UK spy agency celebrates agent who saved 10,000 Jews from Holocaust

Head of MI6 honors work of Frank Foley, a 1930s intelligence officer who issued thousands of visas enabling Jewish Germans to escape Nazis

Photo in the German Federal Archives depicts German Jews leaving Germany in the 1930s. (Courtesy Ethan Bensinger)
Photo in the German Federal Archives depicts German Jews leaving Germany in the 1930s. (Courtesy Ethan Bensinger)

The chief of Britain’s spy agency made a rare public tribute to a spy who, during the years leading up to World War II, saved an estimated 10,000 German Jews by issuing them visas while posing as a bureaucrat at the British embassy in Berlin, even risking his safety to hide some Jews in his own residence.

Frank Foley, who died 60 years ago, has received little official public recognition in Britain for his actions, due to the secrecy of his undercover position as the most senior British intelligence officer in the Germany capital.

Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, told the Holocaust Education Trust and members of Foley’s family that the spy had witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime and took action against the horrors it represented, the UK Daily Mail newspaper reported.

“With little regard for his personal safety he took a stance against evil,” Younger said at the spy agency’s headquarters in London on Monday. “Despite exposing himself to significant personal risk, Frank made a decision to help.”

Middle-aged, with round, owlish glasses framing a face topped by a balding head, Foley did not cut a particularly heroic figure in 1930s Berlin.

British intelligence officer Frank Foley, who save an estimated 10,000 Jewish Germans from the Holocaust in the 1930s. (Public domain/Wikimedia)

But he was more than he appeared to be: Far from his public role as a gray paper-pusher, Foley fulfilled his true mission as the Berlin station chief for British intelligence until the outbreak of World War II.

Foley used his power and influence as British passport control officer in Berlin — a cover for his intelligence work — to help German Jews immigrate to Britain and its colonies, including Palestine. He did not have diplomatic immunity and could have been arrested at any time for his activity — including producing forged passports and documents — much of which was conducted without authorization from his superiors back home.

“Frank’s dignity, compassion and bravery are in no doubt,” Younger said. “As a consummately effective intelligence officer he witnessed at first hand the Nazi seizure of power, and the horrors and depravity of the regime. While many condemned and criticized the Nazis’ discriminative laws, Frank took action.

“He knew the dire consequences were he to get caught,” the intelligence chief continued. “Frank’s tenacity and passion saved the lives of many thousands of European Jews. Using his position as a passport control officer, he ensured that they could travel safely out of the clutches of Hitler’s killers.”

Younger explained why Foley’s actions had not been publicly lauded by MI6 in the past.

“There is a mantra that surrounds MI6’s history that reads, ‘Our successes are private, our failures are public,'” he said. “It is a wonderful thing for MI6 that one of its most distinguished member’s successes are no longer private.”

Werner Lachs, 91, was one of those Foley saved by helping his family leave Germany for Britain in 1939.

The family had no money to pay for visas, yet one day they received a letter from the British Passport Office saying they had been granted visas to travel to Britain. The Lachses were unaware that Foley had been involved in issuing the visa and Werner, who was just 12 when he arrived in the UK, was for years troubled by the thought that the visas his family had received may have been denied to others who had been unable to escape, the Daily Mail reported.

Over 50 years later, he was contacted by a journalist who told him that it was Foley who had granted the visas.

“I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones,” said Lachs, who went on to marry another Holocaust survivor, and has three children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “Frank Foley is a saintly person who saved my life, and thousands of others, and I owe my life to him. By rescuing us, he strengthened my faith and my Jewish beliefs that someone is watching over me.”

A man looks at the wreckage of a Jewish shop in Berlin on November 10, 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, an organized nationwide attack carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces and German civilians over two days. The rampage, during which the perpetrators set fire to hundreds of synagogues, looted thousands of Jewish businesses and attacked Jews throughout Germany, is often considered the beginning of the Holocaust. (AP Photo)

Born in 1884, Foley was a veteran of World War I. Fluent in German and French, he was recruited to MI6, where he rose to the rank of captain.

