A black and white photograph of the American soldiers, lined up in uniformed order, four in the front of the many rows with the second soldier from the right holding a flowing American flag.

The Unsung Heroes of World War II

Today, we remember Allied soldiers as heroes of World War II (WWII). What we all need to remember is that there were unsung heroes of WWII that weren’t soldiers.

One of the famous heroes was a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi party, not a soldier. His name was Oskar Schindler (April 28, 1908 – October 9, 1974).

Schindler employed 1200 Jews in his enamelware and ammunition factories in occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

During the Holocaust, Schindler persuaded Nazi officials to allow his workers to transfer to the Plaszów labour camp, which saved them from the death camps. In 1944, the Nazis placed Jews at Plaszów in Auschwitz. Schindler bribed officials to keep his workers and set up factories in a safer location in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

By the end of the war, he saved 1200 Jewish lives.

In 1962, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official agency for remembering the Holocaust, declared Oskar Schindler a Righteous Gentile.

Like Schindler, the heroes below, who were not soldiers from their respective countries, battled the Nazi regime and saved Jewish lives, some with weapons and others with their wit and professional expertise.

Carl Lutz, the Swiss Diplomat

An image of Carl Lutz, an unsung hero of WWII, standing at a window at one of the destroyed sites in Budapest, Hungary.
image source: bbc.com

Carl Lutz (March 30, 1895 – February 12, 1975) was stationed in Hungary and led a diplomatic rescue operation that saved tens of thousands of Jews from death camps, the largest diplomatic rescue of WWII.

The Schutzbrief

In 1942, Lutz was a Swiss vice-counsel in Budapest, Hungary.

Come March 1944, Germany invaded Hungary and urged the country to take part in the “Final Solution”. They wanted all Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz.

Hundreds of Jews crowded daily in front of the Swiss delegation. Lutz, horrified by these actions, did everything possible to save the Hungarian Jews.

His initial attempt to appeal to the Hungarian government to stop the deportation failed. He then sought an alternative.

Lutz issued tens of thousands of Schutzbrief, Swiss protective letters, to Hungarian Jews. The Nazi officials reluctantly recognized the documents.

The Death Marches

In the last months of WWII, the Nazi Regime began eliminating the whole Jewish community of German-occupied Hungary.

With close to 8000 certificates received from Great Britain for immigration to Palestine, Lutz got permission to issue those protective letters to 8000 Hungarian Jews, but he added a twist to his plan.

Lutz put the 8000 Jews as families, not individuals. As a result, he and his staff issued tens of thousands of additional protection letters.

In addition, he rented 76 buildings in Budapest as safe houses. He and his wife, Gertrude provided the Hungarian Jews with food and proper medical treatment.

The most famous building was the Glass House, an old industrial building that housed and protected 3000 Jews.

During the death marches, from November 10 to 22, 1944, Lutz and Gertrude followed the Jews, pulled many out of the march and produced documents that declared the Hungarian Jews under Swiss protection.

By December 1944, all diplomatic and consular efforts left Budapest, except the Swedish. Lutz remained in Budapest and continued his efforts until the country’s liberation in 1945.

The Aftermath

Close to 124,000 Hungarian Jews survived by the end of WWII. Tens of thousands of them owe their lives to Carl Lutz.

Until recently, the world and Jewish people forgot his name.

In the 1960s, Yad Vashem and the State of Israel honoured him.

In 1963, Haifa, Israel named a street after Carl Lutz and, later, his home village and the Swiss government. He was the first Swiss recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1964.

During the March of the Living in 2013, 20,000 people took part in honouring the deeds of Lutz outside the Glass House, now a historical monument.

Carl Lutz, instead of using firepower and violence, used his diplomatic expertise and paperwork to save the Hungarian Jews.

Freddie and Truus Oversteegen and Hannie Schaft

A side by side images of Freddie and Truus Oversteegen and Hannie Schaft, three unsung heroes of WWII.
Right to Left: Hannie Schaft, Truus Oversteegen and Freddie Oversteegen. image source: twitter.com

A single working-class mother raised two daughters, Truus (August 29, 1923 – June 18, 2016) and Freddie Oversteegen (September 6, 1925 – September 5, 2018), in Haarlem, a city outside of Amsterdam.

The matriarch, who considered herself a communist, taught her daughters the importance of fighting injustice. With Europe on the brink of war in 1939, she brought Jewish refugees into her home.

From their mother, the sisters learnt that if you’re willing to help someone, you must make sacrifices.

When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1939, the sisters joined their mother in the dangerous act of distributing anti-Nazi newspapers and pamphlets for the resistance. If the Nazis or Dutch police caught them, they would’ve been killed.

However, because of the sisters’ young appearances, the police were less likely to suspect them of working for the resistance.

The Haarlem Resistance Group

In 1941, a commander of the Haarlem Resistance Group visited the Oversteegen house and asked the matriarch if he could recruit her daughters.

