The angel of Budapest - Angel Sank Briz,, 1910-1980, by Salvo Haim Alhadeff

I owe the following story to a man I had the great pleasure of befriending more than fourteen years ago. Though we met for only a few short hours on his visit to this country, a warm relationship has resulted between us notwithstanding the distance and the time elapsed. I will mention that this special man was born and lives in Zaragoza, Spain which - prior to the expulsion in 1492 - was a very important Jewish centre. His name is A.G. Lasierra and has known the following story for a long time because his mother and Sanz Briz's family have known each other for many years.

The 50th sad anniversary of the Holocaust has been an occasion for publishing and reporting about unknown episodes, unknown 'saints' and unusually good persons who tried by all means to save unhumanly ill-treated Jews. Different times and circumstances have created different kinds of heroes : to them belong those who were pushed their desire to help defenceless Jews, victims of racial prejudice, hatred and the demonic bestiality of Nazism. The whole world has heard about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who, after saving thousands of Jews with special passports and travel permits, vanished in unknown circumstances in a Soviet prison; more recently we learned about Oskar Schindler, the nazi industrialist (trhough Spielberg's motion picture byt he same name) who saved over a thousand Jewish lives. And now, to my great interets, my good friend from Zaragoza has sent me the story about the very special man whose name heads this story.

Angel Sanz Briz was born in Zaragoza and died in Rome in 1980. His name started getting known when, in 1991, the Institute for the Investigations on the Holocaust granted him the title of "righteous", its highest award, in gratitude for his humanitarian activities, and his name is now inscribed in stone in the Yad Vashem memorial, along with thousands of others who, in their individual way helped to save Jews from the nazi clutches. As recently as Sunday 16th October 1994 at number 35 in the street of Saint Esteban Park, facing the river Danube, the President of the Hungarian Republic Arpad Goncz and the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Javier Solana unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust the figure in memory of Angel Sanz Briz and later, on the same day, the President Goncz awarded the widow Angela Quijano a decoration in the Hungarian Parliament. What was the story lived by Angel Sanz Briz and what the Chargé d'Affaires of Spain did in Hungary during the Second r do to deserve such posthumous award?

Angel Sanz Briz arrived in Budapest in 1942, his second official posting, at age 32 and had a relatively quiet life until March 1944 when the German army invaded the country. Shortly after Adolf Eichmann himself moved to Budapest to organize the extermination of the Jews. Of the 750.000 living at the time in Hungary he managed to send 437.402 to the concentration camps, and this according to his own statistics. Sanz Briz solicited and obtained from his Ministry of Foreing Affairs (and according to his own words) wide authority to supply documents to the Sefardi Jews and negotiated with the Hungarian Government which was a puppet of Berlin. He was authorized to exercise his protection over 200 Sefardim which eventually increased to 300, on condition that they were to go to Spain and that the Spanish Governement had to pay the travel expenses. The Spanish diplomat could be seen running up and down the streets of the Budapest ghetto hunting for Sefardim and asking "Anybody amongst you o has anything to do with Spain"? and crossing with files of men and women bearing the yellow star of David on the lapel. But in Budapest, where Ashkenazim were in the majority and of Central Europe origin, he only could gather 45 to whom he granted the Spanish passport. "The 200 units that were granted to me" Sanz Briz was reminiscing in 1964, in front of Isaac Molho who repeated his words in a Sephardi publication "I converted into 200 families were multiplied indefinitely with the simple procedure of not issuing any Spanish documents or passports bearing a reference number over the figure 200!" While the Sefardim got Spanish passports, the other Jews were provided with travel documents or safe-conducts.

Of course it was not enough to provide these people with documents ensuring their survival. With funds of the legation or contributions of their own, Sanz Briz rented during the autumn of 1944 four buildings where he lodged them, after marking them with boards reading "Annexe to the Spanish Legation" in order to thwart the entry of the swastika militia men. Further he had to fedd his protected people until they were able to live the country. "As the number of the protected Jews is knowlingly suoerior to the accepted quota the houses are insufficient" Sanz Briz acknowledged in a telegram to his Ministry and reported by Federico Ysart in his book España y los Judios (Dopesa 1973). "This situation has produced a real overcrowding, cause of diseases and inconveniences which in any case are more acceptable than the deportation to the concentration camp". The person in charge of the negociations had more serious problems than the overcrowding of the people in his custody. T Hungarian regime was insisting on reconciling the number of his "tenants" in the four buildings with the 300 allied protected refugees and the militia men gave him difficult times and so they had to evacuate many of them.

After a few hours Sanz Briz's intervention used to smooth things over. Later when Sanz Briz paid a courtesy visit to him, the gauleiter complained bitterly that diplomats used to call on him in order to intervene in favour of the Jews, ignoring the terrible fate of the Hungarians from Transilvania and Bessarabia who had fallen under the Soviet occupation. His visitor, later, made a gift for the Hungarian refugees and the militia man respected the extra territoriality of the buildings rented by the legation. Sanz Briz used to say "Whenever a complaint reached me that some of the sheltered people had been detained by the milita, a simple call to the gauleiter was enough to ensure his liberation and his reintegration to the building". The person in charge of the negociations left secretly from Budapest to Switzerland in the middle of December 1944, one month before the Red Army occupied the city. The Franco regime did not want any of their diplomats failing into the hands of troops wit those Government they had no diplomatic relations. However the Spanish protection of the Jews until the occupation by the Soviets continued thanks to Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian of Jewish origin, businessman and adventurer, to whom Sanz Briz granted a special passport and obtaining proof that he fought for the nationalist side during the civil war. Taking advantage of the existing situation, Perlasca took over and continued with the custody. How many Jews were saved by Sanz Briz and Perlasca? Federico Ysart reckons 4.295 though this figure does not include those who were lodged in the buildings without any documents. The figure can be rounded to 5.200.

Sanz Briz died in 1980 in Rome when he was Ambassador to the Vatican and before the evaluation of his activities in Hungary. In his commemorative booklet edited by Pablo Benavides, the Spanish present Ambassador to Hungary, states "his work was silenced by political circumstances" : in other words it means the non existence until 1986 of diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel and the resistance of the Jews to reward a representative of Franco, allied for years to Hitler.

"I restricted myself to accomplish the orders of my Government and of Gen. Franco" declared Sanz Briz 30 years ago. However his widow Angela Quijano, who lived by his side until August 1944, emphasizes that her husband went beyond the orders from Madrid, pledging himself to save Sefardi Jews.

Let us honour the memory of a good man who for purely humanitarian reasons succeded, under the very noses of the accursed Jew haters, in saving a sizeable numbe rof Jews, a man whose love for humanity carried beyond race, religious beliefs and other attitudes which divide humanity.

El si llamava angel y bivio' como un angel!! Que alma bendicha!!!

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- Copyright © 1997 Moïse Rahmani <> -