Like Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected his Jewish workers from Hitler’s death camps, Sir Thomas Hildebrand Preston was an unlikely saviour.
The British diplomat – who cut a dash in tailored suits and a monocle – had worked as a gold miner in the Ural mountains before being appointed British Consul General in Kaunas, then capital of Lithuania, in 1930.
The charismatic baronet’s wry reports on the country’s social and political life helped keep Whitehall on its toes in the shadow of approaching war. But Sir Thomas’s most important – and secret – role as Britain’s man in Kaunas is only just beginning to be appreciated.
During the first year of World War II, as Lithuania was caught between onrushing Nazi and Soviet forces, Sir Thomas issued some 1,200 visas – 800 legal, 400 in defiance of Whitehall – that enabled Jews to flee the country and enjoy protected travel to Palestine or Sweden.
In June and July 1941, detachments of German Einsatzgruppen, together with Lithuanian auxiliaries, began murdering the Jews of Lithuania
Sir Thomas Hildebrand Preston, British Consul General to Lithuania during the early years of WWII issued some 1,200 visas – 800 legal, 400 in defiance of Whitehall – that enabled Jews to flee the country and enjoy protected travel to Palestine or Sweden
This travel document was issued by the Japanese embassy allowing a Jewish family to escape Lithuania
In response, the Reich Main Security Office added Sir Thomas’s name to the list of ‘undesirables’ who were to be executed if Germany successfully invaded the UK.
Tomorrow, his actions will be commemorated as Kaunas – this year’s European City of Culture – marks Holocaust Memorial Day.
‘His actions saved many people and the family is moved and very proud,’ says Sir Thomas’s grand-daughter, Melanie Nicholson-Hartzell. ‘The incredible thing is that we knew nothing about this. He never mentioned it.
‘To us as children, he was a funny, kind grandpa we loved being with. But this is an important part of history and we are pleased that more people will learn about it.’
Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of children from Czechoslovakia, has long been lauded as the ‘British Schindler’ but Sir Thomas’s determination to get Jews out of harm’s way stands alongside his noble achievement.
Due to Sir Thomas’s bravery, thousands of people are alive today whose families would otherwise have perished, joining nearly 150,000 Lithuanians of all religions sent to Siberian labour camps or the estimated 200,000 Lithuanian Jews killed during World War II – some 95 percent of the Baltic state’s Jewish population.
.A visa issued by the British allowing a jewish family to escape the death squads in Kaunas
On one, unimaginable day of terror in Kaunas, some 9,200 people – including 4,273 children – were murdered by the Nazi regime in a prison on the outskirts of the city.
Death squads were also given license to bludgeon Jews and dissidents to death in the streets.
While Sir Thomas left before the invading hordes arrived, Sugihara Chuine, a Japanese government attache who also issued many life-saving travel permits – and will be commemorated alongside Sir Thomas tomorrow – was interned for ten months in the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
‘Sir Thomas and Sugihara did not see themselves as heroes but, to the people they saved and the generations that came after, they are true heroes,’ says historian Linas Venclauskas, of the Sugihara House Museum, in Kaunas. ‘They were risking their lives but felt they had to do what they could.
In one incident in 1941, Luthuanian nationalists clubbed to death Jewis people during the Kovno Garage Massacre
‘To illustrate the enormity of what happened, one man with 21 children managed to get visas for only two of them, who survived; he and all the others were murdered.’
Sir Thomas was born in Epping, Essex, and although the nephew of a Baronet, his branch of the family was not blessed with wealth. They managed to fund his education at Westminster School but he was forced to abandon his Russian studies at Cambridge University when their money ran out.
He left England to work in mines near the Black Sea in Georgia, then joined a team prospecting for gold in the Urals as a result of a chance conversation in a London pub.
The local knowledge he acquired, along with his love of Russian culture, made him a prime candidate for the diplomatic service.
He was appointed Vice-Consul in Ekaterinburg in 1913 where he got to know Czar Nicholas II and tried to save the family from the Bolshevik agents who murdered them in 1918 after the Revolution, ending the Romanov dynasty.
He left Russia in 1927 and served two years in Turin, Italy, before heading to Kaunas.
