The World Jewish Congress (WJC) yesterday honored Jose Maria Barreto, the Peruvian diplomat whose heroic efforts to save dozens of Jews from Nazism in defiance of his government cost him his career. In a special ceremony at the Sharon Synagogue in Lima last night, the WJC presented a commemorative sterling silver decorative plate to the late Barreto’s great-granddaughter, Sylvia Saavedra.
“The entire country of Peru is honored to claim Jose Maria Baretto as one of our own, ” said Jack Falkon, coordinator of the human relations committee for the Jewish community of Lima, which operates under the auspices of the WJC. “Baretto’s actions serve as an example to the diplomatic community of how to behave under extreme circumstances. You must follow your conscience before all else.”
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“Even in the darkest days and most difficult circumstances there were exceptional people that endangered their lives and careers for the right things and the Jewish people and the WJC are deeply indebted to them, ” said WJC CEO Robert Singer, who attended last night’s event. “Barreto’s deeds will never be forgotten.”
In 1938 the Peruvian government instructed its European consulates not to issue visas to foreign immigrants, especially Jews. Abraham Silberschein, the head of RELICO, a Jewish relief organization in Switzerland supported by WJC, asked Barreto, the consul general of Peru in Switzerland, to issue passports to Jews under German occupation. When Swiss authorities confronted Barreto in 1943 about a Peruvian passport issued to a German Jew named Gunther Frank, the consul general wrote to the Peruvian ambassador that he had in fact issued 27 Peruvian passports to 58 Jews, including 14 children, at the request of the “Intellectual Refugee Protection Committee” to save the lives of Jews in concentration camps headed for certain death.
The Peruvian foreign ministry then cancelled the passports, closed its consulate in Geneva, fired Barreto from his post and dismissed him from the foreign ministry.
“For many years no one knew the story as our great-grandfather was a very humble person. Now that the years have passed, we are learning the story. We are happy that he had the courage to do something like this and we are very proud of him in our family, ” said Saavedra.
Barreto was the first Peruvian to also be honored by Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts, in a posthumous ceremony in 2014.
In a 1943 letter, Silberschein wrote: “Mr. Barreto, deeply moved by the suffering of millions of human beings in the occupied countries, wished to participate in helping to alleviate the plight of these innocent people, and decided to agree and provide us with a certain number of passports so that we could send them to different persons in the countries under German control. Mr. Barreto was convinced that by this highly humane deed he would save a number of people.”