Books: The very special agent with a passport to life

Foley: The Spy who Saved 10,000 Jews by Michael Smith Hodder & Stoughton pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Their names are invariably blanked out of the top-secret documents now released half a century later at the Public Record Office, but one former MI6 special agent is ensured his niche in history by this research coup - which last weekend led to the honorific "Righteous among the Nations". Rarely has the Jewish accolade for outstanding courage by a gentile in their cause been more deserved. Frank Foley, described by one Jew as "a most charming man, who would have done perfectly as a jolly Father Christmas type", was the unlikely saviour of at least 10,000 Jews. He used the standard Secret Service "cover" of passport officer in pre-war Berlin to offer the desperate supplicants who flocked to his office door an escape route. Oskar Schindler achieved less from a more dubious base.

Foley took an extreme risk with his official diplomatic position, and possibly his life. More than once he marched into a concentration camp to plead for the release of man with no relatives by waving the appropriate visa. Michael Smith has interviewed several of these survivors. One, Gunter Powitzer, was scheduled for release from Sachsenhausen - but at the same time expected to be re-arrested and put on the death list read out almost daily by an SS man carrying an axe on his shoulder. When he asked the guards where several other inmates had disappeared to he was told: "We tried out a new machine gun today."

On the release date Powitzer was taken for a shower, usually the euphemism for gassing. He told Smith: "We went to the clinic where they began treating my whip wounds. `What happened?' I asked. `Shut up,' the SS man shouted and threw a grey greatcoat over me. `You've got a guest.' I was very thin and when I put the coat on it covered all the wounds on my legs and neck. `Who knows I'm here?' I wondered. `Who can it be?'

"Dressed for the first time in a month in civilian clothes, bandaged, cleaned up and shaved, I was led by the SS man into the camp office. There sat a small man wearing glasses, who told me in English: `my name is Foley. I am from the British consulate in Berlin'." The rescue is documented with the SS "mug shot" of an emaciated, shivering Powitzer.

The Jews called Foley their "Pimpernel", but Orczy's pasteboard heroics were hardly an appropriate parallel for this undercover humanitarian mission to deny the Nazis their prey. It was conducted with cold courage and sheer chutzpah in the face not only of an ever- more oppressive system, which systematically stripped the Jews of their citizenship, their human rights - and then life itself - but also of an anti-Semitic British bureaucracy.

Smith reveals that, not content with discouraging Foley from issuing visas which could be used for covert entry to Palestine, thus irritating the Arabs, the Foreign Office and the Secret Service ordered him to drop a contact in the German air ministry who had been providing valuable inside information on Hitler's war plans, to avoid compromising the prevailing appeasement policy. (Another of his contacts, the young German nuclear physicist Paul Rosbaud, gave the British and American scientists working on the atomic bomb project the first intimation that the enemy were not in a position to "pip them at the post".) Foley circumvented the rules in not alerting Whitehall to the earliest "Exodus" sailings to Palestine (which were approved by Eichmann). He answered the Foreign Office's pusillanimous instruction to stop the flood of Jewish emigrants to the International Concession of Shanghai - then practically their only haven - by saying "it might be considered humane on our part not to interfere officially to prevent Jews choosing their own graveyards. The people who sail for Shanghai have usually been warned to leave Germany within a few weeks or enter and return to a concentration camp. They would rather die as free men in Shanghai than as slaves in Dachau."

Forging exit papers, hiding Jews on the run, stretching the Passport Office rulebook well past its then legal limit, Foley used his Secret Service training to excellent effect. He helped control the Master Spy "Garbo" in the vital "Fortitude" plan to deceive the Germans as to the true target for D-Day. He was a key figure on the Double-Cross Committee, which specialised in feeding the Germans disinformation to draw them out on their own plans.

Ironically, there is a chance that he was foiled in the last act of his shadow war with the Nazis and a potential "Double-Cross" coup, by the blundering incompetence of amateurs. Detailed to interrogate Rudolph Hess in secure, "bugged" conditions after his arrival by parachute, Foley discovered that the local Scottish "Dad's Army" had got in first and put the deputy Fuhrer on his guard. Michael Smith has made no errors in bringing a long- neglected hero out of the shadows.

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