A forgotten hero made a decision in Warrenton. It ultimately saved as many as 50,000 people.

By Jason Koch, Editor
Posted 12/1/23

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who attended Central Weslyan College in Warrenton, MO. He would go on to save tens of thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust in World War II.

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A forgotten hero made a decision in Warrenton. It ultimately saved as many as 50,000 people.


Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust and World War II because of a decision made in Warrenton nearly 20 years before the war began.

That’s because it was here, on the campus of Central Wesleyan College, a Swiss-born immigrant named Carl Lutz learned that, despite being a devout Christian, he wasn’t a great public speaker and gave up his dream of becoming a pastor or missionary, instead turning to diplomacy.

“There’s two things I think his time in Warrenton really revealed a lot about who he is,” says Amy Lutz, the director of marketing and communications at the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum

Amy Lutz said she is not sure if she’s related to Carl, but she gave the keynote presentation during an event Nov. 28 at the Warrenton Scenic Regional Library.

The event was organized by Kerry Christian, the library’s adult programmer. Christian said the idea for the presentation was brought up by a lady named Janine Davis

“I had never heard of the story,” Christian said. “I was fascinated by it.”

And then she wanted to make sure the story of one of the most unsung and hidden heroes in world history was told in a community that played an important role in developing that hero.

“The fact that most people have never heard of him or even knew the story I thought was very sad,” Christian said. “So I really wanted to get the word out about this.”

So did Amy Lutz, whose typical 40 minute trip from St. Louis took significantly longer after a semi took out a utility pole Tuesday afternoon near the Casey’s on Highway 47. But she made it to the library, and unveiled a story worthy of a movie.

About 100 people came out to hear the story.

The story of Carl Lutz

Upon realizing that he wasn’t a public speaker, Lutz moved to George Washington University where he graduated in 1924 and became a diplomat.

He spent quite a bit more time in the United States, and ended up being posted in St. Louis. While he was serving in St. Louis, he made several trips back to visit friends in Warrenton.

But in 1936, Lutz was posted to British Palestine, and was serving there when World War II began. Much of the territory of British Palestine would become the country of Israel in 1948.

Lutz would serve as a neutral diplomat in the British territory, negotiating the return of several Germans in the territory and helping them return to their homeland. The role is typical when two countries are at war.

“He’s given the job to help those German citizens, many of whom were diplomats and their families, get back to Germany,” Amy Lutz said during her presentation. “And so apparently he works 20 hour days. He works really hard. He impresses his superiors. He does such a good job that word of him actually reaches the Fuhrer’s office back in Germany.”

But not all of the Germans in the British mandate wished to return, as there were approximately 2,000 Jewish Germans living in the territory.

“And as you can probably expect, Jewish people in 1939 had no interest in going back to Germany,” Amy Lutz said.

Lutz, in his role as the diplomat, was able to negotiate protection papers created by the British for about 1,000 Jewish people, allowing them to remain in the territory.

Those 1,000 individuals survived the war, Amy Lutz said.

But there were about 10,000 protection papers actually created. And they would play a big role in Lutz’s ability to save tens of thousands of more people from the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

His desire to help Jewish people at the time came after he saw a group of Jewish men lynched in the streets. It was then he made a promise to help.

Amy Lutz presents on Carl Lutz at the Warrenton Scenic Regional Library on Nov. 28.
Amy Lutz presents on Carl Lutz at the Warrenton Scenic Regional Library on Nov. 28.

Saving those in Budapest

In 1942, Lutz received a promotion and was transferred to Budapest, Hungary, where he would serve as the Swiss vice consul in charge of foreign interests.

At the time of Lutz’s arrival in Hungary, the country was an ally of the Nazis and had not yet been invaded.

That would change in 1944, when Germany invaded to stop a potential peace agreement between Hungary and the allies.

The Germans were led by Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. 

Hungarian Jews – 440,000 in total – were soon being deported to the concentration camps after the invasion. Most were killed upon arrival, Amy Lutz said.

The Jewish Council for Palestine came to Lutz and asked for help.

The first thing he did was change their name to the Department of Immigration of the Swiss Legation, essentially giving them diplomatic protection.

He also was able to access the protective papers he negotiated while stationed in British Palestine.

Lutz went to Eichmann, asking him to honor the papers that would protect the holders from being deported to the concentration death camps.

Eichmann showed Lutz no respect, Amy Lutz said, but also didn’t want to make the decision whether or not to honor the papers himself. The decision got kicked up to Heinrich Himmler, who passed it onto the Fuhrer’s office.

And the Fuhrer’s office remembered Lutz from his role in helping negotiate the safe passage of German citizens from British Palestine back to Germany. They chose to honor roughly 7,800 of the papers.

But Lutz never had any intention of trying to save only 7,800 Hungarian Jews, Amy Lutz said.

“When they go to the number 7,800, they would just start numbering the papers again,” she said. 

There would have been multiple papers with the same number, and several forgeries were made.

