by Esther Gilbert
Questions are often asked about why Jews did not leave Europe when they saw their lives were in danger during the Second World War. For some it was a case of not being able to foresee how dire the situation would become. For some, they put their trust in the Nazi deception that they would be safe. For all, escape routes became increasingly limited.
In Germany before the war began in September 1939, Jews were able to leave if they satisfied certain conditions. They had to obtain an entry visa to another country, only then could they get an exit visa. Then they had strict guidelines as to what they could take with them, meaning that their homes and businesses, possessions and investments reverted to the Nazi regime. Once the war broke out, the borders were sealed and Jews in war-torn Europe were trapped.
Nazi Germany looked on all captive peoples as enemies to plunder, to be worked to death, to kill. The list of enemies however, did not extend to citizens of those countries who maintained neutrality in the war that developed between the Axis and the Allied powers.
In pre-war Germany and the German-occupied areas of Austria and Czechoslovakia, diplomats of foreign countries were able to provide entry visas to their home countries to Jews who qualified. Having come out of the First World War and the Depression, countries were not keen to bring in dependent immigrants, so visas were given out sparingly to those who had relatives there who could support them, etc.
Once the war began, Jews who could reach neutral diplomats had the potential for escape, but in most cases, the governments of these diplomats did not encourage the giving out of visas. Some brave diplomats, understanding how visas could save lives, went against their governments’ orders and helped the Jews. These diplomats have been recognised with the distinction ‘Righteous Diplomats’.
In 2009, Sir Martin and I were part of a film crew by filmmaker Michael King to retrace the stories of these diplomats and some of the individuals they saved. The film is called ‘The Rescuers, Heroes of the Holocaust’ and the film on these diplomats will be screening in Newcastle on February 1st as part of The Together Plan’s Holocaust Memorial Day events where they will also be showing their travelling exhibition called ‘Making History Together’ between 29th January and 2nd February in the Bewick Library. In the next couple of months, running up to Holocaust Memorial Day, I will be writing here about some of these stories and the courageous diplomats who saved lives.
Sir Martin believed that it was important to go to the place where history happened, to bring history and geography together. He also felt it was important to understand the distances and how best to do that but by train. We visited 8 countries in the spring of 2009, leaving London for France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Lithuania, and two further countries that summer, Greece and Israel. On our journey we had survivors who told us their stories, and in some cases we had descendants of the diplomats accompany us. In the intervening years we have had losses of some of the survivors, and of course Sir Martin. The film stands as testimony to brief and courageous acts of a few people whose actions saved lives and made a difference that is felt for generations.
To find out more about The Rescuers and to watch the trailer click here.
To book the film screening on February 1st 2024 click here.