By the end of World War II, Foley had compiled a prodigious record of achievement. He had convinced scores of German spies to become double agents, organized the operation that saved Norway’s gold reserves from being looted by the Nazis, and persuaded leading German scientists not to pass on essential data about atomic and rocket advances to their Nazi superiors.

Foley was also a principal interrogator of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who flew to Britain in a bizarre attempt to strike a peace deal when the war was already lost. Foley also recruited a high-level Soviet spy who, for years after the war, continued to feed Britain information on Soviet espionage.

But it was the rescue — at great personal risk — of German Jews that will be Foley’s legacy.

The remarkable story is told in “Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews,” by British journalist Michael Smith.

According to Smith, Foley “ignored all the rules to help Jews to leave the country, sometimes demanding to be let into concentration camps, to get them out, occasionally hiding them in his own home, and using his Secret Service skills to provide them with false papers and passports.”

Among those who sought shelter in Foley’s apartment was Rabbi Leo Baeck, the charismatic head of the Association of German Rabbis, who used the venue to brief foreign journalists on the increasing persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich.

The question that baffled Benno Cohn, then chairman of the German Zionist Organization, and his colleagues in the Zionist movement was why Foley should demonstrate such commitment at such high personal risk to save Jews.

“He told us he was acting as a Christian and that he wanted to show us how little the ‘Christians’ who were then in power in Germany had to do with Christianity. He detested the Nazis and looked on their political system — as he once told me — as the rule of Satan on earth,” Cohn said in the book.

Foley’s work in Berlin, said Smith, was “a stupendous act of humanity, borne not out of political necessity but out of a moral imperative: Thousands of Jews came to the little office on Tiergartenstrasse, frightened, panicky and desperate for help.

“In the tiny office they found a tiny staff grappling with a blizzard of paper, and at its center a small, round man in spectacles. He did not let them down.”

Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Foley’s wife, Kay, recalled that he worked without a break from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., personally handling as many applications as he could, assisting his staff, and giving advice and comfort to those who were waiting for their applications to be processed.

Eventually the line outside the office was a mile long. As Kay Foley observed in the book: “Some were hysterical. Many wept. All were desperate. With them came a flood of cables and letters from other parts of the country, all pleading for visas and begging for help.”

As conditions worsened for Jews in Berlin, Foley took greater risks by allowing some Jews, including Baeck, to live in his home at Lessingstrasse 56.

Between 1933 and 1939, tens of thousands more people received visas than should have given a strict interpretation of the rules according to Hubert Pollack, one of the Jewish workers trying to get Jews into Palestine.

“I know possibly better than any other Jew alive how great our debt of gratitude is toward that honest and courageous man,” he said in the book.

“The number of Jews saved from Germany would have been tens of thousands less,” he said, “if an officious bureaucrat had sat in Foley’s place. There is no word of Jewish gratitude toward this man which could be exaggerated.”

Even after he locked up his office on Tiergartenstrasse for the last time on August 25, 1939, Foley continued to help Jews escape. During the first week of the war, Youth Aliyah certificates that he had signed were used by the US Embassy to send hundreds of Jewish children to safety in Scandinavia and, through the Italian port of Trieste, to Palestine.

Frank Foley died in 1958. According to author Smith, Foley’s association with British intelligence inhibited him from discussing the activities he performed while in the service.

“He was not allowed to talk to people when he came back to Britain,” said Smith. “His life in Berlin had to remain secret.”

In 1999 the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem gave Foley the title of “Righteous Among Nations.” Five years later the British Embassy in Berlin unveiled a plaque in honor of Foley at a ceremony attended by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. In 2010 he was recognized by the British Government as a British Hero of the Holocaust.

British ambassador to Germany, Sir Peter Torry, unveils a memorial stone in memory to Frank Foley at the British Embassy in Berlin, November 24, 2004. (AP/Roberto Pfeil)

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