• Być wiernym Ojczyźnie mej, Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej



  • 8 sierpnia 2018

    Główni bohaterowie akcji wystawiania paszportów państw Ameryki Łacińskiej, ich odbiorcy, a także modus operandi grupy polskich dyplomatów i ich żydowskich współpracowników, którzy podczas Drugiej Wojny Światowej nieśli pomoc dla osób w okupowanej Europie, były głównymi punktami prezentacji przedstawionej podczas konferencji genealogów mającej miejsce w Warszawie. Prelegentami byli: badacz historii Żydów pochodzących z Zagłębia Jeffrey Cymbler, konsul honorowy RP w Zurychu,Marku Blechner, a także I sekretarz Ambasady, Jędrzej Uszyński. Poniżej prezentujemy treść wystąpienia J. Uszyńskiego

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    It is a great honor and great pleasure to take part in the 38th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, here in my home city of Warsaw and at the same time - the city so important to the Jewish history.

    I would also like to express my gratitude to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw and the Polish State Archives - the co-hosts of the conference.

    Same as much I consider possibility speaking to you as a privilege, you may wonder why a Polish diplomat currently serving in Bern is standing in front of you – Jewish genealogists.

    The reason is Polish Ambassador in Switzerland, Mr. Jakub Kumoch, myself and our colleagues in Bern were lucky enough to meet proper people at proper places and see documents that shed new light on efforts of our predecessors that may be at the same time helpful to you.

    Today I wish to present you the modus operandi of the so called Bernese Group – a group of Polish diplomats and their Jewish associates who during the Second World War, in Switzerland, produced Latin American passports to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

    Taking this opportunity, I salute Mr. Markus Blechner, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland in Zurich, without whom this fascinating story might not have resurfaced.
    Mr. Blechner was the one who pointed out to some witnesses and some materials which ignited this ongoing research.

    The issue of foreign passports is - by no means – a new one. Władysław Szlengel, a Polish Jew, who perished in Holocaust, would not have written his bone-chilling poem “Passports” out of the blue. Throughout the years numerous works have been published, starting with the study of the Yad Vashem Institute, published in 1957, publications of Polish, American (and to some extent – Swiss) researchers, ending with the recent revelations by Polish and Canadian journalists in 2017.

    Only at the beginning of 2017 our Embassy started collecting evidences and testimonies of people who claimed that Polish Legation in Bern played decisive role in the scheme of forging Latin-American passports. The majority of our ‘sources’ were Jews who literally pressed us to do something.

    Then, we searched for documents in Bern, London, Washington, Jerusalem, Warsaw and other places. We have managed to get in touch with many families of those rescued as well as survivors themselves.

    Once we started collecting documents, publications and comparing them, it became obvious that one archive shows only part of the story. The passports of Paraguay (with all data - names, photographs), stored in Abraham Silberschein’s archive Yad Vashem, reveal the truth only partially. And vice versa – the archives of the Swiss police provide some insight into ‘clandestine operation’ or ‘illicit acts of Polish diplomats’ but scarcely inform what was it all about. Only when put together, they give the full picture.

    Before I describe the scheme, I owe you several words of introduction regarding its protagonists. Interestingly enough, member of the Bernese Group, were four Polish diplomats and two representatives of the Swiss Jewish community. Three of them were Polish Jews and three non-Jewish Poles. I am speaking about:

    1. Aleksander Ładoś a Polish Envoy in Bern, who supervised and personally approved the actions of diplomats;
    2. Abraham Silberschein, a former Polish MP, delegate to the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva in August 1939 who became founder of the RELICO Committee and the important intermediator between Jews in German-occupied Europe and Polish Legation;
    3. Polish-born orthodox Rebbe Chaim Eiss, who operated in a similar manner as Silberschein, but  in Zurich;
    4. Stefan Ryniewicz, Ładoś’s deputy who was involved in organizing a political umbrella for the scheme, but also maintained contact with the Jewish organizations and  was personally involved in the process of forging passports;
    5. Juliusz Kühl, a young diplomat whose contacts with the Jewish organizations and whose cooperativity made it possible to establish a direct line of communication with the Polish Legation;
    6. Last but not least - Konstanty Rokicki. Polish consul who has manually – as you will shortly see - forged more than a thousand  Paraguayan passports. 

    Latin-American passports gave their holders a better chance of surviving the Holocaust as they protected them from immediate deportation to Nazi-German death camps. The bearers of these documents were initially kept aside and only later sent to the internment camps (Vittel, Bergen-Belsen, Tittmoning) where - until sometime 1944 - they could feel relatively safe as Germans hoped for exchanging them for Germans interned by Allied countries.

