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THE FORGED PASSPORT
On Sunday, March 19, 1944, Rafi (Raphael) Friedl, a young eighteen-year-old Slovak Jew, alias Janos Sampias, a Catholic Christian, had every reason to fear for his life. Early on that cold, clear spring morning he had been awakened by a distant humming, which grew louder by the second, until all of a sudden a squadron of German Messerschmidts burst forth from behind the silhouette of Buda. In tight formation the planes thundered low across the hill on which stood the historic city. They raced across the Danube and made a wide curve over the vast, flat expanse of Pest, returning in a westerly direction. The Messerschmidts flew so low that Rafi could see the black crosses on the wings with the naked eye. Another squadron followed, and then another. By the time the first unit had described its circle it dovetailed in with the last one of the three, which now flew in front, so that hundreds of planes seemed to be streaking in the sky above Budapest, instead of just a few dozen.
The Germans had to fake strength at this late stage in the war. Their fuel stock was nearly exhausted, but they were anxious that the people of Budapest did not know that. It was the effect which counted. In the course of a few minutes the German airforce had beaten the one and a half million inhabitants of the Hungarian capital into mental submission, the result of an ingrained old habit, dictated by a cruel history, that it was better to submit and to survive than to resist and to die. The German Führer, the leader, knew the psychology of the peoples with whomhedealt.
Some years earlier, Rafi Friedl remembered, Hitler had made his planes circle low over Vienna and Prague in a similar way. They were in the air for hours, replete with bombs and rounds of ammunition. If the threatened governments had not capitulated at the last moment, their ancient capitals would have been devastated. No one in Budapest knew why the Messerschmidts had been sent. All kinds of rumors were flying about the town of some disagreement between Hitler and Count Nicholas Horthy, the aged regent of Hungary. They were supposed to be friends. But while official propaganda was abundant, there was no concrete news. Certainly, the promises of easy victory and new greatness had dissolved long ago. From the looks of things, peace seemed as far removed as ever. Everyone craved for an end to the cursed war, because there was not a single family which had not lost a son, a father, or a husband. They had gone to their death in the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. The airplanes would surely be followed by marching boots.
Rafi Friedl was afraid. He had come to Hungary two months earlier, in January, hoping to be safe. His family, his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters — their memories be blessed — and most of his friends had been pushed into cattle wagons in 1942 and were deported. He himself had escaped only by sheer wits and by his looks. That is, he was tall, blond, and blue-eyed. He did not look how a Jew was supposed to look, short, black eyes, black hair, and so forth. He had heard of death camps, of course, but did not really know what they were, except that they must be something unspeakable. It was better not to think of them, because they reminded him of his family. The Chalutzim, the Jewish pioneers, became his new family. Before the war, this organization had fostered emigration to Palestine. When the great disaster took place, the order went out to forget about emigration and to save Jewish lives at all costs, especially children and young people. Jewish substance, the remnant of Israel, must be preserved as a sacred trust. Back and forth Rafi went with other Chalutzim and brought hundreds of Polish and Slovak children across the border to Hungary. This was a dangerous assignment. More than one pioneer was caught and executed, together with the children whom he or she (girls were equal partners) had accompanied. Thus, as a teenager Rafi had passed through more dangers and seen more horrors than most adults in a lifetime. In January 1944 he felt, however, that pressure was mounting and that he himself could be caught. The border police and the secret services were aided by a treasonable antisemite populace on both sides of the frontier. This is why he fled to Hungary with a fresh document. It was a forged Slovak passport made out in the name of a Christian called Janos Sampias, from whom he had bought it. The only authentic part of the passport was his own photograph, which he had carefully glued in.
All day on that fateful Sunday Rafi remained locked up in his room. Sure enough, by the time the pealing church bells called Christians together for worship, their sounds became interspersed with those of the grinding chains of armored cars and the noise of soldiers' steps and staccato-like orders of officers. There were no explosions. There was no shooting. Hungary really seemed to submit without protest. From behind the curtains of his room, Rafi observed the timid worshippers as they found their way to the churches, a habit which even the momentous event of an occupation could not break. But then these people did not have to worry as much as a Jew.