Sugihara Chuine, a Japanese government attache who also issued many life-saving travel permits – and will be commemorated alongside Sir Thomas tomorrow – was interned for ten months in the Soviet Union at the end of the war
He soon became an influential and important figure, in Lithuania’s high society, winning admirers for composing a ballet which was performed at the Kaunas State Theatre.
Wearing his distinctive monocle – he lost an eye from a school cricket injury and sported a glass replacement with the monocle over his good eye – Sir Thomas was the first name on guest lists for official and society events.
Lithuania then was an independent country – until Soviet forces arrived in 1940, when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact.
Jewish families had to choose between renouncing their faith for Soviet citizenship or deportation to almost certain death in Gulag camps.
There was fresh horror when the Nazis invaded. Jews were then trapped between both sides and arrests, torture and street executions became commonplace.
Sir Thomas could guess what was to come: assisted by two Jewish clerks, he began preparing sheaves of documents permitting families to leave.
The British government had a strict quota for those allowed to start new lives in Palestine, but Sir Thomas ignored warnings from colleagues and continued signing papers and allowing his British government stamp to be used to add extra authenticity to other visas and transit documents.
‘He had a very strong feeling of what was right and was well known to go against the grain of Foreign Office policy,’ adds Melanie. ‘I think he saw the writing on the wall, particularly as he had good contacts within the German diplomatic corps and many of them were opposed to Hitler.
‘It was illegal to issue these papers but I don’t think he saw himself as a Scarlet Pimpernel figure: he just had to do what was possible. Remember, he had witnessed what happened during the Russian Revolution and what was possible when extremism took over. I suspect his only regret was that he couldn’t save more.’
Sir Thomas, pictured as a young army officer was transferred to Istanbul after one final act of defiance: leaving behind a pile of signed and stamped blank travel visas that helped more families
In September 1940 the entire European diplomatic corps had to flee Lithuania.
Sir Thomas was transferred to Istanbul after one final act of defiance: leaving behind a pile of signed and stamped blank travel visas that helped more families.
His report of leaving Kaunas was characteristically calm, despite the turmoil: ‘The Lithuanian train (our last trip on a civilised train until we reached Turkey) in which we travelled as a far as Vilna, was on time; and an excellent lunch, at a moderate price, was served in the restaurant car.’
He eventually retired in 1948, living first in London then the English countryside before inheriting his uncle’s baronetcy (ahead of his two daughters, who were ineligible under primogeniture laws) and the family seat Beeston Hall in Norfolk in 1963.
A memorial stands on the site where a group of Jews were beaten to death in 1941
His grand-daughter Melanie and her sister Eugenie, who both live in Vienna, remember visiting his country home for childhood holidays.
‘We have lovely memories of him and spending all our summer holidays in Norfolk. He played the fool, pulled pranks and was a typical Englishman of that time,’ says Melanie.
‘We thought he was great. We had heard stories about him meeting the King then I do remember a BBC film crew coming to speak to him about the Czar and the murders but we learnt nothing of what he actually got up to during his diplomatic career.’
Sir Thomas used his British government stamp to add credibility to travel documents of Jews fleeing persecution – despite the objection of Whitehall
Eugenie, who works for the United Nation adds: ‘Grandpop was a character and we have memories of him coming to breakfast with his glass eye in his pocket instead of his eye socket.’
The first they heard of Sir Thomas’s discreet heroics was some years back, when Sara Elkes, a community worker from Leicester, lobbied the Foreign Office to place a tribute to him in its building in Whitehall.
Elkes had a special motivation – she owed her life to a passport signed by Sir Thomas that allowed her, and her brother, Joel, to travel from Lithuania to England to study and survive.
Her father, Dr Elchanan Elkes, stayed to treat the sick in the Jewish ghetto. He died at Dachau concentration camp in 1944.
Decades after his life-saving action, a portrait of Sir Thomas now hangs proudly in the British ambassador’s office in Lithuania’s new capital, Vilnius – and the City Of Culture celebrations are bringing his name and exploits to a new generation.
Sir Thomas, pictured with his family, was included on a death list of people to be executed had the Nazis successfully invaded the UK
Decades after his life-saving action, a portrait of Sir Thomas now hangs proudly in the British ambassador’s office in Lithuania’s new capital, Vilnius – and the City Of Culture celebrations are bringing his name and exploits to a new generation