    It seems however that Polish diplomats used Latin-American passports as early as at outbreak of war. Have a look at testimony of Juliusz Kühl who was interrogated by Swiss police in 1943:

    It appears that first Paraguayan documents were produced between 1939 and 1940, with a view of enabling influential Jews from the areas occupied by the Soviet Union an escape through Japan. The Legation identified an honorary consul of Paraguay, a Bernese notary Rudolf Hügli, who was ready to sell blank passports and who ultimately became Legation’s main partner in the scheme. Initially such activities were carried individually, because of fear from exposition. In later years production of similar documents however continued. For example, only twelve days before German attack on the Soviet Russia, in June 1941 the Legation informed London that 400 passports have been issued for Jews in Lithuania.

    The most known example is the passport obtained by Eli Sternbuch for his future wife Guta Eisenzweig and her mother in November 1941. Mrs. Eisenzweig would become later sister in law of Mr. Recha Sternbuch.

    During the so-called ‘final solution’, demand for passports rose dramatically. People were desperate in obtaining any foreign document. The demand for passports also meant that more and more consuls of Latin-American countries in neutral Switzerland were asked for papers. This threatened the scheme to be carried out in a chaotic and unprofessional manner. Also, prices of a single passport was exorbitant – Latin-American consuls, most of them members of influential Swiss lawyer elite, demanded 1000 or even 2000 contemporary francs per one single document.  A lack of professionalism, such as producing passports without proficiency or using the wrong seals (as was the case of one of the consuls) would expose the life of other passport holders to a great risk. We all understand that the action required utmost professionalism.

    In these circumstances, in 1942, Abraham Silberschein appears on the scene. Member of the Polish pre-war Sejm, a lawyer from Lwów, a Zionist and an activist of the World Jewish Congress, helped  Jewish refugees in Switzerland way back in 1939. In 1942, he was visited by two Polish diplomats. The quotation describing the meeting comes from the Silberschein’s interrogation, who was briefly arrested in September 1943:

    Silberschein was tasked to ‘regulate the market’ - to lower the prices and to introduce clear division of work to avoid elaborating many passports – for instance Honduran, Salvadorian, and Haitian - for the same person. If such person was caught with documents of many countries, all scheme would have been blown up.

    Silberschein was successful – he managed to get better prices for more documents. The costs varied slightly, but generally were set for several hundred CHF for one passport and one hundred of the so-called citizenships confirmation (letters) which served as some kind of promesa for passports.

    Silberschein got a free hand to contact all Latin American consuls in Switzerland. Only honorary consul of Paraguay in Bern, Rudolf Hugli, preferred to work directly with Poles. Some documents claim that he might have been convinced by Stefan Ryniewicz that Poland and Paraguay are allies and that the operation will not be revealed (he had  feared participation in illegal operation).

    In 1943 Silberschein testified that on most occasions Latin-American consuls worked for profit and were treated like service providers. He would either transfer the money himself or ask the Poles to ‘organise’ the passports. In both cases money came from Jewish organizations, private donations as well as state aid. On many occasions, as claims historian Danuta Drywa, from Stutthof Memorial, the Government of Poland subsidized the operation.

    The most important things were the lists of beneficiaries’ names, accompanied by their photos. Silberschein and Eiss received dozens of letters asking for help and enumerating these data. On many occasions they had received similar letters from Alfred Szwarcbaum, a well-off businessman who fled Poland in 1940 and stayed in Lausanne, or from Delegate of Hechaluz and the Histadrut, Nathan Schwalb.

    Letters and pictures were transformed into lists of people and then sent to the Polish Legation. Here you can see some samples of correspondence of Silberschein and Eiss to the Polish Legation.

    What happened next? Consul Hügli owned in Bern a mansion in Helvetiaplatz, around 300 metres from the Polish consulate. As Hügli’s interrogation demonstrate, he was often visited by Polish diplomats, who paid him, collected blank passports and took them back to Polish mission:

    Let’s have a look at the picture depicting one of the passports. Note that the person entered as a child lives today in Zurich.

    Now, let’s compare the passport number with a handwritten note found in Silberschein archives, constituting a part of a letter he received from the Polish Legation. Numbers in both documents are definitely written by the same hand.

    The document contains the remarks on list number 1503 sent by Dr Silberschein.

    “Is she a Miss or a Mrs? [...] “Letter cannot be written without the name.”

    The person who made the remark is the author of Paraguayan passports. At the bottom of the document we see the words ‘Pana Doktora’ (“Mister Doctor”) – this is how Poles would address Silberschein.

