British intelligence officer Frank Foley helped at least 10,000 Jews get out of Germany before
the Holocaust, but has never been recognized as a Righteous Gentile. Douglas Davis reports
on one journalist's mission to right that wrong. The Jerusalem Post, February 5, 1999
Overweight and middle-aged, with round, owlish glasses hovering below a
balding head, British bureaucrat Frank Foley did not cut a particularly heroic figure in
1930s Berlin, a city where pleasure and fear mingled under Nazi rule.
But Foley was not all he appeared to be; far from his public role as a gray paper-pusher, Foley's true mission was head of station of British intelligence in Berlin until the
outbreak of World War II.
And based on evidence that is only now emerging, he will enter the history books
as one of the heroic figures of the Holocaust period, equal at least to Oskar Schindler
and Raoul Wallenberg.
For Foley used his power and influence as British Passport Control Officer in
Berlin - a cover for his intelligence work - to help at least 10,000 German Jews
emigrate to Britain and its colonies, including Palestine, and thereby escape the
Unlike Schindler, whose industrial enterprises benefited from the Jews he saved,
or Wallenberg, who operated under diplomatic protection, Foley neither received
financial reward nor enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
Born in 1884, Foley was a veteran of World War I. Fluent in German and French,
he was recruited to Britain's M16 intelligence agency, where he rose to the rank of
captain. He was an ideal candidate for the key posting to the British Passport Control
Office at Tiergartenstrasse 17.
By the end of World War II, Foley's record of achievement for British intelligence
was prodigious. He had convinced scores of German spies to become double agents,
he had organized the operation that saved Norway's gold reserves from being looted by
the Nazis, and he had persuaded leading German scientists not to pass on essential
data about atomic and rocket advances to their Nazi masters.
He was also a principal interrogator of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, who flew to
Britain in a bizarre attempt to strike a peace deal when the war was already lost. Not
least, he had recruited a high-level Soviet spy who, for years after the war, continued to
feed Britain information on Soviet plans to subvert the West.
But it was the rescue at great personal risk of German Jews that will be Frank
Foley's lasting memorial.
The remarkable story is told in the just published Foley: The Spy Who Saved
10,000 Jews, by British journalist Michael Smith, a specialist in security and intelligence
affairs at The Daily Telegraph.
Having written the book, Smith's goal now is to ensure that Foley is recognized
by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
"This man was so remarkable," he told The Jerusalem Post. "He did so much. He
really should be given this honor.
"He ignored all the rules to help Jews leave the country, sometimes demanding to
be let into concentration camps to get them out, occasionally hiding them in his own
home, and using his Secret Service skills to provide them with false papers and
Among those who were sheltered in Foley's apartment was Leo Baeck, the
charismatic head of the Association of German Rabbis, who used the venue to brief
foreign journalists on the increasing persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich.
"At that time, it was a question of life and death for many thousands," said Benno
Cohen, then chairman of the German Zionist Organization and later a Knesset member.
"In those days, Capt. Foley revealed himself in all his humanity.
"Day and night he was at the disposal of those who sought help. He issued visas
of all kinds on a large scale and thereby assisted in the liberation of many from the
The question that baffled Cohen and his colleagues in the Zionist movement was
why Foley should demonstrate such commitment at such high personal risk to save
"Before all else," he said, "Foley was humane. In those dark days in Germany, to
encounter a human being was no common occurrence.
"He told us he was acting as a Christian, and that he wanted to show us how little
the 'Christians' who were then in power in Germany had to do with Christianity. He
detested the Nazis and looked on their political systems - as he once told me - as the
rule of Satan on earth."
Foley's work in Berlin was, says author Smith, "a stupendous act of humanity,
borne not out of political necessity but out of a moral imperative: Thousands of Jews
came to the little office on Tiergartenstrasse, frightened, panicky and desperate for help.
"In the tiny office, they found a tiny staff grappling with a blizzard of paper, and at
its center a small, round man in spectacles. He did not let them down."
According to Margaret Reid, who was a 26-year old graduate of Cambridge
University and a clerk in the intelligence service when she was assigned to work with
Foley, the staff at the Passport Control Office was about twice its normal size when she
arrived at Tiergartenstrasse in December 1938.
In a letter to her mother, just after Kristallnacht, she recounted the impressions of
her first day at the office:
"There was," she wrote, "a queue waiting when we got there at nine this morning
and I believe some of them had been there since 4 a.m."
He initial impression of Foley was of "an active little man… [who] appears to work
14 hours a day and remain good tempered."
Foley, recalled his wife Kay, worked without a break from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,
personally handling as many applications as he could, assisting his staff or giving advice
and comfort to those who were waiting for their applications to be processed.
Eventually, Kay observed, the line outside the office was a mile long: "Some were
hysterical. Many wept. All were desperate. With them came a flood of cables and letters
from other parts of the country, all pleading for visas and begging for help.
"For them," she continued, "Frank's yes or no really meant the difference between
a new life and the concentration camps. But there were many difficulties. How could so
many people be interviewed before their turn came for that dreaded knock on the door?"
As conditions worsened for Jews in Berlin, Foley took greater risks by allowing
some Jews, including Leo Baeck, to live in his home at Lessingstrasse 56.
"They would ring up and ask for help and Frank would slip down to the door late
at night and let them in," recalled Kay.
"They knew if they stayed in their own houses at night they ran the risk of being
dragged away by the Gestapo… I do not know that the Nazis would have done if they
had discovered we were hiding Jews."
Between 1933 and 1939, according to Hubert Pollack, one of the Jewish workers
trying to get Jews into Palestine, tens of thousands more people received visas than
should have, given a strict interpretation of the rules.
"I know possibly better than any other Jew alive how great our debt of gratitude is
toward that honest and courageous man," he said.
