Oskar Schindler was a German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews during World War II by cunningly convincing the Nazi regime that he needed the free labor to keep his army-supply factory functioning.
Most of us have at some point heard, read or seen something on television about Mr. Schindler’s heroic crusade to save lives. His accomplishments have been widely disseminated through numerous books and documentaries and even Steven Spielberg immortalized his life in the Oscar-Winning film “Schindler’s List.”
Another noteworthy historical figure known for his humanitarian efforts during World War II was Angel Sanz Briz, the Spanish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi regime while serving in Hungary.
In order to persuade the German occupiers to free some prisoners, Mr. Sanz claimed that all of the Sephardic Jews were entitled to Spanish citizenship because they were the descendants of those expelled from Spain by the Catholic monarchy in the late 15th century.
With this scheme, Mr. Sanz saved more than 5,000 Jews and granted them Spanish citizenship. Mr. Sanz’s cause was also captured by the media in a Spanish movie called “The Angel of Budapest.”
There were many other diplomats, individuals and even a few Nazi officials who tried to save lives from the atrocities of “The Final Solution” and war throughout the continent, but there is one case that is often overlooked by historians.
Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldívar snatched 40,000 prisoners from the grip of fascism during the second world war. Mr. Bosques’ case is particularly remarkable because of the number of lives he managed to save and because we don’t often hear about the role played by Mexico during World War II.
Mr. Bosques was born on July 20, 1892 into a middle-class family in a small town in the state of Puebla. After his active participation in the Mexican Revolution, Mr. Bosques’ political career advanced rapidly, and in 1924 he became an elected congressman.
In 1939, after the fall of the Spanish republic at the hands of Francisco Franco, Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas (the same president that expropriated the oil industry) appointed him as consul general of Mexico in Paris.
Not long after his arrival, however, the German occupation of Paris became imminent and Mr. Bosques moved Mexico’s consular operations first to Bayonne and later to French-controlled Marseille.
The original mandate of Mr. Bosques was to protect Mexican citizens trapped in the middle of the conflict, but when he witnessed the desperation of the displaced trying to escape the Nazi regime, he convinced President Cárdenas to facilitate the transport of refugees to Mexico and to grant Mexican citizenship to all of them upon arrival.
In order to save as many refugees as possible, Mr. Bosques rented two castles in Marseille, planted the Mexican flag in both and kept and fed as many refugees as he could fit, many of them rescued from concentration camps and underground safe houses.
Mr. Bosques then convinced the Mexican government to send passenger vessels to the coast to pick up the refugees and take them to Mexico.
In 1942, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with occupied France. Not long after, German forces occupied the Mexican consulate and arrested the refugees that were waiting to be transported to Mexico. They confiscated documents and property of Mr. Bosques and his family, and he and the 43 members of the Mexican consulate were sent to the German-controlled locality of Amélie-les-Bains.
That same year, German submarines destroyed Mexican tankers that were transporting oil to the United States, and in response Mexico declared war on the Axis powers. At that point Mr. Bosques and his family became prisoners of war and were taken to a prison-hotel in the German town of Bad Godesberg.
It was not until 1943 that Mr. Bosques was freed and returned to Mexico where he was received as a hero by the refugees he had saved.
The problem of refugees is unfortunately not limited to the history books of World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 22.5 million in the world, and countries that have traditionally welcomed them are starting to reduce the numbers they accept each year.
In recent months in Mexico it has not been uncommon to find articles in the newspapers about Haitian refugees in Tijuana and the northern border states, or news about Central Americans looking for a better life in Mexico. (Unfortunately it’s not always good news).
There are also stories about a few Syrian refugees in Mexico. Reports from COMAR (the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees) show that Mexico is receiving applications from refugees from countries as far away as Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Iraq.
Mexico has always been a hospitable society, and we need to work to preserve that. Even today, we can see the thriving descendants of the refugees Mr. Bosques helped to escape. The contributions, loyalty, and thankfulness of refugees makes for a stronger and more diverse society.
The common thread of the stories of these World War II heroes was the great risk they took to preserve human life and to protect the most vulnerable members of society. We need to build more bridges, not walls. We need more Oskar Schindlers, more Angeles Sanz, and we definitely need more Gilbertos Bosques.
“It was not me, it was Mexico,” is what Gilberto Bosques Saldívar said every time he was thanked by a refugee.
Alvaro Amador Muniz hails from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, is an honorary Tennessean and an avid basketball player currently living in Mexico City. He can be contacted at [email protected]