There was an air raid alarm during the day. The sirens went off, and several bombs exploded. This seemed to be the way the Americans protested against the German occupation, Rafi believed. He remained locked up in his small rented room in the crammed apartment house in Josephtown on the Pest side of the Danube, waiting for "the" knock, which could mean the end. But there was silence. Perhaps because his landlady really believed Mr. Sampias to be a Slovak, as he had told her. She had shown his passport to the police, as any landlady was required, and she noticed his blond hair and blue eyes. Apparently neither the landlady nor the police had suspected anything to be wrong. They did not even notice that the original photograph had been replaced. Rafi had moreover told the woman that he was really an American citizen, because his father had emigrated to the United States years earlier. Had not the war come in between, he would have followed him across the ocean. She seemed impressed and said that she also had relatives in the United States. How could he tell her that his father had been deported, because he was a Jew? Rafi was of course aware that any trained security man would see that his papers were not in order. When "they" had doubts, they could always pull down his pants and look whether he was circumcised or not. Sampias said, after Rafi had given him the money, he would simply tell the Slovak authorities that his passport had been lost or stolen. He would, at any rate, run little risk, even if the authorities did not believe him. Yet Rafi never knew what his landlady really thought. Once or twice he had cracked antisemitic jokes, in order to test her. But like most people in such a position, she had a closed face. He could assume that she, like all landladies, landlords, and doorkeepers worked hand in glove with the police.
Sunday passed, and a night.
Rafi shook visibly as he left the apartment house early on Monday morning, the 20th. Before he closed the door behind him, he hesitated and looked up and down the street. Then he walked away jauntily, sure that the landlady's eyes were following him. Few people scurried about. They, too, seemed to be afraid. Rafi walked in measured steps. Running or even hasty steps would attract attention. He whistled and tried to look cheerful, just like the few gendarmes, who were out in the streets, together with the Nyilas, those frightful teenagers in their green uniforms of the Arrow Cross party, the Hungarian Nazis. The previous government had kept them under tight control. Now they were coming out in the open. Luckily, no one paid any attention to Rafi. The gendarmes and the Nyilas stood in small groups, apparently debating what the occupation could mean for them, admiring the armored vehicles of the Germans and looking at the occasional passing officers with the ominous rune-like SS insignia. Henceforth, Rafi thought, no one would restrain the gendarmes from showing their power. Assisted by the uncouth Nyilas, they would annoy the passersby, demanding identification papers, bringing them to police posts, and pushing people around in general. Looking over to the Danube, Rafi noticed that German troops had positioned themselves at both ends of the bridges which connected Pest with Buda. The public buildings were also surrounded by Germans. He looked up at the royal castle and Gellert Hill across the river. If he squinted, he could see that these historic points, too, were in the hands of the Nazi invaders.
Rafi Friedl headed towards Szabadsag-tér, Freedom Square, a tree-studded open space in downtown Pest, not far from the Danube. One side of the square was bordered by the stock market, now closed, and the other by a large six-floor office building constructed during the 1920s. This imposing structure was the former American legation. Ever since late December 1941, when Hungary and the United States found themselves in a state of war, the building had been administered by neutral Switzerland. The small Alpine republic was the "protective power" of American interests in Hungary as long as the war lasted. The building retained its extra-territorial status. The person in charge of the operation was Consul Carl Lutz, who had replaced the American minister. He had come to Budapest at the beginning of 1942 and directed his activities from the former office of the American minister on the second floor. The consul's tasks were manifold. He took care of American, British, and other foreign citizens or dual nationals, who had been stranded in Hungary after the outbreak of the war. He saw to it that their papers were in order. He made arrangements concerning claims and inheritances. He looked after prisoners of war, mostly downed airmen. Above all, he cooperated with the Budapest office of the Jewish Agency of Palestine in providing protective letters and emigration papers to Jewish children and young people, who had sought safety in Hungary, but whom the Chalutzim wanted to get out. All in all, at this moment the consul was responsible for no fewer than 3,000 persons. On occasion he passed on diplomatic notes to the Hungarian government from the United States, Great Britain, Romania, Egypt, Belgium, Chile, and several other Latin American states. If a note was of a certain importance, Lutz would request his immediate superior, the Swiss representative in Hungary, Minister Maximilian Jaeger, to accompany him on visits to the Hungarian foreign minister or to the regent, Horthy, the chief of state. The Swiss foreign ministry in Berne received such notes and sent them to Budapest via the diplomatic pouch. In return, Hungarian notes were transmitted to the concerned powers in the same way. It was Switzerland's task to ensure that communication channels remained open despite the war, while trying to avoid direct contacts between the belligerents.