The mother and her daughters, Truus, 16, and Freddie, 14, consented. It was later that the commander told them they would learn to sabotage bridges and railways and shoot Nazis. Although this shocked the sisters, they didn’t turn away.

On missions, because of her young and innocent appearance, Freddie excelled at following a target and keeping a lookout. As for Truus, her matured appearance lured Nazi soldiers into secluded areas for an ambush.

Among their other duties were bringing Jewish refugees to a new building, working in the emergency hospital in Eschede and blowing up the railway line between Ijmuiden and Haarlem.

Hannie Schaft

Jannetje Johanna Schaft (September 16, 1920 – April 17, 1945) soon joined the sisters.

Schaft was a former university student who dropped out because she refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to Germany.

She and the Oversteengen sisters formed their own sabotage and assassination. Schaft then took on the codename, Hannie.

However, the Nazi soldiers saw her during an attempted assassination, and she became a target. The Nazis referred to her as the “Girl with the Red Hair”.

In March 1945, German soldiers caught Schaft while she transported underground papers with a pistol on her bicycle. They tortured and interrogated her.

Three weeks before the war ended in Europe, they executed Hannie Schaft on April 7, 1945. She was 4.

The Aftermath

After the war, the Netherlands hailed Hannie Schaft as a national hero.

As for the Oversteegen sisters, they found their own way to cope with their experience during the war. They never revealed how many Nazis or Dutch collaborators they killed.

Along with getting married, Truus created sculptures and wrote and spoke about their time in the resistance.

Freddie married and had children. However, her experience caused her insomnia. She recalled that after she saw a person she shot fall to the ground, she had the impulse to help him.

The Netherlands failed to recognize their accomplishments and labelled the sisters as communists instead.

In 2014, they finally received recognition for their service to their country by receiving the Mobilisatie-Oorlogskruis, the War Mobilisation Cross.

Truus Menger-Oversteegen died on June 18, 2016, at 92.

Freddie Nanda Dekker-Oversteegen died on September 5, 2018, a day before her 93rd birthday.

In honour of Hannie Schaft, in 1996, Truus and Freddie started the National Hannie Schaft Organization. Their aim was to make people of all ages aware of the consequences of extremism, fascism, racism and discrimination.

Johan van Hulst

An image of Johan van Hulst, speaking at a Senate meeting.
image source: nytimes.com

Johan van Hulst (January 28, 1911 – March 22, 2018) was a Christian Dutch educator and the deputy principal of the Reformed Teachers’ Training College in Amsterdam.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, van Hulst turned the school into an anti-Nazi resistance site and made it a shelter for Dutch teachers who refused to sign the oath of loyalty to Germany.

In 1942, he turned the school into a different type of shelter.

Hollandse Schoenberg Theatre

Van Hulst’s schools was across from the Hollandse Schoenberg Theatre, which became a deportation centre for Jews in Amsterdam.

Jewish children, separated from their parents, were put in a day-care facility next to the school. The two buildings shared a garden.

Henriëtte Pimental (April 17, 1876 – September 17, 1943), a Jewish teacher, ran the facility. Along with Pimental, there was Walter Süskind (October 29, 1906 – February 29, 1944), a German Jew appointed by the Nazis to run the theater operation.

Van Hulst worked with Pimental to save the children in the day-care facility. He and his colleagues planned to smuggle the babies and children out of the city.

Operation Relocation

Pimental passed the children over the hedge to the teachers and kept them hidden in the classrooms.

Süskind canvassed potential adoptive families. He focused on the physical descriptions of the families to make it easier for the children to fit into the families undetected.

When it came time to move them, the teachers and university students placed the children and babies in baskets and sacks.

The operation helpers waited for a tram to pass to block the Nazi guards’ view from the theatre. The helpers cycled the children and babies away, still in the baskets and sacks, to the countryside to their adoptive families.

The children lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

Together, van Hulst and his team saved 600 children.

The ruse lasted until 1943. The day-care facility closed and Pimental was sent to Auschwitz, along with the remaining 100 children.

According to van Hulst, it was the hardest day of his life. He had to decide which children to take, all while knowing those left behind were going to die.

I took 12 with me. Later on, I asked myself: ‘Why not 13?’

-Johan van Hulst.

The Aftermath

Van Hulst was one of the thousands of resistance workers who defied the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. He protected and hid from Dutch Jews for the remaining months of WWII.

He later served in the Dutch Senate and the European Parliament.

In 1972, Yad Vashem named him “Righteous Among the Nations”.

Until his death, at 107 years old, he only regretted not doing more.

I was at the center of a particular activity. It’s not about me. I don’t want to put myself in the foreground or play Resistance hero. All I really think about is the things I couldn’t do – the few thousand children I wasn’t able to save.

-Johan van Hulst.

