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  • Meinem Vaterland, der Republik Polen treu sein

     

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  • 22 April 2019

    Here is some basic information about Konstanty Rokicki (1899-1958), Polish wartime diplomat from Berne, who according to two Israeli newspapers has been posthumously declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Please let us remind you that the gravestone of Rokicki can be found at the Friedental Cemetery in Lucerne.

    Who was Konstanty Rokicki and what did he do? Rokicki was a consular officer who served as Polish vice-Consul in Berne between 1939 and 1945. He was responsible for issuing passports. Between 1941 and 1944, Rokicki bought over 1,050 blank Paraguayan passes from the Swiss honorary consul of Paraguay and forged passports for over 2,600 people. The passports often were issued to entire families which is why 1,050 blank forms could cover 2,600 people. He also issued other documents – confirmations of Paraguayan citizenship – some 2,000 people received such documents.

    How did the passports work? The owners were able to prove they were foreigners and that the Holocaust ‘laws’ did not apply to them. Many of them were interned by the Nazis rather than sent to death camps. Poland and some other states supported the idea of exchanging the ‘passport Jews’ against German nationals held by the Allies and some exchanges took place in 1944 and 1945. However, for many survivors, passports helped avoid massive deportations, after which they went into hiding.

    Did Rokicki work alone? No, he did not. Rokicki worked under instructions of Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś and his deputy Stefan Ryniewicz. Documents show that Ryniewicz also played part in forging passports and Ładoś vehemently defended the whole procedure in his meeting with the Swiss Foreign Minister Marcel Pilet-Golaz. Ambassador Ładoś also initiated widespread intervention by Polish embassies after which Paraguay and some other countries recognized the illegal documents. Rokicki also worked with his Jewish colleague, Polish diplomat Juliusz Kühl and directly co-operated with representatives of both secular and religious Jewry, Abraham Silberschein and Chaim Eiss.

    Why Poland, being occupied, had a Legation (Embassy) in Berne? Poland was occupied after losing the battle of Poland in September 1939, but its government refused to surrender and continued the fight against Nazi Germany by re-creating the army, first in France and then in Britain. It kept its whole network of Poland’s pre-war embassies. The Legation of Poland in Berne was considered a diplomatic representation of an Allied state.

    Were Paraguayan documents the only passports issued illegally in Berne? No, they were not. In 1943, Rokicki and Ryniewicz met former Polish member of Parliament, Zionist Abraham Silberschein and gave him the green light to look for other sources for passports. He identified the consuls of Honduras, Haiti and Peru who also were ready to sell or issue fake documents. The papers for Paraguay, however, represent a majority of all documents forged during this operation. In 1944, the Jewish employee of the consulate of El Salvador in Geneva, Georges Mandl-Mantello, supported by Consul General, Jorge Castellanos, repeated the same scheme and provided Jews with the documents of this Central American republic. By then the activities of ‘Ładoś Group’ had already ceased because the Swiss police broke the ring and all the Latin American consuls had been fired.

    How did the Swiss react? In 1942 and 1943 the Swiss police conducted a long investigation into the ‘illegal activity’ and briefly detained Silberschein, Eiss and Kühl. In Autumn 1943, Ambassador Ładoś and Counsellor Ryniewicz convinced the Swiss to turn a blind eye. They were supported by US diplomats and by the Apostolic Nuncio, Filippo Bernardini. By 1944, Switzerland abstained from any actions against the Poles. The affair however led to discharge of all of the Latin American consuls who had provided the passports.

    Did Rokicki work for free? Yes, all of the Polish diplomats and their Jewish partners did. When Rokicki left Poland’s diplomatic service in 1945, he was considered a very poor man. Later, he lived in a homeless shelter. Also, Ambassador Ładoś spent last years of his life in extreme poverty. Some Jewish families paid bribes to middlemen who offered them life-saving passports but none of the latter had any link to the Polish Diplomatic Service. One such middleman, a Zurich-based lawyer, seems to have made millions by offering rescue to rich Jewish families from Germany and Holland. By establishing a monopoly on passport production and by giving Jewish organizations the unique right to create lists of people, Rokicki and Ryniewicz effectively eliminated greedy middlemen from the ‘market’.

    Did Ambassador Ładoś and his diplomats, including Consul Rokicki, disobey their own government’s instructions? No, they did not. The Government in exile, although unaware of the scale of the operation, fully supported it and tasked the Legation with trying to obtain passports for individual families. At least one such request was signed directly by Tadeusz Romer, Polish Foreign Minister. The beneficiaries of this effort, a Jewish family of five, survived the Holocaust.

    How many documents overall were created and where did they go? We estimate the number of people to whom Latin American documents were made at 8-9 thousand and Abraham Silberschein estimated it at 10 thousand. Our Embassy knows the names of more or less one third of them. Most of documents were sent to German-occupied Poland, including its territories annexed illegally by Germany. A large number went to Holland, where they saved numerous lives of Dutch and German Jews, some were sent also to France, Belgium, Slovakia, Hungary and other countries.

    How many passport owners survived? Thousands. By now, we have found 682 documented survivors, but given the fact that only one third of all passport owners were identified and the fate of only one sixth of them is known, we believe, that this number should be multiplied. We are going to publish the list soon.

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