(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist in the Hispanic Division.)
Sometimes called the “Angel of Budapest” or the “Spanish Schindler,” Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz (1910-1980) is credited with having saved as many as 5,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, between June and December 1944. Sanz Briz spent a few years in Budapest assigned to the Spanish legation as first secretary (1942) and then as chargé d’affaires (1944). Journalist Arcadi Espada says that his actions should have gotten immediate recognition, yet he remained a “sleeping hero.” Even his family “never really knew what to do with its hero” (Arcadi Espada, “En nombre de Franco. Los héroes de la embajada de España en el Budapest nazi.” (“In the Name of Franco. The Heroes of the Spanish Embassy in Nazi Budapest.” Barcelona: Espasa, 2013, p. 17). This may be partly due to the ambivalent attitude that the dictator General Francisco Franco in Spain had towards Jews, but also to the fact that Sanz Briz, who had had a long and successful diplomatic career after Budapest, never really talked very much about what he did while stationed there.
After the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944, Adolf Eichmann himself arrived in Budapest to carry out the “Final Solution.” Sanz Briz quickly began informing his superiors of the horrors that had befallen the Hungarian Jewish community there. With the tacit acquiescence of his superiors, and the help of Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian veteran of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Sanz Briz devised a plan to save as many Jews as possible. He made use of a 1924 Spanish Royal Decree passed under the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, during the reign of King Alfonso XIII (1886-1931), which granted Spanish citizenship to any person of Spanish ancestry living in other countries (this was primarily directed at Sephardic Jews –the descendants of the Spanish Jews expelled in 1492). Although the law had expired in 1930, Sanz Briz nevertheless used it as legal basis to issue passports and letters of protection.
The first beneficiaries were the few Sephardic Jews in Hungary, but later Sanz Briz extended his efforts to other Jews as well by forging new identity papers with Spanish-sounding names or by alleging that they had relatives in Spain. At the same time, and mostly at his own expense, he rented as many as twelve houses throughout Budapest and posted signs stating that each was an annex to the Spanish legation. By doing so, he extended diplomatic immunity (and safety) to the Jews he housed there while arranging for their travel out of the country.
Initially his efforts were met with some skepticism by the Jewish community. They were suspicious of a diplomat representing Spain, a fascist regime and an ally of Germany. Despite Spain’s public pronouncements of neutrality, the Franco government had sent an entire division (the Blue Division) to fight alongside the German army on the Russian front, in gratitude to Nazi Germany for its aid during the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, Sanz Briz persisted and soon the Spanish legation was flooded with requests for passports or letters of protection. It is said that no Jew who visited the legation left empty handed. Because Sanz Briz had a limited number of blank passports available, he often included more than one person on the same passport — even as many as fifteen if they shared the same last name. And for the letters of protection, of which he also had a limited number, he devised a similarly ingenious plan, assigning a number and a letter to each one, therefore, increasing exponentially the number of letters of protection issued. (See notes below) (Federico Ysart, “España y los judíos en la Segunda Guerra Mundial” (“Spain and the Jews During the Second World War.” Barcelona: Dopesa, 1973.) (p. 144). When questioned by his superiors in Madrid, he maintained that the Jews were Spanish citizens.
Sanz Briz wielded his diplomatic authority to the full extent possible. One day he stopped a train that was taking Jews to Auschwitz because he had learned that some of them carried letters of protection that he had issued. He confronted Gestapo officials and as they ordered those with letters off the train, others, desperate to save themselves, surged off and the numbers of “protected” swelled. Sanz Briz, unperturbed, pushed them into a group, whispering, “come to the legation tomorrow, on Eötvös Street, and say you have family in Spain” (Diego Carcedo, “Entre bestias y héroes. Los españoles que plantaron cara al Holocausto” (“Between Beasts and Heroes. The Spaniards who Stood up to the Holocaust.” Barcelona: Espasa Libros, 2011, p. 202)). After the fall of Hungary to the Soviet army, Sanz Briz was ordered to leave the legation. He moved to Switzerland on November 30, 1944. No one knew what he had done until after the war.
After Sanz Briz died in 1980, his efforts were widely recognized. In 1989 the Israeli government posthumously awarded him the country’s highest honor: “Just Among Nations.” In 1991, the Holocaust Museum placed a plaque with his name on its wall. In 1994, the Hungarian government also awarded him the nation’s highest award: the “Great Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic.” The Great Synagogue of Budapest has a plaque with his name on it. And since 2015, a street in Budapest bears his name as does one in Madrid. In May 15, 2016, he was awarded Madrid’s Gold Medal, the city’s highest honor. Zaragoza, his hometown, has a bust of him and a plaza named after him. In 2011, the Spanish National TV Network made a movie about him: “El ángel de Budapest” (The Angel of Budapest), which was well received in Spain and in the several other European countries where it was shown.
For additional information, we recommend the following titles:
Alpert, Michael. “Spain and the Jews in the Second World War.” Jewish Historical Studies, 42, (2009): 201-210.
Avni, Haim. “Spain, the Jews, and Franco” (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982).
Carcedo, Diego. “Un español frente al Holocausto: Así salvó Ángel Sanz Briz a 5.000 judíos” (A Spaniard Confronts the Holocaust: How Ángel Sanz Briz Saved 5000 Jews) (Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, S.A., 2000).
Garzón, Jacobo Israel and Alejandro Baer, edrs. “España y el Holocausto (1939-1945): historia y testimonios” (Spain and the Holocaust (1939-1945): History and Testimonials) ([Spain]: Federación de Comunidades Judías de España: Hebraica Ediciones, 2007).
Lisbona, José Antonio. “Retorno a sefarad. La política de España hacia sus judíos en el siglo XX” (Return to Sefarad. Spain’s Policy Towards its Jews in the XX century) (Barcelona: Comisión Nacional del Quinto Centenario del Descubrimiento, Comisión Nacional Judía Sefarad ’92, 1993).
Lipschitz, Chaim U. “Franco, Spain, the Jews, and the Holocaust.” New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1984.
(Notes: LETTER OF PROTECTION – “A document testifying that the bearer enjoys the diplomatic and consular protection of the issuing authority, normally a foreign state.” From G.R. Berridge and Alan James, “A Dictionary of Diplomacy.” 2nd ed. (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 162.
A Letter of Protection was like a passport and granted diplomatic immunity. In cases where Ángel Sanz Briz could issue a passport, he would issue a Letter of Protection, of which he also had a limited number available. Therefore, his plan was simple and quite brilliant at the same time. To each Letter he would assign a number and a letter, for example: Letter N° 100A, Letter N° 100AA and so forth. This way, he never run out of Letters of Protection.)