I first came across the story of Frank Foley while researching a book on British intelligence. One of the former MI6 officers I met told me about a wartime British spy whose skills as a agent handler were so good that they were still held up as an example to new spies joining Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Nevertheless, his most important claim to fame was that he had saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
‘One of the most interesting things about Foley was that normally to be a case officer you have to be a bit of a shit,’ the former MI6 officer said. ‘But Foley managed to be a good case officer and a near saint. Schindler pales into insignificance alongside his work on getting Jews out of Germany. He was a very, very able man who never got the recognition he should have done.’
Foley at the start of WW2
It was a startlingly impressive testimonial. But if Foley had done so much, why had I not heard about him. If the former MI6 officer was right, Foley clearly ranked alongside the likes of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg and yet his name was virtually unknown. I set out to find out the truth about Foley. One of my first stops was Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Centre, where I asked if Foley had ever been considered for the honour of Righteous Among Nations, the accolade accorded to any gentile, most notably Schindler and Wallenberg, who helped to save even one Jew from the Holocaust.
Benno Cohen, Chairman of Zionist Organisation of Germany, who said: ‘Foley was the pimpernel of the Jews.’
Officials at Yad Vashem told me they had heard of Foley but there was no evidence to support his case. I was therefore surprised when they sent me a copy of a document held in their archives. It was the memoirs of Hubert Pollack, a Jewish aid worker, who worked alongside Foley in Berlin, and it described how Foley had saved ‘tens of thousands’ of Jews from the Nazis.
It was just the first of a series of testimonies by prominent Jews who had known Foley that I found. Perhaps the most dramatic had been made during the 1961 trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, when one of the chief prosecution witnesses, Benno Cohn, the former chairman of the Zionist Organization of Germany paid tribute to the role played by Foley. ‘There was one man who stood out above all others like a beacon,’ Cohn said. ‘Captain Foley, Passport Officer in the British Consulate in the Tiergarten in Berlin, a man who in my opinion was one of the greatest among the nations of the world. He brought his influence to bear to help us. It was possible to bring a great number of people to Israel through the help of this most wonderful person. He rescued thousands of Jews from the jaws of death.’
But testimony from those who were not themselves rescued is not enough for Yad Vashem. It must have testimony from a living witness, someone who was themselves saved by Foley, in order to honour him. I set about finding those living witnesses. It was of course impossible to find ‘tens of thousands’. Many of those saved would already have died by the late 1990s and as I later found out, many others would not even have known they were saved by Foley. But some were still alive and finally ready to tell stories that had remained hidden for far too long - for how could someone who had arrived in Palestine illegally because of Foley praise him without admitting they had no right to be there and so risk expulsion back to Germany?
When the state of Israel was first set up in 1948 some of those who had known Frank Foley and his humanity, including a number who had been rescued by him, tried in vain to gain official Israeli recognition for Foley’s efforts on behalf of Germany’s Jews. But such was the feeling against the British at the time that few were willing to believe an Englishman might have helped to save Jews. Hubert Pollack was particularly vociferous in his complaints against the state for its failure to act. In a letter to Teddy Kollek, then intelligence adviser to David Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, Pollack said the authorities were behaving like ‘a bunch of beggars’.
Hubert Pollack, Zionist agent, who said: ‘The number of Jews saved from Germany would have been tens of thousands less, yes tens of thousands less, if an officious bureaucrat had sat in Foley’s place.’
He pointed out that Foley had not only saved ‘tens of thousands of Jews’ he had also known about efforts by the secret Zionist organisation Mossad LeAliyah Bet to smuggle German Jews into British-controlled Palestine but had not reported this, as he should have done, to his superiors. ‘A British officer who knew in 1939 about the operations of Mossad LeAliyah Bet and did not inform the mandate police did more for the state of Israel than most of the rich Jews or important non-Jews who received the red carpet treatment from our state,’ Pollack said. But although many of the Jews rescued by Foley knew he had helped them and were extremely grateful, very few were aware of the scale of his efforts. His story remained untold until 1999 when my book was first published in Britain.
One of the Jewish leaders in pre-war Berlin, Hans Friedenthal, President of the German Zionist Organization, had written to Foley in 1942 to congratulate him on being made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George by King George VI. ‘We Jews have no order to award,’ Friedenthal said. ‘But we have a good and long memory. You may be assured that the German Jews will not forget how often you have helped them.’ Thanks to the work of Lord Janner and the Holocaust Educational Trust, the evidence I had collected had been passed on to Yad Vashem. Officials had interviewed the living witnesses I found in researching the book and decided on 25 February 1999 to award Foley the title of Righteous Among Nations. It had taken more than 50 years but Friedenthal’s promise had finally been honoured.
A completely updated edition of Foley published in April 2016 as a Dialogue Espionage Classic contains a large amount of new information on his remarkable intelligence operations.
A memorial to Foley in Israel
Reviews of Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews
"Gripping. An outstanding book. The last word on the Final Solution."
Phillip Knightley, Mail on Sunday
"A fascinating book. Smith writes well: coolly and unexaggeratedly, sensibly and authoritatively."
Alan Judd, Daily Telegraph
"‘Very effectively conveys the atmosphere of cumulative danger experienced by Jews in Germany under the Nazis."
Gerald Jacobs, The Times
"In his splendid book, Smith has done a fine service in putting the full facts on record."
Chapman Pincher, Western Daily Press
"One of the greatest untold stories of heroism and humanity from the Second World War."