    I am going to compare the notation technique used here with another note. Its author is the same person. At the bottom of the document there is a signature which belongs to consul Konstanty Rokicki.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, the rescuer of many lives is - in all likelihood – depicted on this slide.

    Konstanty Rokicki’s handwriting is a very calligraphy style with peculiar numbers – one can notice they are written in an special way: “3”, “4” and “5,” “9” without the swash, “1” as a vertical line and - contrasting with it – carefully written “2”.

    Please pay attention to the document on your right. This is another Rokicki’s personal note in Silberschein’s archive in Yad Vashem. It contains a list of people with some thicks. This may indicate that these cases are already somehow taken care of.

    Let’s have a look at numbers 14 and 15.

    Indeed, you shall find these people on Paraguayan passports. Resident of Będzin, Abram Manela survived the war. Nothing is known about Mrs. Chana Manela.

    Whereas, all members of the Kuttner family perished.

    Rokicki was very frequent adressee of Silberschein’s correspondence. Here in letter from April 1943 (at the same time, here in Warsaw Jewish fighters were fighting Germans in the Ghetto) he asked Rokicki to elaborate documents for the following people, according to the given data.

    Among them there are Chaja Klugman, Jakub Landau, Fajwel Holender and Rubin Liwer.

    Here are the passports of the former two. And here - of the latter ones. Please note, they are backdated to the fall of 1942. Practically all passports that were issued in 1943, were backdated to November-and several days of December 1942.

    Our guess is that it was a cover-up to ensure legality of passport samples delivered by Hügli. Since he was interrogated in January 1943, Poles needed not only to bribe the consul and to forge documents, but also – to backdate them.

    Now, let’s take a glimpse of a ‘success story’. Ursula Borchard was a daughter of a well-known German writer Georg Borchard (who also had Paraguayan passport but died while being transferred from Holland to Auschwitz). In October 1943, when efforts at rescuing Jews, concentrated on Holland Silberstein asked Rokicki to elaborate passports for them. He also sent a specification regarding Ursula and her baby Henryk-Kalman, so that papers matched truth.

    The document was issued and was backdated as well. Ursula and her son managed to survive. She died only several years ago, while her son still lives in a kibbutz in Israel. Only recently Ambassador Kumoch hosted his half-brother who is aiming at writing a book on their life.

    Apart from passports, Hügli was convinced to another concession - he agreed to issue citizenship confirmations (called also the ‘letters’). One of these documents you had a chance to see in the case of Borchard family. Citizenship confirmations informed that due to the efforts of one’s family or friends their beneficiary was given Paraguayan citizenship. One had to only provide consulate with personal data and photographs in order to get a proper passport.

    Letters used to be issued in a package (with passports), or separately. They were cheap or were given for free as a bonus, as they guaranteed worse protection than passports.

    Now, I wish to present you with an interesting exchange between Silberschein and Rokicki. In June 1943 Silberschein asked Rokicki to issue letters for people from the list 1503 which you can see here.

    Rokicki had doubts, which he expressed in his personal notes.
    Number 8, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18: “Is she a Miss or a Mrs?”.

    Silberschein had to write clarification which you can see on your right.

    After this clarification letters, were issued. Here you can see two of them.

    Nr 10 Miss Renia Bajtner, nr 13 – Miss Alicja Najman.
    As you can see, letters are also backdated.

    Silberschein created lists of people for whom documents were issued or were at the process of creation. Here you can see one of the pages form his archive.

    It is interesting for two reasons, or two persons.

    Firstly, you can see that among persons for whom letters of Paraguay were prepared, was Mr. Josef Rosensaft from Będzin, who after the war headed Central Committee of Liberated Jews – an organization which represented Jewish displaced persons in the American Zone of the post-World War II Germany, during 1945-1950.

    His son, Mr. Menachem Rosensaft, is Founding Chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors and  general counsel of the World Jewish Congress.

    Secondly, a corresponding document was supposed to be issued for dr Leon Rothfeld from Przemyślany and his entire family. Unfortunately, when the letter reach its destination, it was too late. Its recipient was already dead.

    Leon Rothfeld was and advocate and father of Adam Daniel Rotfeld who went in hiding and who in 2005 would become Foreign Minister of Poland, one of three Holocaust survivors to head the Polish MFA after 1989.

    Only two months ago Professor Adam Rotfeld was informed by us that he was supposed to become a ‘Paraguayan citizen’.

    An important question arises: did Ładoś, Ryniewicz, Kühl and Rokicki act in line with the government’s instructions, or – as did the consuls from several Latin-American countries – contrary to the prohibitions?

