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The Spanish angel of Budapest
12 June 2020 @ 17:15

Ángel Sanz Briz was born on September 28, 1910 in Zaragoza to a family of merchants. He studied law in Madrid and later obtained a degree in diplomacy, graduating the same year the Civil War started. His support for King Alphonse XIII and his conservative ideas motivated him to enrol with Franco’s rebels during the war in Ávila. Once it ended, he was assigned to the Spanish Legation in Egypt, and later to Budapest, where he arrived in 1942.

  Ángel Sanz Briz 1940

Franco declared that during World War II, Spain would remain neutral, but his dictatorship actively supported the Nazi regime in a variety of ways. Even though Spain suffered a famine after the Spanish Civil War, it sent food to Germany and on the battlefield provided reinforcements of 48,000 soldiers of the Blue Division (La División Azul) to fight the Soviets. For the most part, this Spanish-German relationship has not been incorporated into the Spanish public memory of World War II. Nor is another consequence of the of Franco’s alliance with Hitler; the approximately 10,000 Spanish Republican exiles who died in Nazi concentration camps.

When the Nazis began deporting Jews from France, the Franco regime at first allowed many thousands to flee through Spanish territory, before tightening the policy in 1940. Jews were refused transit papers, and those caught in the country illegally were rounded up and sent to a concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro. At no time was any significant number of Jews given the option of refuge in Spain, not even Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews from the Nazi-occupied Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940 under German pressure, after having absorbed fascist ideas during the previous decade, but it was not until 19 March 1944 when the Nazis invaded Hungary that the true plans of the Third Reich became clear. After the invasion, the chief SS Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann moved to Budapest with a plan to eliminate Hungary's roughly one million Jews in record time.

From the first day of the war, Jews in Budapest suffered various forms of maltreatment and humiliation from Germans and Hungarians, especially by the Arrow Cross Party led by Ferenc Szálasi. But the murder of the Hungarian Jews reached a level never seen before when Heinrich Himmler commanded Adolf Eichmann and an Einsatzgruppen to carry out the “Final Solution,” meaning the segregation of Jews in ghettos, transportation to concentration/death camps, and extermination.

In this desperate situation, a Spanish Jewish community in Tétouan asked for the protection and transfer of 500 Jewish children in Budapest and, later, the protection of 700 adults. Unfortunately they were not allowed to leave the country, but remained under the protection of the Red Cross. Books written by Jews or about Jewish men and women were burned in the streets by Nazi and Arrow Cross Party soldiers.

Briz was horrified by what he was seeing in the streets of Budapest and sent detailed information back to the fascist Franco government in Spain, including a drawing of the gas chambers of Auschwitz and reports of other Nazi killing sites. The drawings had been made by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, who managed to escape from Auschwitz.

Both Wetzler (who later took the name Josef Lanik) and Vrba (actually named Walter Rosenberg) spent approximately two years in Auschwitz. Wetzler had been transferred there from the camp at Sered in southern Slovakia on April 13, 1942, and Vrba had arrived at the end of June 1942, after being held for two weeks at the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin in Poland. After their escape, Wetzler and Vrba made contact with representatives of the Jewish council in Zilina, Slovakia, and presented a report, which included a great deal of detailed information on the organization and functioning of Auschwitz. Initially drafted in both Slovak and German, the report was translated into numerous languages so that the international community would know what was happening at Auschwitz. The report aimed, in particular, to warn Hungary’s Jews of the Nazi regime’s imminent plans to annihilate their community. The Wetzler-Vrba Report was among the most important pieces of documentary evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945.

Auschwitz. Photo: Getty

Weeks went by without word from Madrid, whilst the systematic deportation began in mid-May 1944. Within two months, approximately 440,000 Jews had been forcibly removed from Hungary, with most having been sent to Auschwitz. Finally, after repeated messages, he received a reply from the then Secretary of Foreign Policy, José Félix de Lequerica, who urged him to save “as many as he could.” A horrified Sanz Briz decided to carry out his own salvation plan without the knowledge or approval of the Spanish and Hungarian governments.

The Spanish Constitution included a decree signed by General Primo de Rivera on December 20, 1924 that allowed all Spanish Jews in Europe to apply for Spanish citizenship. Briz had found a way to grant Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The decree had been overturned in1930, but neither the Nazis nor the Hungarians knew that. (The 1924 decree applied to Sephardic Jews, who were of Spanish origin, but Briz included Ashkenazi Jews, who were or Eastern European origin and even some non-Jews.)

Briz and the other embassy staff issued 5,200 fake papers to Jews in Hungary, giving them free passage to escape to Spain. Briz bought safe houses with his own money and taught the Ashkenazi Jews basic Spanish so they could pretend to be Sephardim.  The Jewish population lived in the walled ghettos established by the Nazis in the outskirts of the city, but before long, many Jews seeking potentially life-saving Spanish visas took the long, risky walk from their ghettos to downtown Budapest, specifically to Eötvös street, where the Spanish Legation was located.