"The number of Jews saved from Germany would have been tens of thousands
less… if an officious bureaucrat had sat in Foley's place."
Even after he locked up his office on Tiergartenstrasse for the last time on
August 25, 1939, Foley continued helping Jews to escape.
During the first week of the war, Youth Aliya certificates that he had signed were
being used by the US Embassy to send hundreds of Jewish children to safety in
Scandinavia and, through the Italian port of Trieste, to Palestine.
Lord Janner of Braunstone, chairman of the London-based Holocaust Education
Trust, has now appealed to Yad Vashem to ensure that "Frank Foley… be recognized
and his memory honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
"He carried out thousands of rescues when one can be enough to qualify," Janner
wrote to Yad Vashem. "He risked his own life and position and did not seek any
remuneration for his actions."
Sabine Comberti, who now lives in the predominantly Jewish district of London's
Golden Green and is one of Foley's survivors, has joined the campaign for his
recognition by Yad Vashem.
She says quite simply: "He saved our lives. He did something that was highly
illegal by giving people visas they should not have had. If anyone deserves a place in
Yad Vashem, he does. He was a wonderful man."
Like Comberti, Paula Quirk and her family, also of London, owe their survival to
She feels "very strongly that the English people who helped never got the credit
they deserved. Foley, in his modesty, never told people how much he did."
Frank Foley died in 1958. Was it simple modesty that prevented him from
discussing his role in 1930s Berlin? Why has his story remained unknown for so long?
According to author Smith, Foley's association with British intelligence inhibited
discussion of all activities he performed while in the service.
"He was not allowed to talk to people when he came back to Britain," says Smith.
"His life in Berlin had to remain secret."
Now, with the passage of time, details of his work are beginning to emerge from
archives in Britain and Israel.
And with the revelations come appeals for Foley at last to be recognized for the
conspicuous heroism he displayed in saving thousands of Jewish lives.
Proving a Gentile was Righteous
How righteous does a Righteous Gentile have to be?
That is the question which baffles British journalist Michael Smith, who wonders
why Frank Foley has not been honored by Yad Vashem.
Writing in the London Daily Telegraph last month, Smith described the 1,400
trees that line the avenue leading up the hill to Yad Vashem, each one celebrating a
Gentile who saved a Jew.
"The plaques that rest beneath the trees commemorate Oskar Schindler, Raoul
Wallenberg and a host of other less well-known heroes," he says. "But one name is
missing: that of Frank Foley.
"His claim to be included in the list of those honored at Yad Vashem has been
ignored by those charged with choosing new Righteous Gentiles largely, it seems,
because he was a member of the hated British establishment."
Smith first encountered Foley's story when a former M16 agent told him of a
wartime intelligence officer whose brilliant operational skill was still held up as an
example to new recruits, but whose most important claim to fame was that he had
helped thousands of Jews escape from Nazi Germany.
"One of the most interesting things about Foley," the former agent told Smith, "was that
normally, to be a good case officer, you have to be a bit of a shit. But Foley managed to
be a good case officer and a near saint.
"He was a quite outstanding character. Schindler pales into insignificance
alongside his work. He was a very, very able man who I don't think ever got the
recognition he deserved."
Smith asked officials at Yad Vashem about Foley, and whether they had ever
considered honoring him as a Righteous Among the nations. The officials, he says,
dismissed the idea of honoring him on the grounds that there was no first-hand evidence
to back his claim.
"I was therefore somewhat surprised when a copy of a document from the Yad
Vashem archives arrived in the post," says Smith. "It was the memoirs of Hubert
Pollack, one of the Jewish aid workers who knew Foley and described how he saved
'tens of thousands' of Jews from the Holocaust.
"There is no word of Jewish gratitude toward this man which could be
exaggerated," Pollack had written. "People who do not know him or knew him only
briefly might think I am according him unjustified honors. Not at all."
Pollack's memoirs were to be just one piece of what the London-based Holocaust
Educational Trust has described as a "compelling and weighty body of evidence that
Smith was to collect to support the claims of Foley's obsessive and dangerous campaign
to save Jews.
"Where they could not get someone out, he bent the rules to give them a visa,"
said Smith. "So a large number of those he saved would not even have known his
name. Very many of those who did are now dead. I nevertheless found 15 'living
witnesses' who say they are alive now only because of what he did for them."
But while each of these cases is in itself a heartbreaking testament to Foley's
humanity and courage, said Smith, someone who was saved from the Holocaust is
bound to be grateful to anyone who helped them.
"It is therefore the written evidence of the German Jewish leaders and aid
workers that is more compelling. They saw the global picture. They knew what Foley
had done, far better than anyone making a judgment 60 years after the event.
"When he died in 1958, they planted a memorial grove in his honor in the hills of
Jerusalem. Each of the thousands of trees in the grove was paid for by someone Foley
"The list of those attending the ceremony to unveil a plaque reads like a Who's
Who of the Jewish community in prewar Berlin. They lined up to pay tribute to Foley."
Benno Cohen, then chairman of the German Zionist Organization, described
Foley as "one of the greatest among the nations."
Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, director of the Department for Righteous Among the
Nations at Yad Vashem, said last Thursday that the additional information he has
received about Frank Foley from Lord Janner of Braunstone, chairman of the London-based Holocaust Education Trust, has indeed bolstered Foley's case.
"We received several names [of people helped by Foley]: those here in Israel
we've contacted and those who are in England we've written to," said Paldiel.
"We regret the two years lost because these names were not given to us earlier.
We now do have a larger picture of the man, his work, and his involvement in the rescue
of Jews in Germany.""
Paldiel said he plans to submit the testimonies to this month's Committee on the
Righteous for its decision. He described the material already received as "promising and
positive." - D.D.