kallay. Hitler correctly suspected Kallay of negotiating a separate armistice with the United States and Britain. Kallay understood, after Germany’s devastating defeat at Stalingrad in which Hungarian divisions had also taken a terrible beating, that the Nazis would lose the war. He was determined not to dig his own grave by fighting to the bitter end.
Further enraging Hitler, Kallay had steadily resisted demands to deport the Jews to concentration camps. Now, with Kallay deposed and the arrival in Budapest of SS chief Adolf Eichmann in May 1944, the countdown to disaster began for Hungarian Jews.
Even as the Third Reich was crumbling, Eichmann was determined to annihilate in record time the last surviving Jewish community in Europe. He gave orders to put the yellow star on every Hungarian Jew, strip them of their property and civil rights, move them to ghettos and finally, under the guise of forced “resettlement,” ship them to Auschwitz.
Aided by Arrow Cross thugs and Hungarian police, the Nazis established ghettos across Hungary as early as April 1944. Beginning in May, the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began at the rate of 12,000 people a day.
Within weeks, Eichmann had overseen the deportation to Auschwitz of 440,000 Hungarian Jews from hundreds of provinces and the Hungarian countryside. By late summer, all of Hungary except for Budapest was Judenrein.
Auschwitz Protocols Ignite
Eichmann now planned the deportation of the capital’s 200,000 Jews. Around this time, reports from Auschwitz escapees Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler began circulating, bringing confirmation that the Nazis were murdering the Hungarians they had deported at huge industrialized killing centers.
Sanz-Briz had apparently heard about or had seen copies of the shattering Vrba-Wezler report that reached Jewish leaders, and government and media circles in the west, in the summer of 1944.
Known as the Auschwitz Protocols, the 33-page document described with harrowing detail the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau death factory, including its gas chambers and crematoria, the Nazi command structure and the systematic forms of torture, murder and starvation that were killing hundreds of thousands of victims.
In a document to Madrid dated July 16, 1944, Sanz-Briz explained that “the number of deported Jews [from Hungary] is close to 500,000.” He echoed the “alarming rumors” circulating in the city that they were being sent, packed into wagons, “to a concentration camp near Kattowitz where they were suffocated with gas.”
Sanz-Briz continued to forward intelligence to Madrid, urgently seeking a go-ahead for his rescue proposals. “Among the half-million deportees there are also women, children and old people,” he wrote to his superiors. When he saw that his cables were met with silence and Spain was not protesting the deportations, he took independent action, at great personal risk.
At first, his outreach to the Jewish community was tentatively received. Some were initially suspicious of a Spanish diplomat representing a fascist regime and an ally of Germany offering Jews letters of protection. Despite Spain’s official neutrality, Franco had sent an entire division to fight alongside the German army in the Battle of Stalingrad. He clearly supported Hitler.
Ingenious Rescue Scheme
Sanz-Briz continued making overtures to the Jewish community until his efforts bore fruit. The Spanish legation was soon flooded with requests for passports or letters of protection, far exceeding the two hundred he had been authorized to issue. Sanz-Briz then came up with an ingenious scheme.
“I managed to get the Hungarian government to authorize the protection by Spain of 200 Sephardic Jews. Then I turned those 200 units into 200 families; and those 200 families were multiplied indefinitely, through the simple procedure of numbering all letters of protection with numbers under 200,” Sanz-Briz wrote in his report for the Spanish government from Switzerland in December 1944.
“He added letters to each number, using the whole alphabet,” explained the diplomat’s son, Juan Carlos, many years later. “If someone received Visa #1, he would give the next person Visa #1-A, and so on, utilizing all the letters of the alphabet. He also extended single visas to cover entire families. As long as the visa number did not exceed 200, the scheme held up.” (Spain and the Jews During the Second World War, Francis Ysart, Barcelona 1973.)
”It was quite out of character; my father was actually a stickler for legality,” noted Juan Carlos. “A conscientious diplomat doesn’t issue false papers or put the national flag on buildings that are not part of the diplomatic mission.”
Sanz-Briz’s meticulously recorded final tally came to 232 provisional passports issued to 352 people, as well as 1,898 protective letters, as well as 15 ordinary passports to cover 45 bona fide Sephardic Jews.
The Spanish diplomat seized other opportunities to wield his diplomatic authority on behalf of Budapest’s Jews. One day, upon learning that some of the Jews aboard a deportation train carried letters of protection that he had issued, he stopped the train and confronted Gestapo officials, demanding the release of persons under Spanish protection.
As the Nazis ordered those with letters off the train, others, desperate to save themselves, slipped off with them, swelling the numbers of the “protected.” Sanz-Briz swiftly pushed them into a group and led them away before questions or protests could be raised. “Come to the Spanish Legation tomorrow on Eotvos Street and say you have family in Spain,” he instructed under his breath. (Diego Carcedo, Between Beasts and Heroes; Spaniards who Stood up to the Holocaust. Barcelona, 2011)
Reign of Terror Under Zsalasi Regime
Sanz-Briz’s humanitarian actions in Budapest created a dilemma for Spain’s Franco regime. When the Nazis began deporting Jews from France, Franco first allowed many thousands to flee through Spanish territory, before tightening refugee policy in 1940. After that, Jews were refused transit papers, and those caught in the country illegally were rounded up and imprisoned at Miranda de Ebro.