That ultimately allowed Lutz to save far more than 7,800 Hungarian Jews.

But Lutz wasn’t just a heroic paper pusher. He actively saved people who had been left for dead.

The Hungarian Arrow Cross Party was known to take Jewish people to the banks of the Danube, shoot them, and then push them into the icy river. 

One day, Lutz came across the aftermath and saw a woman bobbing up and down in the river. He dove in, still wearing his suit, to save her. She had been shot, but he was able to get her to a surgeon, and she survived the ordeal.

About 100 people came to the presentation to listen to Amy Lutz detail how and why Carl Lutz was responsible for the largest diplomatic rescue mission of the war.
About 100 people came to the presentation to listen to Amy Lutz detail how and why Carl Lutz was responsible for the largest diplomatic rescue …

The cost of Lutz’s heroism

Working against the interests of the Nazis did have unfortunate consequences for Carl Lutz.

Eichmann caught on to the extra papers and the forgeries, and forced Lutz and his wife to go to a rail station where they were holding Jewish people before they were sent off to die.

The Nazis made Lutz go through the paper of every person claiming to have Swiss diplomatic protection, and forced him to identify which papers were real and which papers weren’t.

“They knew if they just allowed all of them through, it would be obvious what they were doing and none of the papers would be valid from then on.”

Anyone with a paper Lutz identified as forged was immediately put on a train.

Lutz and his wife said it was one of the most haunting experiences of their lives, Amy Lutz said.

“Those people were no longer under their protection,” she said.

Despite that, Lutz was able to save thousands of people from the death camps before the city was put under siege by the Red Army.

Unfortunately for Lutz, once the Red Army took the city, they expelled all neutral diplomats.

He was put on a train and a ferry, and briefly stop in Istanbul on their way back to Switzerland.

While in Istanbul, Lutz ordered a glass of orange juice.

He would later be chided by the finance department telling him he wasn’t authorized to buy that juice.

Then his superiors would punish him for helping to save tens of thousands of people from the Nazis.

“They considered it to be a violation of their neutrality,” Amy Lutz said.

The Swiss buried his heroism, and when Lutz died in 1975, he left the world thinking his reputation had been ruined.

Members of the audience listen to the presentation on Carl Lutz, a man who spent two years studying in Warrenton. It was in Warrenton where Lutz gave up his dream of becoming a minister and wound up entering the diplomatic service, which allowed him to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II.
Members of the audience listen to the presentation on Carl Lutz, a man who spent two years studying in Warrenton. It was in Warrenton where Lutz gave …

Lutz’s heroism comes to light

It would be 50 years before the Swiss acknowledged Carl Lutz’s heroic acts.

That move came in 1995, and coincided with a report that the Swiss government had been holding property stolen by the Nazis in their banks.

“Since then, Switzerland has been really big on promoting some guy in their country who did a good job,” Amy Lutz said.

Others, though, were quicker to honor Lutz and his wife for their acts. Lutz himself was named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in 1963. His wife would receive the same honor in 1976. 

That title is granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish individuals during the Holocaust. 

Lutz was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and earlier in 2023 was nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. Congress.

But Lutz didn’t act to save his fellow humans for awards or recognition. He laid out his motivation in a report he wrote in 1949.

“He writes that he did not want to be a Christian in name only,” Amy Lutz said. “He considered it a matter of conscience to save people condemned to die. And that’s why he did what he did.”

Because of that, Carl Lutz is recognized as having organized the largest diplomatic rescue mission of the entire Holocaust. While the total number of people he saved is unknown, Amy Lutz said the number is likely between 30,000 and 50,000.

“And so many people don’t know his name,” she said.

One of the almost 100 people who attended asks Amy Lutz a question at the end of the presentation.
One of the almost 100 people who attended asks Amy Lutz a question at the end of the presentation.

Bringing it back to Warrenton

Christine Raab was one of the almost 100 people who attended the Nov. 28 presentation.

“Our library has such interesting programs and this is one that really sounded like it’d be a primo program,” she said.

It was made even more interesting to her because she had never heard of Carl Lutz.

“I’m always looking to learn something new,” she said. “So this was an opportunity.”

The presentation exceeded her expectations, she said, and it also hammered home that despite Warrenton’s small town feel, the city has the ability to influence the world.

“You think this small town is kind of a nothing town,” Raab said. “There’s so much more that you don’t even realize until you hear something like this. We have a lot of influence we don’t even realize.”

For Kerry Christian, the adult programmer at the library who organized the event, the presentation helped her take steps to achieve the ultimate goal of informing people about the life and works of Carl Lutz.

“We always hear about Schindler. There’s movies about him,” Christian said. “That’s always the name you hear when you hear about the Holocaust rescues, and here (Lutz) saved so many more. It’s just such a shame that very few of us have heard of this man. He needs to be recognized.”

About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at jason@warrencountyrecord.com

warrenton, carl lutz, holocaust, world war ii, jewish