Forty years have passed since the death of the man who was named the “angel of Budapest”, the Spanish diplomat who saved the lives of some 5,000 Hungarians persecuted by the Nazis
He has often been called “the Spanish Schindler“, in reference to the German industrialist who, as Spielberg rightly said in one of the hits of Hollywood, saved the lives of some twelve hundred Jews by employing them in his factories in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the truth is that the merit of the Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz protecting thousands of Jews from the Nazi Holocaust deserves its own recognition.
The “Angel of Budapest“, as he is known, managed to save the lives of some 5,000 people during his time as chargé d’affaires of the Spanish Legation in the Hungarian capital, providing documentation that protected Jews from Nazi persecution.
A young diplomat in Nazi Hungary
After his first assignment as Charge d’Affaires at the Spanish Embassy in Cairo, Ángel Sanz Briz – born in Zaragoza in 1910 –, received his second assignment also as Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy, but this time in Hungary. An axis-allied state, where although no measures had been taken to eliminate Jews strong anti-Semitism reigned.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, in fact, laws had been passed against the Jewish population, including maximum quotas for Jews per class in high school or, worse still, some universities organised the “day of the beating of the Jews”. The occupation of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944, aggravated the situation. Adolf Eichmann, the SS lieutenant responsible for ordering the mass killing of Jews, arrived in Budapest and gave orders to the police to put the yellow star on every Jew, expropriate their property and civil rights, keep them in marked houses, then move them to ghettos, and finally send them to concentration camps. On October 15 of that same year, and after the coup d’état of the Arrow Cross Party, the new Home Affairs Minister made it clear that they would continue the path of persecution initiated by the Nazis in the country.
These threats had a rapid impact on other countries. The US warned of the consequences for those responsible for this persecution once the war was over. The neutral countries also conveyed their displeasure to the Hungarian government. Among them was Spain, which regretted that some 200 Spanish under the protection of the Schutzbrief (letter of protection), were taken from their homes and forced to march 30 kilometres a day with hardly any food, despite the repeated requests of the Spanish Legation in Budapest to free and extradite them.
The deterioration of bilateral relations between Spain and Hungary at this time led the Spanish Ambassador, Miguel Ángel Muguiro, to return to Madrid. After this decision, the Spanish Legation would be represented by Ángel Sanz Briz.
The “angel” of the Hungarian Jews
Sanz Briz noticed what was happening in Budapest and warned the government. In a document dated 16 July 1944, he explained that “the number of deported Israelis is close to 500,000” and echoed the “alarming rumours” circulating in the city that they were being sent, packed into wagons, “to a concentration camp near Kattowitz where they were killed with gas, using the corpses as grease for certain industrial products”.
In the absence of instructions from the Spanish government, the young diplomat took it upon himself to protect the persecuted Jews from death. Until he came across a Royal Decree by Alfonso XIII in 1924, by which the descendants of the Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492 had the right to be repatriated and to obtain Spanish citizenship.
The diplomat went further and extended the circle of protection to other Jews who were not of Sephardic origin, issuing three types of documents: 15 regular Spanish passports for Jews of Sephardic origin, which guaranteed the right to repatriation; provisional “family” passports, which covered more than 300 people; and letters of protection for those who had relatives in Spain or other Ibero-American countries represented by the Spanish Legation, for almost 1,900 people.
In addition to documentation, Sanz Briz hid and protected these people from Nazi and Hungarian fascist patrols and Allied bombing. He rented 11 apartments to house some 5,000 people under Spanish protection. The situation of overcrowding, hunger and lack of hygiene was rife, but the fear of deportation was much worse.
He was not alone in his work: he was accompanied by the staff of the Spanish Legation at 11 Eötvös Street. Like the secretary Elisabeth Tourné, Hungarian by birth and French by marriage; and the jurist György Bárdos, who went so far as to disguise himself as a member of Hungary’s party affiliated with the Nazis to report on Nazi raids. Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian to whom Sanz Briz gave the Spanish documentation, was in charge of continuing the work of rescuing Jewish citizens initiated by Sanz Briz, who declared himself Consul of Spain in Budapest. Also helping was Zoltán Farkas, a Hungarian lawyer, married to a baroness and fluent in Spanish, French and German, who interceded in defence of Sanz Briz’s efforts.
Righteous Among the Nations
Sanz Briz left Budapest in December 1944, shortly before the arrival of the Soviet Army, and set out for Switzerland, leaving the responsibility of helping the Jews in the hands of Perlasca. The work of both managed to save more than 5,000 lives.
A mission that made him worthy, in 1966, of being named “Righteous Among the Nations”, the highest recognition given by the State of Israel – through the Yad Vashem memorial institution – to non-Jewish people who helped save lives during the Holocaust. However, the importance of the Franco government’s relationship with the Arab world and the regime’s lack of sympathy for the State of Israel meant that Sanz Briz did not receive his award. Years after his death, on June 11, 1980 in Rome, it was his family that received the Yad Vashem award on his behalf. For its part, the Hungarian government awarded him the ‘Order of Merit’ cross of the Republic of Hungary in 1994.
In addition to a production for TVE, documentaries, streets, squares and a Spanish stamp in his memory, Sanz Briz holds international distinctions of the highest level from Guatemala, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Vatican, among others.