'Beyond Duty'

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel to honor foreign diplomats who rescued Jews

Hoping its own diplomats would show similar bravery if needed, Foreign Ministry pays tribute to righteous colleagues with memorial in Jerusalem and exhibit to go around the world

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Raoul Wallenberg, right, with Jews in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, exact date uncertain (Courtesy Yad Vashem)
Raoul Wallenberg, right, with Jews in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, exact date uncertain (Courtesy Yad Vashem)

In the summer of 1944, Albert Franko was being deported from the Nazi-occupied Greek city of Piraeus to Auschwitz, when suddenly he was taken off the train — because his wife was a Turkish citizen.

His life was saved due to the personal intervention of Selahattin Ülkümen, Turkey’s consul-general in Rhodes.

At his own initiative and with tenacious perseverance, Ülkümen saved some 50 Jews. Most of them weren’t Turkish citizens, but he told the Gestapo that Turkish law considers spouses of Turks to be citizens themselves, demanding their release. Survivors later realized that no such law existed, and that Ülkümen had invented it to save their lives.

Some 75 years later, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is honoring Ülkümen and 35 other foreign diplomats who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust with a monument at its Jerusalem headquarters and an exhibition to be displayed in more than 60 Israeli missions around the globe.

The exhibition, called “Beyond Duty,” pays tribute to the diplomats, hailing from 21 countries, who were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

“In a time of supreme moral testing and in the darkest hours of the Jewish people, these people acted by the dictate of their conscience in order to save Jews, without regard for personal and professional consequence,” said Ran Yaakoby, who spearheaded the project.

Part of the exhibition’s panel on Selahattin Ülkümen (courtesy Foreign Ministry)

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel is eternally grateful and will forever salute their courage and moral example,” said Yaakoby, the director of the ministry’s Department for Combating Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Remembrance.

On February 5 — a few days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year falls on January 27 — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to attend the unveiling of a large memorial installation honoring the righteous diplomats.

The installation, by Israeli artist Zehava Benjamin, shows trees — symbolizing a European forest — and the names of the 36 diplomats, including one person who wasn’t really a diplomat but merely pretended to be one. Giorgio Perlasca, who worked in Budapest for an Italian company exporting beef, in 1944 changed his name to Jorge and posed as Spain’s consul-general, saving dozens of Jews.

Six Swedes are on the list, making it the country with the largest number of righteous diplomats. The best-known is Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Switzerland has five representatives on the list and Spain four. Other diplomats who rescued Jews hailed from the Vatican, Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Peru.

I would like our diplomats to know the stories of those international diplomats who saved others in need.. and to follow suit

Yaakoby developed the exhibition with the help of Tel Aviv production studio The Hive and the assistance of experts at Yad Vashem. In April 1998, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial and research center had hosted a similar exhibit, called “Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

The memorial wall at the Foreign Ministry in jerusalem, carrying the names of the 36 diplomats who rescued Jews during the Holocaust (courtesy)

That year, Jerusalem also issued a stamp to commemorate diplomats to rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

But in the 20 years since then, the list has grown somewhat, as Yad Vashem has continued to add people who risked their own safety to aid Jews to its list of Righteous Among the Nations.

This year’s project is not merely meant to remember past events but to inspire similar heroism in the future, according to Yaakoby.

“The message is clearly of holding to moral grounds, especially in times of a moral chaos,” he said.

“I would like our diplomats to know the stories of those international diplomats who saved others in need, not because they had to, but because their morals did not allow them otherwise, and to follow suit. Regulations do not supply all moral answers to all moral dilemmas, and this is what a representative of a nation – definitely the Jewish nation – should learn from it.”

The list of 36 foreign diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust (courtesy Foreign Ministry)

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