In mid-1944, barely a year before World War II drew to a close, Hungary was home to the last Jewish community in Europe not to have been exterminated by the Nazis. When Germany invaded the country in March, plans were put into effect to press on with the Final Solution by deporting the almost 800,000 Hungarian Jews – who had until then escaped persecution – to Auschwitz.
The young diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz had remained in Budapest in charge of the Spanish legation in Hungary. Moved by the desperate plight of the Jews, he set about helping as many of them as he could and, thanks to his heroism and determination, was eventually able to save some 5,000 from certain death.
During the summer, Sanz Briz’s protests to the Hungarian government, together with those of ambassadors from the neutral countries of Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal and the representative of the Vatican, managed to halt the deportations to Auschwitz organized by SS colonel Adolf Eichmann and the pro-German authorities. But by then, almost 400,000 Jews from Hungary’s provinces had already been murdered in the gas chambers.
The 200,000 who still remained in the capital were soon herded together in appalling conditions in the Budapest ghetto. It was in the autumn of 1944 – after tough negotiations with the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazi party which by then led the country’s Government of National Unity – that Sanz Briz began to issue Jews with Spanish passports and diplomatic safe conducts. Showing enormous guile and nerves of steel, he spread the story that many of them were Sephardic Jews of Spanish origin, persuading the Hungarians to authorize first 100 and then 300 passports.
Furthermore, with the help of the Hungarian staff working at the Spanish legation, each passport was turned into a document that would guarantee safe passage not only for one person but for a whole family, thus multiplying the number of people being helped. At the same time, and in breach of his diplomatic status, Sanz Briz also began to hide Jews on the legation premises and even in his own private residence.
In November he intensified his work, issuing another 1,898 safe conduct passes. Franco’s government in Madrid was fully aware of this activity, even though it had already given the diplomat permission to leave Budapest in the face of the advancing Red Army.
Sanz Briz stayed in Budapest until the beginning of December, tirelessly negotiating with (and sometimes bribing) Hungarian officials to keep Jews with Spanish papers out of danger. He also extended the protection of the Spanish legation to cover eight buildings in what was known as the Budapest international ghetto, thereby saving thousands more from the murderous clutches of the Hungarian Nazis, the cold and hunger.
Working with the legation secretary, Elisabeth Tournée, lawyer Zoltan Farkas, Italian and Hungarian businessmen Giorgio Perlasca and Jenö Sorg, and the Zsigmond family, Sanz Briz managed to supply provisions to the inhabitants of the ghetto so they would not die of hunger during the terrible food shortages that accompanied the Soviet siege.
Sanz Briz’s diplomatic savoir-faire and his great heroism saved around 5,000 Jews from almost inevitable death, at times even placing his own life at risk.
In 1989, when Spain re-established diplomatic relations with Israel, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority (Yad Vashem) awarded him the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The award was received by his widow Adela Quijano: Sanz Briz had died in 1980 without ever having spoken publicly about his incredible work.
Journalist and writer Julio Martín Alarcón (Madrid, 22 April 1977) is the author of ‘El ángel de Budapest. La lista de Sanz Briz’ (The Angel of Budapest. Sanz Briz’s List) (2016), the story of Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz and the Holocaust in Hungary. A keen researcher and disseminator of history, he is a columnist for El Confidencial and also collaborates with El Independiente. A former editor at El Mundo and the magazine La Aventura de la Historia, he set up the History section on the El Mundo website.