In 1944, with World War II raging throughout Europe, Spain made a staffing change in its embassy in Hungary, elevating an obscure 33-year-old commercial attaché to become head of the delegation. This personnel change had far-reaching effects, eventually resulting in 5,000 Jews being saved from the Holocaust in Hungary.

The young diplomat’s name was Angel Sanz Briz, but to many Hungarian Jews he became known as the “Angel of Budapest”.

During World War II, Spain was allied with Nazi Germany. Spain erupted into a battleground in 1936, when two military generals, including Gen. Francisco Franco, launched a coup to topple Spain’s democratically elected government. A fierce civil war ensued, with both Adolph Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy lending military support to Franco. The fighting raged for three years and attracted fighters from around the world. It’s estimated that 200,000 people died during Spain’s bloody years of civil war.

Angel Sanz Briz

With the outbreak of World War II, Gen. Franco, by then the undisputed fascist leader of Spain, allied himself with Nazi Germany. Only a few thousand Jews had called Spain home in the 1930s – much of Spain’s tiny Jewish community had been made up of German Jews who fled Germany with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 – and nearly all of the Jews living in Spain left during the civil war. Once Franco became leader, he formally shut down all remaining Jewish institutions in Spain.

Yet European Jews continued to try and enter Spain since it was a relatively safe haven during the war. After Germany took over France in 1940, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews are thought to have fled west into Spain. Many of these Jews had visas to other countries and were able to depart from Spanish ports to new lives outside Europe. (This author’s own grandfather was able to do so: he and his wife made a long and treacherous journey from Austria to Spain in 1940. They possessed visas to enter the United States and were eventually able to depart on a ship from a Spanish port in 1941.)

However, Franco was no friend of Jews. He detained visa-less Jews who entered his country at the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp and returned many to Nazi-occupied France. Franco also had local officials create a list of 6,000 Jews living in Spain, and delivered this list to Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and the architect of the Nazi “final solution”.

In some cases, Spain did act to protect some Jews. Between 1942 and 1944, over 7,000 Jewish refugees were given temporary permission to reside in Spain. Approximately 4,000 Spanish Jews were trapped in Nazi-occupied countries; Spanish diplomats were instructed to protect and aid them. Yet in January 1943, when Hitler ordered Spain to remove all of its Jewish citizens from Nazi-occupied nations, Franco ensured that bureaucratic delays meant that only 800 Spanish Jewish citizens were successfully repatriated to Spain.

For Angel Sanz Briz, Spain’s half-hearted actions on behalf of Spanish Jews weren’t enough. After Germany invaded Hungary in March of 1944, Hungary’s sizable Jewish community – nearly three quarters of a million Jews called Hungary home – found itself in immediate danger. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, Hungarian officials, acting under instructions from the German SS, deported about 440,000 Hungarian Jews. Most were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where they were murdered upon arrival.

The Angel Takes Action

During this time of carnage and horror, Angel Sanz Briz asked the local Hungarian officials for permission to give Spanish passports to 200 local Jews with Spanish origins, thus extending Spain’s diplomatic protection to them. Local officials agreed, but instead of stopping there, Sanz Briz continued to give out Spanish passports.

“I managed to get the Hungarian government to authorize the protection by Spain of 200 Sephardic Jews,” Sanz Briz wrote in a report to his bosses back in Spain in December, 1944. “Then I turned those 200 units into 200 families; and those 200 families were multiplied indefinitely, through the simple procedure of not expediting any safe conduct to Jews with a number higher than 200.” Given passports and official protection by Spain, these many hundreds of local Jews were spared the horrors visited on other Hungarian Jews.

“He added letters to each number, using the whole alphabet,” Angel Sanz Briz’s son Juan Carlos Sanz Briz, later explained. Each official document that Sanz Briz issued contained numerous sub-headings and protected many Jews. He also issued nearly 2,000 letters of protection promising Spanish diplomatic help to Jews.

Warning Jews about Auschwitz

Sanz Briz also began forwarding intelligence detailing Nazi atrocities back to Spain. One of his most important contributions to spreading awareness of the vast Nazi killing machine was disseminating the Vrba-Wetzler report through official channels.

This report was a chilling document created by two Jewish prisoners from Slovakia, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (who went by the alias Rudolf Vrba). On April 7, 1944, Wetzler and Vrba managed to escape from Auschwitz. They had each spent about two years in that hellhole and they wanted desperately to warn any surviving Jewish communities about what the Nazis were doing. They wrote a detailed plan of Auschwitz, describing its layout and functions and smuggled it to a Jewish group in Slovakia.

Rudolph Vrba

The report was translated into many languages and circulated among Hungary’s Jewish community. Few people seemed to pay this crucial report any attention, until Sanz Briz recognized its importance and sent it to the government in Spain. The report eventually was reported on in the Swiss press. It led to a brief cessation of deportations of Hungarian Jews on the orders of Admiral Miklos Horthy, who led Hungary between 1920 and 1944. (Horthy was deposed in a coup on October 15, 1944 by the fascist Arrow Cross Party; deportations of Hungary’s Jews resumed soon after the putsch.)

