Using visas to escape Nazi murder camps.

I’ve always knows about Raoul Wallenberg, and recently read about John Rabe, Chiune Sugihara, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and other foreign dignitaries who saved tens of thousands of Jews from murder camps by issuing visas from their countries. In the case of Sugihara, he wrote visas on scraps of paper and threw them out train windows.

How did this work? What is a visa? How could possession of a piece of paper save a person’s life? Why did the nazi government honor scrawled pieces of paper? Scruples were not their strong suit.

A visa meant that they could leave Germany (or other Nazi-occupied areas). The visa allowed them to enter another country.


I’m going to WAG here, so someone is going to have to come in and answer in more detail…

So, to start with, you’ve correctly identified to separate issues (1) whether you have permission to leave a country and (2) whether you have permission to enter another country.

Every country that I’m aware of in the modern era claims the power to stop people from leaving the country (usually it’s for accused criminals to prevent them fleeing trial, but it can be for other things as well). The Nazis and the Soviets both did this in varying degrees for various groups of people and for various reasons.

And, of course, every country claims the power to stop people from entering the country. An entry visa is simply a document from the country that says you have been granted permission to enter.

Now, let’s get to Sugihara…

From the wiki article on him, it appears that he was operating from Soviet-occupied Lithuania, prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. So, he was writing entry visas to Japan for people in then-Soviet-occupied Lithuania. The Soviets certainly could have claimed the power to stop him, so why didn’t they in this particular case?

My guess, and it’s a guess, is that the Soviets didn’t want to cause too many waves with the Japanese at this point. They had just gotten done with the 1939 Soviet-Japanese war, and (I think) there were low-level talks going on with the Japanese with what would eventually become the Soviet-Japanese Non-Agression Pact (signed 1941). This was probably a period where they didn’t see any point in causing an international ruckus with the Japanese.

Also (and again a guess), letting people leave newly-occupied Lithuania just meant less people for the Soviets to have to deal with for the occupation. Plus, from the wiki article, it looks like the Soviets were able to charge a lot of money for transport, so they probably viewed it as a money-making endeavor.

I think this it’s going to be the case for each of the people you mention that we’d have to look at the individual details. Sometimes people were able to leave Nazi territory through bribery or smuggling, and sometimes people were able to leave because the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to setting up the necessary checkpoints yet. It’s going to be heavily time and place dependent.

I don’t have a factual answer and it is pure speculation, but I would assume that it has to do with the fact that Nazi Germany and Japan were allies. The Germans were probably hesitant to disregard or to second-guess what they had to assume was an expressed desire of the Japanese government to grant free passage to these individuals.

BrightNShiny is right: Sugihara was stationed in Lithuania which at the time (1940, 1941) was under Soviet occupation, so the Germans actually didn’t have a say in this.

From the wiki article on de Sousa Mendes, it looks like he wrote a good chunk of his visas before the French-German armistice took effect, and the French didn’t have any particular reason to stop people from leaving. It also looks like the Portuguese government didn’t like what he did one bit, but it looks like they honored most of the visas.

He was recalled to Portugal two days after the armistice was signed, but continued handing out visas on his way back. In the chaos of war and before the Nazi occupation/Vichy government was on firm footing, it seems that he was able to get some more people across the border.

Again, some of this is guesswork based on his wiki article.

As for Wallenberg, he and another Swedish diplomat handed out passes indicating that the individual was a Swedish citizen waiting repatriation back to Sweden. They also bought up buildings in Budapest and said they were part of the Swedish embassy, and therefore extraterritorial, which they used to shelter Jews. None of this was exactly legal, but the Swedish government was formally neutral, and sold Germany a lot of iron ore, so neither the Hungarians or the Germans wanted to risk offending them.

In War and Remembrance, one of the characters had converted to Catholicism pre-war and had documents from a priest proving it. For plot reasons I don’t recall, he was unable to use the papers, but I wondered if proving you had converted to another religion was enough to prove you weren’t a Jew?

For that matter, what standard of proof did the Nazis use? Was just a rumor you were a Jew enough? Did they have any method of appeals or did the SS goons just drag off to the camps anyone they thought was a Jew and kill them?

They didn’t care if you converted. They only cared about your ancestry.

The Nazis defined anyone who had 3 or more Jewish grandparents as a Jew. Conversion didn’t matter (except possibly in Morocco). Edith Stein converted Roman Catholic and became a nun. She was sent to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers because she had been born a Jew.

In Germany itself, the first regulation under the Nuremburg citizenship law defined a Jew as such:

(Article 2, Section 2, defines “mixed race” people…which is to say, people with both Jewish and non-Jewish ancestors)

Yikes. Those Nazis weren’t real keen on giving anyone a chance to repent their ways or convert. Essentially, by the time you knew about the law, you’re already a criminal for “being a Jew” and it was just a matter of time before they found you and disposed of you. I think ISIS gives people a chance to convert to Islam?

The big question with conversion for the Nuremberg laws comes up if somebody has 2 Jewish and 2 non Jewish grandparents, in defining whether they’re to be considered Jews or mixed race.

The difference is that, for the Nazis, Jews were inferior not because of their religious beliefs, but because of their race. Jewish blood was naturally inferior. You couldn’t stop being a Jew because you couldn’t change your genetic heritage.

That seems kind of…arbitrary. Even if you look like the poster child for the “aryan master race”, you’re still a Jew, eh. Even in their ignorance the Nazis had a vague idea of inheritance and genetics.

If the Nazis really believed this, did they haul off people for “looking Jewish” even without the grandparents?

The Nazis had a lot of weird ideas about genetics, but lots of people all around the world had all sorts of weird racial/genetic psuedo-scientific theories back then. Heck, a lot of people still do.

There’s a photo of her being led into the camp in her habit, but I can’t find it and in so not in the mood to keep searching Google.

Well, surprising as it was, the Nazis were pretty racist.

You can add Paul Gruninger to your list. Like Sugihara, Sousa Mendes, etc… he was reviled, lost his job, etc… for his actions and was rehabilitated only after his death.