Defying Orders, Saving Lives: Heroic Diplomats of the Holocaust
By Richard Holbrooke
Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust. Mordecai Paldiel. : KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2007, ? pp.$29.50
Imagine that you are a consular officer in the middle of a diplomatic career that you hope will lead to an ambassadorship. There are two rubber stamps on your desk. Using the one that says "APPROVED" would allow the desperate person sitting in front of you to travel to your country legally. Using the other stamp, which says "REJECTED," could mean consigning that person to prison or even death.
It sounds like a simple choice, but there is a catch -- a very big one. The person in front of you is Jewish, and your boss has told you to devise ways not to use the "APPROVED" stamp. Your government does not want these people -- these people waiting outside your office, milling around in the street, hiding in their houses -- in your country. Approve too many visas and your career will be in danger. Follow your instructions and people will probably die.
What would you have done if you had been faced with this situation in 1940? Or if you faced a version of the same situation today featuring, say, refugees from Iraq?
In a movie, the hero would stare out the window, the music would swell, and he would do the right thing (like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with the famous "letters of transit"). But in the real world, there are few heroes in such situations. Government service is based on the well-founded principle that career officials must follow instructions, lest anarchy prevail. But what happens if those instructions have horrible, or even fatal, consequences -- and not heeding them means jeopardizing your career?
We mocked the defense of many Germans after World War II when they said that they were just following orders or did not know about the death camps. But a similar rationale was used by an overwhelming majority of non-German diplomats in Europe during the 1930s to deny Jews entry into their countries. For every diplomatic hero, there were hundreds of consular officials who played it safe by following orders to restrict Jewish immigration. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Jews whose lives could have been saved were left to fend for themselves; most later died in concentration camps. And this was not just a case of officials passively following instructions. Some were enthusiastic in their rejection of Jewish visa applications. Take, for example, the Brazilian consul in Lyon, France, in 1940, who proudly wrote to his foreign minister that the people swarming around his office were "almost all Jewish or of Semitic origin, and only a few of them may be of interest to us. I therefore believe that by my categorical refusal to grant the visas they request, I will have done Brazil a great service."
Yet a handful of Brazilian, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swiss, Turkish, Vatican, Yugoslav, and even Japanese and German diplomats risked their careers, their reputations, and sometimes even their lives to save those who were endangered, mostly Jews whom they did not know, because they believed that their instructions were immoral. Tens of thousands of lives were saved by these heroes. Were it not for the careful investigations carried out by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem), we would probably not even know most of their names...
Monday, April 30, 2007
New Book on Holocaust Diplomacy