The Rescuer and His Camera
One of the most fascinating and unusual collections to be found in the archives of Yad Vashem is the collection of the photographs and documents of Carl Lutz.
Carl Lutz (pictured left with wife Trudi) was born in 1895 in Switzerland and, after his studies in the United States, joined the Swiss diplomatic service. He became a professional diplomat and spent most of his life outside of his home country.
Among other things, Lutz acted as the Swiss consul to Palestine between 1935 and 1940. As an amateur photographer, his camera was his constant companion, and with it, he documented many of his private and public experiences.
During the years that he served in Palestine, Lutz and his wife Trudi often traveled in the country. His personal files from this period carry the headline, “Six unforgettable years in Palestine,” and include photographs of the markets of the old city in Jerusalem, caravans of camels on the coast of Tel Aviv at sunset, the Arabs of Jaffa, and his German friends from Sarona.
He even photographed the Nazi flag, complete with swastika, flying from the Templar Bank Building on the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
The files, accompanied by reports of the period that he wrote, also contain information about the business interests of the country and the settlements. All of the reports were enhanced by pictures that Lutz took. Additional reports that he wrote touched on the illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine and the guarding of the interests of the Germans who resided in Palestine after the outbreak of World War II.
Lutz also attempted to intervene on behalf of the Germans who were incarcerated in prison camps or who were in danger of deportation; he did this by petitioning to improve their living conditions and trying to secure their liberation.
In January 1942 Carl Lutz was stationed in Budapest as the head of the department for the representation of foreign nationals represented by the Swiss embassy. Beginning in 1942, Lutz helped to obtain permits for the local Jews to immigrate to the land of Israel. Even after the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, he continued his efforts to find escape routes and to issue rescue passports with the help of the Red Cross and other neutral countries. The center of his rescue activities was in “The Glass House,” located at 29 Vadasz Utca. He succeeded in issuing more than 50,000 rescue passports to Hungarian Jews in connection with this rescue project.
Lutz also indirectly assisted in the rescue efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat. When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, Lutz met him and instructed him in various rescue methods. Paradoxically, Lutz’s assistance five years earlier to the German group that had resided in Palestine allowed him, among other things, to rescue the lives of Jews who were in danger of deportation to extermination camps. German authorities in Hungary remembered his efforts in assisting the Germans and allowed him a great amount of leeway.
There are only two photos documenting the rescue activity among Lutz's papers. In one of his postwar reports Lutz explained that it was strictly forbidden to take photos in Budapest at that time. Offenders could easily face death penalty and even just carrying a camera in public was dangerous. On one occasion Lutz tried to photograph a group of Arrow-Cross party thugs beating a woman in the street. They immediately pointed a revolver at his chest and grabbed his camera. He was able to save himself only by showing his diplomatic pass and giving away the film roll. After this experience he left the camera in his residence when going out.
Although he was commanded to leave the city before the Red Army arrived, Lutz chose to stay in Budapest with the Jews who he had protected until after the occupation by the Red Army.
In 1965, Karl Lutz was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. After his death, in 1975, his wife, Trudi, entrusted his collection for safekeeping to the archives at Yad Vashem - including his impressive historical photography collection.
Thanks to Lutz, the history of the decade of the ‘30s in Palestine and a few of the days of the war in Europe are revealed, not only through his writings but also by means of his splendid photography. To see how important photography was in his life, there is the example of the birthday party that he arranged after the war for his old camera. He photographed the event himself and wrote under the picture, “Bride of happiness, among daughters of her family.”
Yad Vashem Archives Section P19: Estate of Carl Lutz
Yad Vashem Archives 0.3/3475: Estate of Vaida Zoltan, concerning the rescue activities of Carl Lutz in Hungary
“Carl Lutz,” The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Mordecai Paldiel, Rob Rozett) pp. 625-626.
Alexander Grossman, Nur das Gewissen: Carl Lutz und seine Budapester Aktion: Geschichte und Portraet, Switzerland, 1986.