This was the man, no less, whom Rafi Friedl wanted to see on this morning.
Rafi had never met Carl Lutz, but he knew that if there was anyone in the city of Budapest who could deliver him from danger, it was the Swiss consul. Rafi had often been told by his contacts at the Budapest office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine about the involvement of this Swiss diplomat, with whose help hundreds if not thousands of children and young people had reached safety in Palestine. Among Budapest Jews, Rafi knew, Carl Lutz was a household name. He had heard that both the consul and his equally remarkable wife, Gertrud, had always taken the time to see the children off from the Danube pier, when, about once a week, a train or boat was about to leave.
The young Slovak had reached the vast expanse of Freedom Square, when he noted an unusual scene near the former American legation. Despite the early hour, several dozen men, women, and children were anxiously pushing towards the main entry. They were loudly arguing with two consular employees, who blocked their way. These people were obviously Jews, because Rafi heard them say that they were afraid and wanted the consul to get them out of Hungary. The quicker the better. If not, the Germans would arrest them all before the day was over. Rafi had seen this same fear before in Slovakia, when the Jews were deported. The Hungarian Jews, he remembered, had never taken seriously the tales of the persecution of Jews in other countries. Such horror stories had been spread about the Germans during the previous war, they said. Had the shamefaced Allies not been forced to admit after the war that these tales had been nothing but propaganda? Even if they were true now, neither deportations nor death camps could possibly happen in this country where Christians and Jews had lived together in happy symbiosis for a thousand years. Now, on this morning, the faces of the frightened Jews showed that the myth had exploded. They could not even flee. The radio had announced that the borders were closed to all Jews. The presence of gendarmes and Nyilas on the square increased their sense of fear and helplessness.
As Rafi approached the entry to the legation he rehearsed for the tenth time what he would say to the consul. That his name was Janos Sampias. That he had an American father. That the representative of American interests in Hungary should give him papers, which would prove that he was an American citizen. The Swiss consul should place him under his formal protection. This would place him beyond the reach of any Hungarian gendarme. He could no longer be arrested simply because he was a Jew. No one would draft him into forced labor. Above all, no one could deport him. Rafi told himself that he really was in a privileged position; he did not have to fear for his life like these poor people, who were like beggars for life. He edged forward, through the crowd. He looked up at the Swiss coat of arms, the white cross in the red field, which was attached to the wall above the entry. There was an inscription next to the door, written in Hungarian and in German, which said that this building was administered by the Swiss legation and enjoyed extraterritorial status. Inside that door, he would be as good as inside Switzerland, where a reasonable people had built up a reasonable society with fair laws for all and with no war and no dictators. Rafi had often dreamt of a country which had realized the vision of Plato's Republic. He had read it in school, ages ago, when his mother and his father were still alive, wondering why most governors were so utterly incapable of following the ancient philosopher's advice. Switzerland must be like that.
Rafi ignored the angry recriminations of those who had waited for hours to enter the legation. He said to the two employees that he was an American citizen and wanted to see "his" consul. It seemed easy to lie, but then Rafi had lied all the time with the Chalutzim as he had crossed the border with the children again and again. He had become hardened beyond his age. The employees asked for his papers. Rafi showed them his Slovak passport. They told him to wait like everyone else. But Rafi insisted that they had to take him at his word. He would protest to the consul in person if he was kept waiting much longer. After a further battle of words, the irritated guards finally let him enter. One of them took him up to the consul's secretary on the second floor. She was at that moment involved in conversation with Gertrud Lutz, the consul's wife, a medium-sized chestnut-haired young woman in her early thirties. The secretary told Rafi curtly to wait, because Mr. Lutz was engaged in an important conference. The two women returned to their conversation. They talked in Swiss-German, which Rafi could not understand, but he gathered from an occasional word that they spoke about the events of the last two days and of the Jews waiting below. Once in a while they looked out of the window and studied the people.