    Let us not lose sight of the fundamental issue: the Latin-American consuls represented functioning states which maintained relations with Germany and were recognized by all parties to the Second World War. Polish diplomats were representing a State without territory, reported to a government based in London, and the sending of documents involved the risk of exposure.

    Presumably that’s why Aleksander Ładoś did not initially inform the government about forging other countries’ passports. He undertook the risk of being deemed persona non grata, or maybe even being expulsed from Switzerland. He knew perfectly the case of one Polish diplomat expulsed in 1940 for smuggling Polish soldiers, so at least he had to bear in mind such a prospect. Until late 1943 no diplamatic cable sent from Bern to London contains any information about forging passports by the diplomats.

    The government only learnt about it from Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and in May 1943 it sent the following cable to Ładoś: ‘For strict humanitarian reasons, we feel obliged to make far-reaching concessions’ - this is one of the strongest statements related to passport operation. It was its post factum approval of the ongoing operation.

    Due to unknown technical reasons Ładoś did not receive this telegram until December 1943, when the passport operation was almost over. This document was drawn up when a large part of passports had already been produced. Hügli’s exequatur was withdrawn in summer of 1943 and most Jews were murdered in Nazi-German extermination camps or during the liquidation of the ghettoes.

    In this situation Ładoś reasonably concluded the only thing Poland could get involved in, was rescue of those held in internment camps. Below you can see a document dated

    January 4th 1944, in which Ładoś asks Polish Government to intervene in Washington and in capitals of all Latin American countries in order to consider issued documents as valid.

    After a direct pressure Paraguay recognized the passports, thus contributing to saving many human beings

    You can also see that Ładoś let Polish coded cables to be used by the Swiss-based Sternbuch family. They had also pledged their associates in USA, Great Britain and Israel to exert similar influence. 

    In this vein there is one cable I would like to present to you. Have a look at its content:

    It was sent from Polish Legation which used to serve as a center of exchanging information about ongoing Holocaust and pleas for Allied action with regard to bombing rail tracks leading to Auschwitz.

    Regarding passports, to passports: the scheme was exposed by Hügli’s interrogation in January 1943. In May Swiss Police interrogated Chaim Eiss (who admitted that Poles were initiators of the passport operation). In September, police in Geneva detained Silberschein and found bogeys with photos, data and money used for bribes for consul of Paraguay.

    In addition to that, one of the consuls cooperatig with Silberschein, Jose Maria Baretto of Peru, was dismissed for irregularities.

    Against this background, Ryniewicz tried to intervene. Below you can see a letter to Silberschein in which he states that he had been speaking with his Peruvian colleague and that Peruvians did not want to revise their decision. Ryniewicz informed Silberschein that Barreto had committed procedural errors.

    There is some evidence of an argument between Ryniewicz and Silberschein related to this matter. Poles reproached Silberschein for acting on his own, which resulted – according to them – in a hitch and that is how he lost one of the passport sources. Nevertheless, Ryniewicz promised to ask Polish Legation in Lima to exert their pressuer at the spot.

    Apart from that, Ryniewicz intervened at the level of Swiss Foreigner’s Police, Heinrich Rothmund. I do not need to explain who Rothmund – a person responsible  for the Swiss refugee policy during World War II – was.

    As you see form this note, Ryniewicz tried to diminish significance of the scheme.

    The most important exchange was conducted, however, month later. Ładoś confronted Swiss Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marcel Pilet-Golaz. Ładoś protested against surveillance of Polish diplomats and interference with the passport production. He blackmailed Switzerland that the Polish government would create a scandal over this case if Switzerland did not turn a blind eye. Ładoś justified the scheme by saying that this case did not concern Switzerland at all, as it concerned Poland and Paraguay.

    Lecture of this document gives an impression how heated this debate was. Nevertheless, Swiss authorities agreed to ignore the involvement of Poles and did not introduce harsher measures. 

    All of the members of the Bernese Group remained at their post until 1945 when they faced new political circumstances. Shortly I shall offer you some information about their fate.

    The role of Poles in the production of other than Paraguayan Latin-American passports, is still to be determined. As you recall, Silberschein was supposed to ‘regulate the market’, but there are evident hints indicating that Polish Legation was – at least - deeply involved not only with Paraguayan papers. In the archives one can find documents pointing that Polish Legation was collaborating not only with Hügli, but also with other consuls.

    You have already seen an involvement in Peruvian passports.

    In case of Honduras, for instance, the documents were filled out by unknown person, possibly by Bernese consul Anton Bauer, but Rokicki might have been involved in bribing and handling of the lists of beneficiaries and their photos. Poles knew exactly that Honduran passports had been produced in a similar manner.