Virginia Hall – The Limping Lady

An opaque image of Virginia Hall, an unsung hero and one of the deadliest spies to the Nazi regime.
image source: elcorreo.com

The Limping Lady, or Virginia Hall (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982), was one of the most dangerous spies against the Nazis.

The Limp or Cuthbert

While in Turkey on a clerical assignment for the US Embassy, Hall was on a hunting excursion with her friends. During the excursion, she stumbled while climbing over a wired fence and accidentally discharged her shotgun and mangling her foot.

She lost her left leg below the knee and was fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg, which she affectionately named “Cuthbert”.

Years later, she applied for positions in the Foreign Service, a long-time aspiration of hers. However, they informed her she wasn’t eligible for the position, not because she was a woman, but because she was an amputee.

Being an amputee didn’t stop her and she was determined not to let her prosthetic leg get in the way.

She quit her job at the State Department and found herself on a different path.

Vera Atkins, British Spy

In 1940, Hall left for Paris as a civilian on the eve of the German invasion. She drove ambulances for the French Army but fled to England when France surrendered to Nazi Germany.

During a cocktail party, she angrily criticized Hitler. Hall caught everyone’s attention in doing so, but one person led Hall to an opportunity.

That person was British spymaster Vera Atkins (June 16, 1908 – June 24, 2000), whom many believe to be the inspiration for Sir Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny in his James Bond series.

Akins gave Hall her business card and said that if she wanted to stop Hitler, call her.

British Special Operations Executive (SOE)

Atkins recruited agents for the SOE.

Hall accepted the position for Winston Churchill’s newly created British SOE, a secret British WWII organization. It was created around the same time that Europe was heavily involved in the war.

The SOE extensively trained Hall in undercover tradecraft, communications, weapons and other resistance activities. Her first-hand knowledge of the French countryside, multi-language fluency and moxie impressed Atkins.

Hall was the first female resident agent in France. Her forged papers stated that she was an American reporter for the New York Post.

She radioed information on German troop movements and military posts and recruited a network of loyal resistance spies in central France, for which she provided safe houses and intelligence.

During her initial stay in a convent, she persuaded nuns to help her. There, she befriended a female brothel owner and the French prostitutes shared information they managed to obtain from German troops.

Although they didn’t have technical advancements, spies found creative ways to get messages across. Hall sent stories to her “New York editor” filled with coded missives for the SOE in London.

The Rise of the Limping Lady

Hall became notorious among the Nazi leaders. Her actions caught their attention. When the Germans realized they were after a limping lady, they dubbed her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies”.

Klaus Barbie, also known as “the Butcher of Lyon”, was an infamous Gestapo officer. His forces killed and tortured thousands in France.

Barbie was in hot pursuit of Hall. He ordered a WANTED poster with a feature sketch of Hall above the phrase: “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find and Destroy Her!”

After the WANTED poster went up, Hall fled France. The only possible way for her was a 50-mile trek over the Pyrenees mountains southward to Spain.

The bitter November weather, along with the wooden prosthetic leg, made the journey agonizing.

When she made it to Spain, the Spanish soldiers arrested her because she didn’t have an entrance stamp. After her release six weeks later, she headed to Britain.

The U.S. Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.)

Hall soon grew restless and felt her fight with the Nazis wasn’t over.

The SOE feared the danger she would be in and declined her request to return to France. After that, she signed up with OSS, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The US had no virtual presence in France, but that changed with Virginia Hall.

In 1944, a few months before D-Day in Normandy, Hall rode a British torpedo ship to France. She disguised herself as a 60-year-old peasant woman and entered the French countryside, where she organized sabotage teams.

According to OSS records, she called in airdrops that detailed derailed freight trains and blew up four bridges, killed 150 Nazis and captured 500 more.

The Aftermath

When the war ended, Hall received the Distinguished Service Cross, one of the highest military honours for bravery in combat. She is the only civilian to receive the award during WWII.

Hall continued to work for the CIA until her mandatory retirement at 60.

Her last 15 years at the CIA were not her happiest. She thrived off acting independently in the field during the war. Being confined to a desk was not her ideal position, in addition to facing discrimination as a woman.

She didn’t encourage attention and praise. Her closest family members and friends didn’t know the full extent of her mission in France.

The British, French and Americans recognized her contributions in private.


A black and white photograph of the American soldiers, lined up in uniformed order, four in the front of the many rows with the second soldier from the right holding a flowing American flag.
image source: vtx.vt.edu

In the past, soldiers and civilians did their part for justice. It happens in the present and, although they go unsung like those mentioned above, there are those who aren’t soldiers who fight for the innocent.

For example, along with the soldiers involved in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, there are civilians in and out of Ukraine who help the refugees live safer lives.

In the fight against injustice, there needs to be a clear line between fighting it and revenge for it.

Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.

-Theodore Roosevelt.

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