The meeting in the consul's office took time and Rafi became impatient. He wanted to open the door to his office and to speak to him. The secretary held Rafi back and told him to take a chair and to wait. There was an angry exchange between the two, because Rafi said that his business was serious. The secretary answered that all business these days was serious. Gertrud Lutz came to Rafi's side and patted his arm. She said in a quiet though straightforward way that everyone, including herself, was impatient nowadays and that they were all on edge. Her husband, the consul, would surely answer all questions to his satisfaction as soon as he could. Rafi was taken aback. The consul's wife possessed an inborn authority, he thought, to which he readily submitted. For the first time since he had seen the Messerschmidts on the day before he felt less nervous.
Finally the door of the consul's office opened. Carl Lutz stepped into the reception office. He was tall, thin, and dark-haired. His glasses gave him a reserved, professorial, even a shy look, perhaps more severe than he intended. He was in his late forties, older by some years than Gertrud, Rafi noted. The consul was still engaged in a low-voiced conversation with three distinguished-looking gentlemen, who were right behind him. One of them Rafi knew, Moshe Krausz, the secretary of the Budapest office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. He was the one to whom he had turned over the Polish and Slovak Jewish children after crossing over into Hungary. Krausz was about forty. Rafi knew him to be an annoyingly meticulous and fussy administrator, given to gossip. But in his slow bureaucratic way Krausz did get things done. Rafi exchanged a brief glance with him and nodded. The other two men he did not know, but from their conversation he soon could guess who they were. The first was a man in his fifties of impressive bearing. He had a straightforward look and was clearly in charge of the three. This was Otto Komoly, the president of the Palestine Office. He was a well-known engineer. As an officer he had fought with great distinction in the Austro-Hungarian army during the previous war. Today he demonstratively wore his silver Militärverdienstkreuz, first class, medal, which Habsburg emperor Charles had pinned on him for bravery in the field, even though he had been a Jew. Surely no fanatic would lay his hand on him, he, who had risked his life for Hungary. The third person was a young, bespectacled lawyer in his thirties, clearly an intellectual. He had a German-sounding name, Rezsö (Rudolf) Kasztner. Rafi had vaguely heard of him. This lawyer had arrived in Budapest only recently, coming from Transylvania, which used to belong to Romania. But already he was making a name for himself within the Jewish community. Kasztner was the vice president of the Palestine Office. Only later would Rafi learn that Krausz led behind-the-scenes intrigues against Kasztner, who was so much more brilliant than he, and — more seriously — that Komoly and Kasztner were also at odds. Komoly wanted to organize Jewish resistance, while Kasztner preferred to work out a "deal" with the enemy, in order to save Jewish lives. However, on this second day of the German occupation all three were united in trying to avert the grave danger for Hungarian Jewry.
The consul and his three visitors kept talking, standing together in the middle of the reception room. They conversed in German, although the visitors sometimes fell into Hungarian, when they wanted to explain a special point to each other. Rafi gathered that the Palestine Office had been ransacked by gendarmes and German SS that morning. Some important lists of potential émigrés had been taken away. This was a bad omen. Lutz repeated what he apparently had said before, that he was prepared to take the Palestine Office into the legation, until they all could see their way more clearly. The three men eagerly nodded their approval. Lutz continued, saying that this was an unusual offer for a diplomatic representative to make, but that he would somehow try to straighten out the matter with the Hungarian foreign ministry, assuming the government still functioned. He was also sure that his superior, Minister Jaeger, would approve. Then he gave instructions to his secretary that an office or two be turned over to Mr. Krausz and his staff.
But then Lutz mentioned a figure of 8,000, and his face became grave. Rafi almost jumped from his seat when he realized that the consul was talking about the children and young people who were registered for emigration to Palestine at this moment. Had he, Rafi, not spirited some of them to Hungary at the risk of his own life? He heard the consul say that between 1942 and March 19, 1944, the Palestine Office had, with his help, transported no less than 10,000 Jewish children and young people out of Hungary and dispatched them in the direction of Palestine. The 8,000 more were the next batch to follow. Rafi's mind became fully alert as he listened to Lutz express his concern about the radio news, that all emigration abroad for Jews was stopped. He had not yet received official confirmation, Lutz said, but he had no doubt this new decision had been made at the instigation of the German occupants and that it was a most serious matter. What was to be done? Clearly, there was no one else in the country to defend these young lives but he. The new people in power wanted to move not only against the Palestine Office but against the Swiss representative of foreign interests. It was part of an ugly game of international politics.
