Britain's Schindler: the quiet spy who saved 10,000 Jews
Statue unveiled by the Duke of Cambridge belies a remarkable tale of wartime heroism
It was an extraordinary act of heroism by a thoroughly modest man – and that he saved more than 10 times the number of Jews as Oskar Schindler during World War 2 makes it even more remarkable that he has only been recognised 60 years after his death.
An understated tribute by the Duke of Cambridge on Wednesday seemed, then, to be fitting for a man who always preferred to blend in – a demeanour that allowed Major Frank Foley to become one of World War 2’s greatest unsung heroes.
Similarly, the bronze statue the duke unveiled in Mary Stevens Park, Stourbridge, depicting a suited figure with round glasses and a briefcase, sitting on a bench, is unremarkable, but it belies the scarcely believable twists and turns of Foley's life in the mid-20th century.
As an MI6 officer working undercover in passport control at the British Consulate in Berlin during the 1920s and 30s, it is now known that Foley saved more than 10,000 Jewish men, women and children from persecution by Adolf Hitler's rising Nazi Party.
It was at enormous risk to his own life and in perilous defiance of his employers.
“I suppose it was the style in those days to not talk about what you’d been doing in the war, but nobody in our family mentioned it, and it wasn’t until the 90s when we knew what Uncle Frank had been doing,” says Stephen Higgs, 64, a great-nephew.
“Perhaps this has been questioned by recent events, but I like to think what he did was a very human response to what was going on at the time, and that anyone in the same situation would have done just that.”
Visa vis a cover
Born in 1884 in Somerset, Foley was sent to a Jesuit seminary in France before training as a missionary, then deciding on a career as an academic.
When World War 1 broke out he was studying philosophy in Hamburg and should have been interned along with his ex-patriot colleagues. Instead, he got hold of a military uniform, posed as a Prussian officer and escaped Germany by train.
After being shot in the lung on the Western Front, Foley entered the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, and was posted back to Germany in the 1920s, where his cover involved stamping visas that allowed Jews to leave the country. With those documents costing more than £1,000, and many Jewish bank accounts frozen by the Nazis, it was often an impossible price. So Foley would charge £10 or, if that was too much, he would just ask for a letter promising the full payment.
Later, he helped Jews gather forged documents, including personally hiding them in the flat he shared with his wife, Katharine.
Acting independently, he risked arrest and defied the British government’s own immigration stance, yet continued for as long as he could.
In 1938, the family of 12-year-old Werner Lachs was trying to escape Cologne, fearing the anti-Semitic persecution that was increasing by the day. Their desperate applications for a visa to Britain, then the US, were both unsuccessful. But at the 11th hour, the family received a letter from the British passport office in Berlin, instructing them they would be granted a temporary visa to England.
“It was a Sunday morning, and we jumped for joy,” Lachs, now 91, recalls. “We got our passports and escaped three months before the war started.”
It would be decades before Lachs knew that Foley was the mysterious “angel” passport officer who offered his family safe passage. In the late 90s, when many MI6 documents were declassified, the author Michael Smith began investigating Foley’s story for a book, Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews. In the course of his research he contacted Lachs.
“I wouldn’t be here but for Frank Foley,” Lachs says. “He is, as far as I am concerned, my saviour.”
The family moved to Manchester, and Lachs still lives nearby with his wife Ruth, another survivor of the Nazis. They now have three children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren around the world.
Foley’s life was no less extraordinary after he left Germany when war broke out. In 1941, he questioned Rudolf Hess, after Hitler’s deputy flew to Scotland, and later hunted SS officers, before retiring to a quiet life in Stourbridge in 1949.
When he died 10 years later, at 73, the funeral was simple. There were no wider tributes other than a handful of letters sent to the Daily Telegraph.
It is only in recent years that his exploits have been appreciated, with Smith’s book, an honour at Yad Vashem (the official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) and a plaque unveiled at the British Embassy in Berlin in 2004.
In January, Foley received a rare tribute at MI6’s London headquarters, from the organisation’s current chief, Sir Alex Younger: “There is a mantra that surrounds the MI6’s history: ‘Our successes are private; our failures are public’,” he said. “It is a wonderful thing for MI6 that one of its most distinguished member’s successes are no longer private.”
Foley had no children, but on Wednesday, as artist Andy de Comyn’s statue was revealed, extended family joined some of those he helped and leaders from the Jewish community, as well as local Labour MP Ian Austin and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) – both of whom played pivotal roles in having the memorial created.
After this year’s rise in anti-Semitic abuse, and the row that has engulfed the UK's Labour Party, telling the stories of Jewish persecution in the early 20th century has become all the more important, and the duke’s support has not gone unnoticed. “In this day and age, when we have people deny and obfuscate around the Holocaust, and so many accusations of anti-Semitism, it’s incredible to have our future king come and make a point of this,” says Karen Pollock, the chief executive of HET.
“It has been a difficult period over the last couple of years. A lot of people who went through such dark times can’t quite believe what they’re seeing today, but it makes what we do even more necessary.”
Higgs believes the statue “could not have come at a better time”, while Lachs admits he worries for the future. “It is upsetting. I am concerned about my children, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have no feelings about Jeremy Corbyn but the important thing is that the seed has been sown, and it is going to be a long, long time before it disappears. If people do not know this history, they will become ignorant about what happened and just believe what they hear.”
In Stourbridge, beyond a small plaque, there will be little boasting of his achievements, and a deliberate space on the other half of the bench. “I like to think it’s because someone can sit next to him,” Pollock says. “It’s how he was remembered in Stourbridge: a quiet, humble man getting on with things without anyone knowing who he really is.”
– © The Daily Telegraph