Sheltering Jews

With Hungary’s Jews once more in grave danger, Sanz Briz made the decision to shelter Jews in the Spanish embassy in Budapest, paying bribes to Arrow Cross officials to look the other way. Soon, Hungarian officials were forcing Jews to live in ghetto areas and were attacking Jews on the street with impunity. Sanz Briz rented eleven apartment buildings in which he sheltered approximately 5,000 Jews. He also prevailed on the International Red Cross to put up signs in Spanish on hospital buildings and orphanages in Budapest, lending the buildings the aura of being under Spain’s official protection. Soon, numerous “Spanish Houses” were offering shelter and relative safety to Budapest’s Jews.

One of the Jews living in a “Spanish House” rented by Sanz Briz was Jaime Vandor. In 2013, he described what it was like for Spain’s RNE public radio. “There were 51 of us living in a flat with two and a half rooms. We were crowded, hungry, and cold, infested with fleas. The hygiene was appalling, obviously, with so many people using one toilet. But the worst thing was the fear, the fear of deportation.”

Despite the terrible living conditions, at least while they were inside the Spanish-protected apartment building they were safe from Nazi raids. Since any Jew exiting the buildings faced the threat of being attacked or arrested, Sanz Briz arranged for food and supplies to be brought to the Jews he sheltered.

Raoul Wallenberg

Angel Sanz Briz wasn’t the only foreign diplomat to issue documents in order to protect Hungarian’s Jews. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg established hospitals, orphanages and soup kitchens for Hungarian Jews and issued up to 100,000 Swedish documents protecting Hungarian Jews. He also established 30 safe houses for Jews to live in under Swedish protection. Carl Lutz, the Consul General of the Swiss legation in Budapest, issued nearly 50,000 certificates of emigration, promising that Jews holding them would emigrate to Palestine, and placing them under Swiss diplomatic protection.

Local Jews called these various efforts to save their lives the “International Ghetto”. Tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust because they were given official documents from these mainly neutral countries protecting them from deportation.

The Angel's Replacement

At the end of 1944, with Soviet troops advancing on Budapest, Spain’s government ordered Sanz Briz to return home. Spain had helped Nazi troops fight on the eastern front, and they felt that the Soviets would arrest or execute Spanish officials in reprisal. Angel Sanz Briz returned home to Madrid, but that wasn’t the end of his work in Budapest.

One of the men he’d given a Spanish passport was an Italian former fascist soldier named Giorgio Perlasca, who’d witnessed the Nazi treatment of Jews in Yugoslavia and wanted to help. He worked for Angel Sanz Briz in Budapest, visiting Jews living in safe houses and helping refugees. After Spain’s official diplomatic representatives left Budapest, Giorgio Perlasca made an audacious move: he forged documents naming him the new head of Spain’s embassy and presented himself to local Hungarian officials as Sanz Briz’s replacement.

Giorgio Perlasca

His ruse worked. Perlasca was allowed to continue Sanz Briz’s work and continued to care for the over 2,000 Jews who were still living in the “Spanish Houses” around the city. He bankrupted himself buying supplies and food for Jews and lobbied local officials to improve conditions for the city’s remaining Jews, particularly Jewish children. On January 6, 1945, just before the arrival of Soviet forces into Budapest, Perlasca joined Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz in meeting with Hungary’s Minister of the Interior. The three men threatened the Hungarian minister with reprisals from the Allies if they went ahead with their plans to liquidate the remaining Jewish ghetto in Budapest and attacked the various safe houses they’d set up for Jews around the city. (Their threats worked, and these remaining survivors were not killed.)

Angel Sanz Briz was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1966 while he was still alive. (He died in 1980 at the age of 70.) But Gen. Franco, still Spain’s authoritarian fascist ruler, prohibited him from going to Jerusalem to receive the honor. “I never talked about this subject with him,” Juan Carlos Sanz Briz, Angel Sanz Briz’s son, explained. “He must have suffered greatly, but he didn’t tell us that…. He was a virtuoso in diplomacy; he put human rights before the law of the land, and was one of the first diplomats to use diplomatic immunity to protect refugees.”

In 1988, Giorgio Perlasca was also honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Spain Is Now Recognizing His Bravery

Now, after years of silence, Spain is finally ready to acknowledge the bravery of Angel Sanz Briz, and is trying to locate the descendants of the many Jews he saved. The Centro Sefarad-Israel, which is part of Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is using Spanish government archives to trace the Jews their diplomatic mission saved in Budapest. “For him, the principle of humanity prevailed over the principle of legality,” explains Miguel de Lucas, who heads the Centro Sefarad-Israel.

The Centro Sefarad-Israel is releasing names of some of the Jews whom Angel Sanz Briz saved on social media under the hashtag #LaListaSanzBriz. “With this initiative, Centro Sefarad-Israel aims to locate people who may have been saved by Sanz Briz, or their descendants. In this way, their family testimonies can serve to highlight the efforts made by the diplomat and his team, thus completing his legacy,” the Center explains.

In the meantime, anyone who was saved by Sanz Briz is being encouraged to emails the Centro Sefarad-Israel at lalistasanzbriz@sefarad-israel.es. More information about this crucial project can be found on the Center’s website at http://www.sefarad-israel.es/La_lista_de_angel_Sanz_Briz

In our darkest hour, diplomats like Angel Sanz Briz worked to save the lives of our families and fellow Jews. It’s up to us now to make sure that their bravery and the stories of the thousands of Jews who were saved are not forgotten.