Gertrud Lutz did not hesitate to join the conversation. She wanted an answer to an even more immediate problem, she said. What was to be done with the people waiting outside, especially the women and children? Some had been there since the day before. They could catch pneumonia. She had been told that many Jews were expelled from their apartments. More would doubtless arrive. They would be getting hungrier as the day wore on, and their meager supplies were eaten up. Neither the consul nor his three visitors had an answer. It was obvious that the Jews would try to seek the safety of foreign diplomatic buildings. But could they be let in without causing serious diplomatic repercussions? The consul answered his wife that a solution had to be found, but he did not know yet what kind. The problem was that the authorities could suspend the extra-territorial status of the former American legation and declare him persona non grata. This would mean not only the end of the Department of Foreign Interests of the Swiss legation, but the end of all protection for Jews, including the 8,000. Lutz was obviously disturbed over the multiplicity of the problems, for which he saw no solution. His hesitations seemed to nettle Gertrud. She said she would go downstairs in order to see what she could do. Vaguely, Rafi heard the consul remark to his parting visitors that he was about to rush off in order see his superior, Swiss minister Jaeger. He needed his advice before the situation got out of hand. The secretary whispered into the consul's ear. He turned and looked at the young visitor.
Before Rafi knew it, he was ushered into the vast office of Carl Lutz. Although it was clear to the young man that the consul was under stress, he made Rafi sink into a leather sofa and gave him his full attention. Rafi, in the light of what he had just learned, felt embarrassed. He said that his problem was small and personal, compared with what he had heard before. Lutz smiled and ignored the remark. Rafi repeated his rehearsed story, while the consul leafed through the forged Slovak passport and listened. That his name was Janos Sampias. That his father had emigrated to the United States and had become an American citizen, which made him an American citizen, too. Could the consul certify his United States citizenship? Lutz put the passport down and his eyes quietly focussed on Rafi, as the young man kept talking. It seemed to him as if the consul could penetrate his thoughts and didn't believe a word. Lutz asked a few questions about Rafi's origins in Slovakia and his arrival in Budapest. He also said he noticed that he seemed to know Mr. Krausz, which Rafi affirmed. But the vice consul did not pursue this point, and Rafi wondered why he had asked.
Then the consul rose and walked to a cupboard. He pulled out a drawer and took out several forms. At the top it said United States Department of Justice. Then he asked Mr. Sampias whether he knew English. Rafi had said yes, although he had mastered little more than a smattering, which he had hastily acquired from a friend as soon as he had decided to visit the Swiss consul. He nearly lost his countenance when he glanced at the title of the forms and saw the abundance of questions, page after page. He heard the vice consul say, as from afar, that Mr. Sampias should take his time in filling out the questionnaire. Upon completion he would send it by diplomatic courier to the Swiss foreign ministry in Berne. From there it would go for verification to the American authorities in Washington. As soon as these gave their approval, which would doubtless take several months, he, Lutz, would issue a Schutzpass, a protective passport. This Swiss document would say that Mr. Sampias was a recognized American citizen living in Hungary, and that he enjoyed the full protection of Switzerland.
The consul gently pushed Rafi into the reception room. The secretary was alone. Lutz asked her to find a small office for Mr. Sampias so that he could fill out some American forms, undisturbed. He himself was rushing off to the Swiss legation on Stefania Street. Would she please call Minister Jaeger, telling him that he was on his way. Lutz added that he would see Mr. Sampias again after his return.
|1||The Forged Passport||3|
|3||The Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation||52|
|4||The Terrible Secret||72|
|5||Can Auschwitz Be Stopped?||97|
|6||Journey to Bistriza||119|
|7||The Fuhrer's Wish||147|
|8||Arrow Cross Terror||175|
|9||"Eichmann Has Fled!"||208|
|10||The Last Assault||233|
|Glossary of Non-English Words||264|