Ángel Sanz Briz, ‘The Angel of Budapest’, saved more Jews than Schindler, but they weren’t in competition. Independently of each other, in the midst of Nazi Europe, more than likely unaware of each other or even of their colleagues in other diplomatic roles, they both did all they could to save as many people as possible from the Holocaust. In Poland was the Swedish businessman Oscar Schindler, and in Hungary was Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz (b. in Zaragoza, Aragón, September 28, 1910, d., Rome, June 11, 1980), a quiet looking man with the inner steel that would save the lives of over 5,200 Jews.
Born in 1910, Sanz Briz studied Law and then entered the diplomatic service. After several assignments, his first at Cairo, he was posted to Budapest in 1942, where he saw at first hand the way the Nazis were treating the Jews. He was representing a non-belligerent nation that had good relations with Germany, and he had access to the right documents. He had to do something.
In 1924 the government of Miguel Primo de Rivera had approved the Right to Spanish Citizenship Law, which allowed Sephardic Jews to acquire the nationality of Sanz Briz’s country, from which they had originally been expelled in the 15th century. This was his opportunity.
He managed to persuade his superior to be allowed to issue passports to Jews of Sephardic origin, which he offered to any one of them he could find. There weren’t that many about thanks to the Nazi pogroms, but those he did find were also offered safe haven, which he negotiated with the Hungarian authorities that were working under the Nazis.
But the word got out and soon, Sanz Briz was acting on his own, helped by his friend Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian veteran of the Spanish Civil War. All of a sudden any Jew had Sephardic origins, true or not. This went on in parallel to the Nazis capricious marking people down as Arian, or not, which was worse.
Real or fake?
The documentation he was unable to issue under his diplomatic aegis, he paid for out of his own pocket, mostly in bribes or for fakes. His passion for his work was such that he could often be seen on the train station platform, ready to pull aside people headed for the concentration camps whom he knew carried Spanish passports.
Perlasca and Sanz Briz collected money to rent flats in the name of the embassy, which they placed under diplomatic protection, where they hid Jews with Spanish documents. He was well aware (according to his own story in Federico Ysart’s book “Los judíos en España” (The Jews of Spain, 1973) of the risks involved but continued with his work.
However, in 1944, the Red Army of Soviet Russia was at the gates of Budapest. Sanz Briz was ordered to Switzerland, but Giorgio Perlasca stayed behind and carried on the work until the end of the war.
Sanz Briz continued his diplomatic career: he was posted to San Francisco and Washington, DC, Lima, Bern, Bayonne, Guatemala, The Hague, Brussels and China (1973, where he became the first Spanish ambassador to that country). In 1976 he was sent to Rome as Ambassador of Spain before the Holy See, where he died on June 11, 1980.
Of the 5,200 people he saved, only 200 were in fact Sephards. He was honoured by several Jewish organizations, including the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel. And in 1994, posthumously, the Hungarian government gave him the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary.
But there were several more such Spaniards spread out in the embassies all over Europe.
For instance, many Jews, escaping from their otherwise inevitable fates, ended up in France, where they appealed desperately to the Spanish embassy and consulates for a means to escape to, at least, Portugal, from where they could be transported to America, North and South. One of these was Eduardo Propper de Calleja, who handled an increasingly anxious crowd of refugees in Bordeaux, by issuing over 30,000 documents in a single week of 24 hour days, that allowed safe passage through Spain without the knowledge of his superiors in Madrid and with the help of his Portuguese counterpart, Arístides de Sousa Mendes.
Spanish diplomats not only in Hungary and France, but also in occupied Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and even Germany, risked their lives to save as many people as they could. This despite the pro-Nazi, anti-Semite stance of their ultimate boss, Ramón Serrano Súñer, brother-in-law of Franco and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who made things very difficult for any diplomat caught trying to help.
First published in CampoPulse, September 28, 2012