After recovering from his wound, Frank Foley, former student turned confidence man/soldier put his talents to use in the SIS, Britain’s intelligence service and the great-grandfather to today’s MI6. And what did Frank do for those first few years as World War 1 ended? We don’t know.
Even all these years later his early work is still shrouded in secrecy. The intelligence world is loath to give up its secrets, even when they are nearly a century old (keep this in mind when you think about what Britain finally did disclose about his future deeds – it takes a special case to make MI6 open up their files). What we know though is that by the 1920’s, Foley was back in Germany. Not as a soldier, or a captive, but working as a station officer out of Berlin.
Being a station officer is not the flashiest job in the espionage world, but don’t discount it. Being a station officer is a lot like living in the jaws of a lion. They are a necessary facet of the intelligence world, but also one of the most visible and obvious targets. Unlike nameless agents who conduct dangerous fieldwork but always have the option of slinking back into the shadows under another identity, or an analyst stationed back home, dispassionately assessing information and assigning orders, station officers live among their enemies. They are as visible as any element of an intelligence apparatus is, the people they’re spying on know their faces and addresses.
This is a risky position for someone to hold in a nation that just a few short years earlier were trading artillery fire and mustard gas with your homeland. Sign all the peace treaties you like, they’ll go up in flames as soon as a single spark sets things off. Of course, it’s even more risky working as an intelligence officer during the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
Foley was a smart man, and while he was a man of compassion and morals himself, he harbored no illusions about his fellow man. When Hitler took power in 1933, he could read the writing on the wall as easily as a neon sign.
He saw the increasing demonization of the Jewish population. He kept detailed notes as more and more security hoops were made for Jews to jump through, more bureaucracy, more ghettoization. He took his wife Kay on a drive one day to the woods, supposedly "looking for a picnic spot.” But all the while he was paying careful attention to the no trespass signs, the building equipment and materials being moved into obscure and isolated spots far from prying eyes. He knew a concentration camp being built when he saw one.
The gears started turning in his mind even then. He wasn’t going to sit on his hands and watch innocent people be slaughtered if (and when) it came to it.
When the holocaust began, Foley subtly bent, flaunted, or broke the rules to get as many Jews out of Nazi Germany as he could. His actions cannot be undersold. While heroes like Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from death, and Irena Sendler saved as many as 2,500 children, the exact number of people saved from torture, murder and death by Foley isn’t even known. Estimates place the total number above 10,000, with many estimating even more than that.
How did he do it? Through forgery, working with shadowy resistance networks, lying to his own people, and sheer utter gall.
As a superior at the British consulate, Foley understood every nuance of the emigration and passport process for accepting refugees to Britain, and more importantly, British controlled Palestine. He had authority in his station so long as he could plausibly be seen to be doing the job by his British superiors. So, he employed every dirty trick he could to rush the process time for Jews and push passports into their hands.
One of the major obstacles for fleeing Jews was exorbitant fees for visas. For example, a Palestine visa cost over 1,000 British pounds, a sum impossible for most working-class Jews to suddenly provide (especially considering most had their accounts frozen and assets stolen by Nazi controlled banks). But Foley arranged a system where he would accept 10 pound "down payments” with the assurance that the other 990 pounds would be paid in Palestine (*wink, wink*). For those who couldn’t afford even that, he’d ask about their recent correspondence, including any with a relative who promised to give them the full 1000 in the near future. You’d be surprised how many people suddenly remembered their generous old aunt in Palestine who was waiting for them.
But why the need for such chicanery in the first place? Why couldn’t he just help people without all the winking and nodding and fudging of paperwork? Simply put, not everybody back home wanted him to.
We have to remember that, sadly, not every British politician or bureaucrat was as interested in helping the Jewish people as Foley was. While the evil of the Nazis is obvious to us now, plenty of Parliamentary members at the time were aghast at the prospect of welcoming thousands of Jewish refugees to Britain. While antisemitism in Britain wasn’t anywhere near as toxic as it was in Germany, it did exist. These ministers didn’t even like the idea of sending Jews to Palestine, considering it an erosion of their interests in the area at the time and a needless provocation to the Germans (British appeasement was more popular than many would care to admit today). So, men of conscious like Foley were caught between two sets of jaws, the Nazi wolves ready to pounce on any sign of sabotage, and incompetent and spineless jackals back home who were more than happy to allow evil to go unchallenged so long as it meant less hassle for them.
Foley was playing a dangerous game. If found out by the Germans he would be imprisoned and likely executed, no question. No diplomatic immunity would save a foreign agent actively undermining Hitler’s government in such a direct way. If his own people caught on to exactly what he was doing, he’d be recalled, fired, and maybe even tried for treason (governments take the actions of their operatives very seriously and can’t just abide station chiefs doing whatever they please, no matter how morally right they may be). Foley was in as much danger behind his desk in Berlin as he ever was in the trenches.
If the man had simply used his pen and a series of winks and nods to save more than 10,000 Jews, he would more than qualify as a hero. But Foley took an even more hands-on approach than that. With a courage we may never understand, Foley has the confidence to walk into concentration camps waving around stacks of papers, claiming the names of prisoners who’s "visas had been approved” but had been accidentally shipped off to the camps before they were properly issued.
Of course, many of these prisoners had never even applied and certainly none of them had been miraculously approved. Working with resistance networks, he’d acquire the names and details of recently captured Jews (particularly those active in resistance efforts), draw up fake paper work, and then "interview” them in the camps. Apologizing for the mix-up, Foley would walk them out of the gates himself and see them safely transported away from the camp and onto a boat heading for Palestine.
He played his part to a T, ever the consummate professional. Many of the people he saved never even knew what happened, believing themselves to be the beneficiary of a miraculous, but legitimate, clerical error. But it was no mistake, Foley walked into camp after camp and left with the lives of hundreds of Jews saved from certain, torturous death.
Foley’s devotion to what was right knew no end. He kept his superiors in the dark about the underground Zionist organizations he worked with, carefully managing information to ensure he was never connected to their actions and could continue to support them in his role. He even took wanted Jews into his own apartment, sheltering them for a night or two before having them spirited away under false papers and new identities.
Very few people knew about any of this. A few sympathetic fellow SIS members, some members of the Jewish resistance and Zionist underground, maybe a few of the men and women he pulled out of the concentration camps had an inkling about the frumpy old bureaucrat with kind eyes, but that’s it. It would be nearly 50 years after his death, when SIS files and his personal records would be unsealed before the public began to realize the full scope of his deeds. During his life Foley sought no recognition or gratitude for what he did.
Frank Foley was a true hero. He was a man who saved an unbelievable number of lives at extreme personal risk to himself for no reward, no accolades, and no praise – only the knowledge that he did the right thing. He might not have gone on to be the missionary he thought he would be when he was a child, but he exemplified the grace and courage of a true servant of Christ.