    In May 1943 Silberschein sent – via Legation’s coded channel (thus, acting as one of Legation’s employee) – a short despription of the scheme, pointing that thanks to Hondurean and Paraguayan papers several prominent persons: Mr. Eck, prof. Schorr, Rabbi Rappoport, Faiwel Stempl, as well as many young people, are already saved.

    Furthermore he underscored that the action has full acceptance of the Polish Legation, which makes it utmost in the scheme.

    Then, Envoy Ładoś adds these words to Polish Embassy in Washington: I full support this ples

    It is also quite interesting that September 9th 1943 Ładoś asked Government in London to send condolences to wife of the late Envoy of Haiti in Bern, Mr. Fouchard, whom Ładoś decribed as a ‘true friend’. We may speculate what kind of friendship it was, but the fact is that: a) Poland and Haiti did not have much in common these days; b) Haiti in cooperation with Silberschein also issued passports for Jews.

    Finally, it is widely accepted, that documents of San Salvador were elaborated  exclusively by George Mandell-Mantello who had a free hand from his  consul José Arturo Castellanos Contreras.

    However, while browsing through documents we found the following:

    Early in 1944 Silberschein asked Rokicki (as he used before), to issue passports for the Dutch family Knoop. In Silberschein’s archive one can find not only this letter, but also -  corresponding San Salvadorean passports issued for the members of the family.

    Was it Rokicki who asked George Mandell-Mantello to do the job or was it Silberchein who may have personally asked Mantello to do so? Honestly speaking, I cannot give you any convincing answer, but I  simply take note on such exchange, as well as on the fact that in April 1944 Ryniewicz promised Silberschein to send to London an exhaustive list of all reciepients of Salvadorean passports.

    Coming back to our protagonists: Chaim Eiss died in Zurich at the height of the operation in November 1943. Up to the last moment he was busy with the operation.

    It is our guess, but thanks to swift cooperation with the Polish Legation, especially with Rokicki (whom he explicitly  underscored how grateful he was for a rescue operation back in 1943), in 1945 Agudath Israel issued this ‘thank you letter’ to the Polish MFA, in which all four diplomats are named as ‘people without whom  the rescue of many thousands of Polish Jews would not have been possible’.

    Abraham Silberschein stayed in Switzerland until his death in 1951. In 2018 his grave at the Jewish cemetery in Veyrier has been restored. One of the guests of the ceremony was Mr. Uri Strauss who displayed Paraguayan passport belonging to his parents and himself.

    Aleksander Ładoś lived in France until 1960, when he returned to Poland. HE started writing his memoirs in which he promised to  describe the scheme. He wrote almost 1000 pages, but died suddenly without finishing the book.

    Julius Kühl decided to emigrate to Canada and later to the USA where he lived as a successful businessman and respected member of the Jewish community. One of his daughters married Mr. Israel Singer.

    Stefan Ryniewicz emigrated to Argentina. He was active among Polish diaspora, serving as Head of the Polish Club in Buenos Aires. Ryniewicz died in 1987, his descendants live in Argentina and USA.

    Konstanty Rokicki did not die as latest member of the group, but he definitely deserves separate note. After communist takeover, he remained loyal to the Polish Government in Exile - stayed in Switzerland and lived in poverty. Tried to emigrate to Brazil, but eventually died in oblivion in Lucerne in 1958.

    His grave has been lost since then. That is how the burial plot where his grave was located, looked like this winter. We are undertaking extensive search to find his final resting place, with some success.

    Rokicki has been also commemorated in Bern. This February, a commemorative plaque dedicated to Rokicki and Kühl has been unveiled at the building serving as a Consular Section of the Legation during World War II. The plaque is located meters away from place where blank passports were filled. This is minimum what – at this stage - we could do for these brave men.

    To sum-up I wish to offer some cross-cutting remarks:

    1. In my presentation I limited myself to the issue of Paraguayan passports, as they bear visible trace of interference of Polish diplomats. I leave aside passports of other countries, but at least in some cases a ‘Polish fingerprint’ may be easily detected.  
    2. Often passports and letters were considered by their reciepients as a ‘plan B’, provided that other option did not work. Consequently, some of them were not used, or were used after the war.
    3. The question on how passports, letters and all the accessary data made their way from German-occupied Europe to Bern (and backwards), and how were they used, awaits other research.
    4. Currently, we know 327 names of documented survivors, but we have managed to find only one-third of the Paraguayan passports. Against this background, we carefully estimate number of ‘Paraguayan’ survivors at 700-800. In this vein I kindly ask anyone who has any information on persons possessing these documents to contact us.

    Thank you for your attention. I remain at your disposal for any questions.






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