Frank Foley helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazi crackdown in 1930s Berlin. On Wednesday, a plaque was unveiled at the British embassy in the German capital in honor of the work he did and the lives he saved.
Foley monument in Berlin: The civil servant risked his life to save Jews
He was known as the "Scarlet Pimpernel of Berlin" and in recent years has been given the moniker “Schindler from Stourbridge,” although in reality he was just plain old Frank Foley. However, there was nothing remotely plain about the actions or the life of this apparently unassuming Englishman.
To those who worked around him at Berlin's British embassy during the 1930s, Foley was just a passport control officer. But behind the facade of the bespectacled, middle-aged bureaucrat was a real life World War II hero in the making. Foley was, in reality, the head of British intelligence in the German capital, a post he held until the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.
The man from Stourbridge in the ‘Black Country’ of the British Midlands went on to save 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust by falsifying papers, freeing them from concentration camps and hiding them from the Gestapo in his flat. Foley also used his cover as passport officer to rescue Jews from deportation to the death camps, often bending the rules by which London was trying to limit Jewish migration to British-ruled Palestine.
It is for these and other heroics that the British spy was honored as a "true British hero" in Berlin on Wednesday, 120 years after his birth, and 46 after his death. Officials at the British embassy unveiled a plaque in his honor during a ceremony attended by relatives of Jews whose lives Foley had saved.
While his actions were similar to those of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who helped thousands escape the gas chambers, Foley’s original nickname came from a time long before Steven Spielberg’s film about Schindler exposed such heroics to the world. The British spy was known as the “Pimpernel” ever since his name cropped up in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Frank Foley's heroism remained largely unrecognized after World War II because of official secrets acts. Unlike other figures who saved Jews, such as Schindler and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Foley did not receive financial rewards for his exploits or enjoy diplomatic immunity.
Sir Peter Torry, the British ambassador to Berlin, paid tribute to the former spy and his tireless work under extreme pressures and danger. “Without diplomatic immunity and at considerable personal risk to himself, this unassuming man chose to follow his conscience. He went to the concentration camps to secure the release of Jewish prisoners; he issued thousands of visas to enable Jews to flee persecution in Germany. He was a very humane and honorable man, a true British hero.”
Foley's wife, Kay, recently described her husband’s life at the embassy in Berlin in an interview, recalling scenes outside the embassy of mile-long queues of Jews waiting in the hope of obtaining a visa. “He worked without a break from 7a.m. to 10 p.m., personally handling as many applications as he could. Some people were hysterical, many wept and all were desperate,” she said as quoted in the British daily, The Independent. “For them, Frank's 'yes' or 'no', really meant the difference between a new life and the concentration camp,” she said.
Peter Weiss, whose mother was saved by Foley, told the newspaper: "My mother was virtually the only survivor of a very large family. All the children who survived from that time are his legacy."
Once Foley’s position in Berlin became untenable, he left the embassy to embark on an espionage career that was highly successful and useful in the Allies’ struggle against the Nazis. Foley was responsible for recruiting scores of German double agents and organized an operation to save Norway's gold reserves from the Nazis. When Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, flew to Britain in an abortive attempt to broker a peace deal with the British, Foley was called in as the interpreter.
He returned to his home town after the war and died in Stourbridge in 1958. The town honored him with a plaque describing him as "The Schindler of Stourbridge" in 1999.