Robert Townsend Smallbones was born on March 19, 1884, the child of Austrian parents who emigrated to Britain before he was born. He went to Oxford before joining the Foreign Office in 1910.
In 1914, he was appointed Consul at Stavanger in Norway where he met and married Inga Gjertson.
In 1920, he was appointed British Consul for the State of Bavaria. In 1922, he became Consul for Slovakia. In 1926, he moved to the Republic of Liberia and a year later to Angola. In 1931, he was resident in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
In 1932, the Foreign Office sent him to Munich. More jobs in Germany followed until, by 1938, he was the British Consul-General in Frankfurt. Throughout that time, Smallbones and his family witnessed the growing Nazi horror. He wrote repeated warnings to the Foreign Office about it.
Smallbones wasn’t the only person in the Frankfurt Consulate horrified by the Nazis. His daughter once horse-whipped a Gestapo officer to try and prevent him taking a Jewish man off the street.
By 1938, Consulate staff were secretly offering refuge to Jews. Then came Kristallnacht. As the Nazis rampaged through Frankfurt, desperate Jews begin arriving at the British Consulate pleading for help, but Smallbones was back in England. Smallbones’s mother and his wife ordered the gates of the British Consulate open and it became a refuge for the Jewish community of Frankfurt.
Smallbones learned of the situation the following day. He was told the Jews needed help to get out of the country. Smallbones agreed. He went to meet with senior people in the Home Office responsible for immigration. When he asked what they intended to do, he was told lots of foreigners could not be allowed in despite their plight.
Nobody wanted to give Jews permanent immigration visas. Smallbones proposed that the Home Office allow anyone who had a valid U.S. visa to “wait” in Britain for a year until they were eligible to enter the United States. This was essentially a temporary visa for Britain that expired when they get to America.
Home Secretary Viscount Hoare is horrified by what’s happening in Germany, but anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant feeling in the public and Parliament limits his actions. He agrees to Smallbones’s plan but says to carry it out quietly in a way that would not require parliamentary approval.
Smallbones met with Otto Schiff of the Jewish Relief Agency to draft the plan and Hoare signed off on it. The next day, a flash was sent to all British Consulates in Germany:
The caveats were to avoid it spooking parliament or the German authorities:
Smallbones returned to Frankfurt and kicked things into action. He immediately informed local Jewish community leaders of the plan and informed them that families could apply on behalf of anyone seized by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. He then went to the Gestapo and informed them that if he approved a visa, which placed the person under the protection of the British and he expected them to be immediately released when he asked.
It was a lie, and a gamble. But it worked.
Smallbones then turned the entire Frankfurt consulate into a machine with one job: getting Jews out of Germany to safety in Britain. Word got around: “You can’t get out? Get to the Frankfurt. They care there. They will help.”
One survivor said:
It was not easy to keep up with the demand. Smallbones had to sign everything, and the Gestapo would often release people only if he made a request in person.
For the next nine months Smallbones worked 18-hour days signing documents, arguing with the Gestapo, helping desperate people. He couldn’t stop. He later confessed that whenever he tried to sleep, he couldn’t. “After two hours sleep my conscience pricked me. The feeling was horrible that there were people in concentration camp whom I could get out and that I was comfortable in bed…. I returned to my desk and stayed there...”
Elsewhere others were using the Smallbones scheme too. Frank Foley, a Passport Officer in Berlin was also using it. Romance author Ida Cook also met him, during her own desperate work to save lives.
When he returned from Germany, Smallbones asked the Home Office how many visas had been processed. He was told he had saved 48,000 Jews and 50,000 more were being processed when war was declared.
Then they swore him to secrecy because the Home Office was afraid of the reaction of the public and Parliament if they knew how many people were allowed into the country.
He never liked talking about what he had done in part because he always thought about the people he hadn’t managed to save. It wasn’t until 2008 that the British Government and Foreign Office officially acknowledged what Smallbones had done. Ironically, the Nazis recognized what Smallbones had achieved. It earned him a place in the “Black Book” of people to be rounded up by the Gestapo after the invasion of Britain.
Smallbones was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1918, but he died long before any official British recognition of his rescue work. In 2013, he and his vice-consul, Arthur Dowden, were posthumously honored by the British government as “Holocaust Heroes.” A plaque to the two men was dedicated in front of one of London’s largest Jewish cemeteries. A similar plaque was unveiled in Frankfurt.
The couple was nominated for the Righteous among the Nations title; however, they were not given the title because they had not “actively risked their lives or their liberty for the express purpose of saving Jews from persecution and murder.”
Sources: John Bull, @garius, (April 10, 2021).
Tara Finn, “Bending the rules to save souls,” Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, (January 26, 2018).
Simon Rocker, “Diplomat who faced down the Gestapo,” The JC [UK], (October 24, 2021).
“Robert Smallbones,” Wikipedia.
Correspondence with Yad Vashem, (November 18, 2021).
Photo: John Bull @garius.