At no time were Jews allowed refuge in Spain, not even Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews from the Nazi-occupied Greek city of Thessaloniki, writes BBC in a profile of Sanz-Briz. But historians suggest that as Germany began losing the war, Franco began to sense the need to improve his regime’s international image.
On October 24, 1944, then foreign minister Jose Felix de Lequerica sent a telegram to Sanz-Briz in Budapest. “On request of the World Jewish Congress please extend protection to largest number persecuted Jews,” it said.
With his government finally behind him, Sanz-Briz was prepared to expand his rescue efforts in an increasingly dangerous political situation. The country was now ruled by a new Hungarian government under Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the virulently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross militia which was only too eager to aid Hitler in the annihilation of Jews.
Under the Szalasi regime, Arrow Cross gangs perpetrated a reign of terror against the Jews of Budapest. Thousands of men, women and children, were shot to death, or marched to the edge of the Danube River and drowned there. In November 1944, the Arrow Cross regime ordered the remaining Jews of Budapest into a ghetto which, covering an area of 0.1 square miles, held nearly 70,000 people.
Forced to Flee
In this atmosphere of murderous violence and chaos, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Sanz-Briz to a meeting. If Spain were to be allowed to interfere in Budapest’s anti-Semitic policies by protecting thousands in “safe houses,” he was told, the Hungarian government wanted concessions from Spain.
In a bid to attain some level of international acceptance, the Arrow-Cross regime in Budapest demanded that Spain formally recognize its legitimacy.
Sanz-Briz found himself in a quandary. He knew Madrid had no intention of recognizing the Zsalasi regime but was afraid to state so. That would rupture the already strained relations between the two countries, and imperil the occupants of all the Spanish safe houses.
Sanz-Briz offered vague assurances that Spain would be able to reach an understanding with the regime but the Hungarians would not be put off. They wanted something in writing.
Promising to confer with Madrid and return with an answer, Sanz-Briz realized he had to flee the country as his superiors were urging. A refusal from Spain to recognize the Arrow Cross regime would bring nothing but trouble from those marauders. In addition, Soviet forces were expected to reach Budapest any day and Madrid did not want its diplomats falling into Soviet hands.
Sanz-Briz was gambling that by leaving Hungary under cover, diplomatic relations between Madrid and Budapest would not be disrupted. The Spanish embassy could officially remain open and continue its protection of the Jews until the Soviets liberated Budapest. If the embassy were to close, the Jews in the Spanish safe houses would be doomed. All his efforts to save them would go up in smoke.
Sanz-Briz explained his concerns to a very few close associates before taking leave of them. One of his confidantes was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman whom Sanz-Briz had befriended, and who went on to offer his assistance with the ambassador’s rescue activities.
A day later, to Perlasca’s alarm, Hungarian radio reported that Sanz-Briz had abruptly left the country and speculated about who, if anyone, would be handling Spain’s affairs in his stead.
Realizing the danger to thousands of Jews in Spanish safe houses if the truth were discovered—that no one was appointed to fill the ambassador’s place—Perlasca embarked on a preposterous scheme to save Budapest’s Jews. Doctoring up his credentials, he presented himself at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry as a Spanish embassy official who was appointed to stand in for Sanz-Briz until his return.
One phone call to Madrid would have exposed him as a fraud. But in light of the increasing chaos in Budapest—a city facing a siege by the approaching Soviets, with communication to the outside world reduced to a minimum and at times cut off entirely—Perlasca reasoned he had a good chance of pulling off the bluff.
“At first I didn’t know what to do,” he confessed in an interview many years later, “but then I began to feel like a fish in water. I continued giving out protective passes and looked after the Jews in the houses flying the Spanish flag.” (Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust; Paldiel)
His bluff was called a few days later, when Hungarian police raided one of the Spanish safe houses and tried to force out the terrified occupants. Perlasca arrived on the scene and warned the police of the “diplomatic repercussions” to Hungary if they persisted. One of the officers countered that since Sanz-Briz had left the country, diplomatic relations between the two countries had ended.
“Not at all,” Perlasca responded smoothly, informing the officers that the Spanish ambassador had to attend a diplomatic conference in Switzerland and would be returning shortly. “The flag is still flying. I am in charge. I am the legal representative of Spain,” he said brusquely, staring them down.
To be continued…
Barred From Accepting Yad Vashem Award
After the war, Sanz-Briz resumed a regular diplomatic career. He must have been ordered not to speak about his rescue work in Budapest for he never mentioned it, his children testified.
“I never talked about this subject with him. It was not something that was discussed at home,” says Juan Carlos Sanz Briz in an interview with BBC. “He must have suffered greatly that his humanitarian actions went unappreciated, but he didn’t tell us that.”
An obituary about this modest hero, printed in Spain’s ABC News in 1980, the year he died, mentioned not a word about his life-saving work in Budapest.
“If not for the Jews who remembered what he did, the story might never be known,” noted his daughter, Angela, at a Spanish-Israeli conference in 2017. “In 1966, [Yad Vashem] awarded him the title of Righteous Among the Nations. My father asked permission from the government to travel to Israel to receive the award, but the Franco government did not have diplomatic relations with Israel and they objected. My father told no one about this at the time, not even us.”
The humanity, courage and ingenuity of Angel Sanz-Briz was not recognized in Spain until the early 1990s.
“Now there are statues of him, memorials, a street named after him in Budapest… many tributes in Spain and Hungary,” notes his daughter. “But the most eloquent tributes have come from those he saved or from their children, who have contacted us… It seems everywhere in the world there is a Jew who knows my father’s story.”