The spy hero of Stourbridge - Frank Foley
PUBLISHED: 09:54 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:43 20 February 2013
The story of Frank Foley and how he saved thousands of people from certain death is one of those tales of modest heroism that nearly vanished into history.
The small, balding man with round glasses and a tendency to paunchiness aroused little curiosity among the residents of Eveson Road, Norton, Stourbridge, when he came to live there shortly after World War Two. He was just ordinary.
While some people talked about their experiences during the recent conflict, he always kept his thoughts to himself and simply became older and more run of the mill. In 1958, he died aged 73 and went to his grave almost unnoticed.
But behind his inscrutable faade lay one of the most heroic stories of the 20th century. For the man who had been largely ignored by those around him, had not only been a master spy in Nazi Germany, but had also helped to save thousands of Jews from the gas chambers of Hitlers Final Solution.
His name was Frank Foley and, once his secret was uncovered more than 40 years after his death, he became known as the British Schindler. Time after time, he put his own life on the line to prevent the deaths of 10,000 Jews and flouted the laws of both Britain and Germany in the process.
Foley went to work for the Foreign Office in Berlin in 1920 when Germany was emerging from the chaos of defeat in World War I. He therefore witnessed and reported to the British Government on the political and social changes that took place during the rise to power of Hitler. He was also able to see the impact of the Nazis anti-Semitic regulations.
By the 1930s, he had become Head of the British Passport Control Office in Germany which was a cover for his real job as Britains most senior spy in Berlin with the Secret Intelligence Service, the precursor of MI6. He kept up a furious corresponence with his masters in Whitehall about the street violence wrought by the Nazi jackboots and was more responsible than anyone for ensuring that the British Government was left in no doubt about the fate of Germanys Jews.
His work was so thorough that as early as 1935, M. J. Creswell of the Foreign Office Central Department was able to declare: Not only the status of the Jew, but the whole political outlook of present day Germany is pure mediaeval.
But Britain felt unable to give every potential refugee political asylum. Firstly, it was wrestling with recession and industrial unrest and, secondly, it feared that if war did break out, Germany could use the refugees to smuggle spies and fifth columnists into England. The Government, therefore, limited the numbers receiving sanctuary to academics and other high profile figures.
So Foley took matters into his own hands. He issued as many travel visas as he could and, as the situation for Jews worsened, he bent the rules even further. He broke Nazi laws by entering concentration camps and presenting visas to the camp authorities so that Jews could be freed to travel. He also hid Jews in his home and used his contacts to help them obtain false papers, forged passports and visas. He broke British laws by issuing these visas.
All this was carried out against the background of his spying activities which were his main raison detre. As far as his masters were concerned, issuing passports was merely the legal front to hide his illicit day job but, in his personal crusade to mitigate mans inhumanity to man, Foley had turned it into a doubly illegal activity which would undoubtedly have led to his execution if he had been discovered. Miraculously, he got away with it and retired to Stourbridge once peace had been declared.
One of the things I find so amazing about Frank Foleys story is that after his time in Germany, where he accomplished extraordinary things and saved so many lives, he retired to live an ordinary life in an ordinary house in an ordinary town, the local MP, Lynda Waltho, said recently.
His actions were all carried out at great personal danger as he had no diplomatic immunity and could have been arrested at any time. He received no financial reward for his actions; he risked his life every day simply because he believed it was the right thing to do. It shows that extraordinary deeds can be accomplished by ordinary people and that is truly inspirational.
Like many other people who did brave things during that conflict, Foley never mentioned it to anyone. It was almost as if he had had enough fear to last a lifetime and wanted to spend the remainder of his days at rest knowing that he need never again fear hearing a knock on his door in the middle of the night.
That was why it was more than four decades after his death before his heroism was honoured and even then it was not in his own country. In 1999, Foley was posthumously recognised as Righteous Amongst the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel - the same award granted to Oskar Schindler.
His actions were only recognised in Britain and Germany in the 21st Century. On 24 November, 2004, on the 120th anniversary of Foleys birth, a plaque was unveiled in his honour at the British Embassy in Berlin. Three days later, a plaque was also unveiled at the entrance to Mary Stevens Park in Stourbridge and Dudley Council introduced an award in his memory for community spirit.
Since then, many of the great and the good have at last paid tribute to his heroism, but nobody put it better than one of the people he saved. Elisheva Lernau, who was by then aged 91, was amongst those who travelled to Berlin for the unveiling of his plaque. She said simply: His name is written on my heart. I owe my life to this man I never met, a man of humanity in a time of unparalleled inhumanity.