As the Nazis and Hungarian fascists closed in on the city's Jews, moving them into confined quarters and killing people in the streets, Sanz Briz rented 11 apartment buildings to house the approximately 5,000 people he had placed under Spain's protection. Briz and the other embassy staff from the Legation issued visas and protection letters to all Jews who claimed to have any sort of relationship with Spain. But Sephardic Jews numbered only about 500 in Budapest. Sanz Briz was determined to save more.

The plan ran into trouble when Nazi and Hungarian soldiers began inspecting the visas, prompting Briz to turn individual visas into family visas and added letter sequences (1A, 1B, 1C, etc.) to increase the number of people protected. This way, if two members of the same family were inspected the same day, the illegality of the document could pass unnoticed.

“The 200 units that had been granted to me I turned into 200 families; and the 200 families multiplied indefinitely due to the simple procedure of not issuing a document or passport with a number higher than 200,” Briz explained. By the autumn of 1944 the deportations and the mistreatment of Jews greatly intensified. At this stage, Sanz Briz made use of his own resources to rent entire buildings a short distance from the Spanish Legation to provide shelter and food to every Jew who could be granted a visa or letter of protection. Meanwhile, the Red Army advanced from the east, and was already at the gates of Budapest by December.

On 24 October, 1944, the now Spanish foreign minister, José Félix 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 the Germans obviously losing the war, Franco had begun to think about Spain’s future international status in the light of the Holocaust.

 

Six weeks later, fearing reprisals against the Spanish for the involvement of the Brigade Azul on the eastern front, Sanz Briz received orders from Madrid to move to Austria. On December 20, Sanz Briz left the Legation in Budapest almost in secret, bidding farewell only to his closest employees. The Jews he had protected all this time were not abandoned. Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian fascist who volunteered to fight for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, where he had met Sanz Briz, was named Spanish consul and left in charge of the protection of the 5,000 Jews Sanz Briz had sheltered.

Perlasca, repulsed by anti-Semitism, had abandoned his early faith in fascism. By removing him, Madrid had silenced Sanz Briz and his story in order to avoid drawing attention to the Franco regime’s inaction in the face of the destruction of european Jewry. The historical deception of Sanz Briz’s role thus created a distorted version of the sheltering of Hungarian Jews which has been wrongly attributed to Giorgio Perlasca alone.

In the 30 years after the war, Ángel Sanz Briz worked in other destinations around the world, never mentioning a word about his heroic actions in Budapest, not even to his family. He was stationed in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Lima, Guatemala and Vatican City where he died on June 11, 1980. Briz retreated into a regular diplomatic career, and was not permitted by the stridently anti-Israel Franco regime to receive the honour of Righteous Among the Nations,  by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial centre, in his lifetime. An obituary for Sanz Briz published by Spain's ABC newspaper in 1980, (The same ABC newspaper that paid for Franco to be flown to Tetuan to start the Civil War.) makes no mention of his exploits in Budapest.

Although relatively unknown in Spain today, his work has recently drawn the attention of filmmakers, historians and novelists. The story has been depicted in a historic novel by the writer and journalist Diego Carcedo, Un español frente al Holocausto. Así salvó Ángel Sanz Briz a 5000 judíos (2000 Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy). Sanz Briz is now the subject of both a documentary as well as an historical film for television: the aforementioned documentary by Fernando González titled Ángel Sanz Briz: the Spanish Schindler aired on Antena 3 TV in December 2008 –available at full length on Youtube–and the movie by José Manuel Lorenzo, El ángel de Budapest (2011) aired on La Primera de Televisión Española in December 2011. Hopefully this new popular attention to an intrepid Spanish diplomat will arouse interest in Spain and elsewhere about the complexities of Spanish diplomacy during the Holocaust.

Much of the above was taken from an article written by Macarena Tejada-López who has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from the University of Huelva and a Master’s in Romance Language from the University of Oregon. She currently lives in Huelva, Spain, teaching English to unemployed immigrants.2012

Other credits go to James Badcock, BBC News, for an article on 18 March 2019.

More about Spanish history can be seen on my website at       https://www.spaininwritingandart.com 



Like 1




6 Comments


David Brown said:
13 June 2020 @ 00:57

Wow! That's really interesting. I never knew about Briz until now. Thank you Marinero.


animate said:
13 June 2020 @ 07:12

Thank you David. Glad that you enjoyed it.


marelison said:
14 June 2020 @ 00:09

Excellent article !

Mar Elison,
Iceland/Spain


animate said:
14 June 2020 @ 13:48

Thank you Mar. Glad that you enjoyed it.


alan mackay said:
15 June 2020 @ 19:31

Very interesting, and we are privileged that Macarena in Huelva has done such a great job in shining a light on a matter of which successive governments of Spain should be much ashamed. Spain is a bit of a 'topsy-turvy' country as regards its governments and things in modern times are not all that much improved from 75 years ago despite the good influence of the mass tourism industry which has achieved much for democracy there.


animate said:
16 June 2020 @ 09:12

Thank you for your comment, Alan. I agree with your assessment of Spain's political unrest. The trouble is that many western governments are sliding into the same confused mess.


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