Polish-Jewish Secret Rescue Operation in Switzerland Revealed

Passport photos sent to Switzerland

The Ładoś Group in Switzerland issued false passport for more than ten thousand Jews during the Holocaust.

Dr. Jakub Kumoch, Polish Ambassador to Switzerland together with a group of researchers published a book called Lista Ładosia (Ładoś List). This is an important event, because the book presents the results of research on the operation of the Polish-Jewish group in Switzerland during the Holocaust, people who jointly undertook to rescue Jews in occupied Europe by issuing false passports of several Latin American countries, including Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti, Salvador and Peru. This operation was kept strictly confidential during the war, so that information about the fact that the passports were false did not reach the neutral authorities of Switzerland and Germany, which would consequently fail to recognize them and thereby condemn the deaths of those passport holders. They were not only passports, but also documents confirming citizenship. These documents were sent to the occupied areas for people who could survive.

Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963)

These research is extremely important for several reasons. First, it has been proven once again that our knowledge of saving Jews during the Holocaust is still very limited and requires further detailed research. Secondly, the vastness of the Jewish-Polish rescue operation by a Polish-Jewish group in Switzerland was unknown. They knew about individual rescue cases, but only collecting and compiling the data showed how great the secret operation was. In total, 3262 names of persons to whom passports and citizenship confirmation have been issued are known. After compilation of various lists, first and last names were established, was clear that in some cases only names are known, and accurate identification is not possible.

However, the examined documents – both passports found in the archives, lists of names for which documents were prepared, as well as partial lists of names on which there are missing pages also showed how many documents were prepared. In total, between 3800 and 5300 passports were issued. The discrepancies result from the fact that, according to the numbers at the beginning and end of the series, it can be determined that passports were issued, which were recorded on the currently missing pages of documents inside the inventory.

Since family members were entered for each person who applied for proof of citizenship, it was statistically calculated that the number of passports issued should be multiplied by at least 2.2. In this way, the number of people covered by the rescue operation is obtained. It amounts to a minimum of 8,300 and a maximum of 11,700 people. Given that during this operation full conspiracy was preserved, this is a huge number and far exceeds what was previously known about this activity.

Issuing a passport meant an attempt to save, but not always the survivor. Many factors contributed to this. Passports and citizenship confirmations should reach the people rescued, and this took a long time. In many cases, the rescued have already been murdered. Some of these documents, which did not arrive on time, fell into the hands of a group of traders who sold or distributed them to Jews in Warsaw. It was the so-called “Hotel Polski” Affair in Warsaw. Jews with neutral citizenship documents, after the fall of the ghetto uprising, in the summer of 1943 reported to the “Hotel Polski”. Some of them were later taken to the Bergen Belsen camp, and some to the Vittel camp. The remaining group was murdered in Pawiak prison in Warsaw. Some of those deported to these camps survived.

Vittel, Le Vittel Palace where Jews with foreign passports were interned

The Ładoś Group

The group was headed by Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963). From May 24, 1940 to July 1945, he served in Bern as Polish Ambassador, but the Swiss authorities accepted him as chargé d’affaires ad interim. Ładoś, in addition to diplomatic tasks, took care of Polish and Jewish refugees. He devoted a lot of attention to the help and care of about 13.000 thousand interned soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division, commanded by General Bronisław Prugar-Ketling. This division was part of the Polish Army in France. After the capitulation of this country in the summer of 1940, in order not to fall into the hands of the Germans, the division crossed the Swiss border and was interned in special camps.

Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś and General Bronisław Prugar-Ketling

In addition to Ładoś, Konstanty Rokicki played a great role in falsifying passports. From 1939 to 1945 he was the Vice-Consul of the Republic of Poland in Bern. In the years 1941–1944 Rokicki wrote out several thousand passports of the Republic of Paraguay manually with his assistant Dr. Juliusz Kühl. Stefan Ryniewicz, a counselor of the Polish mission in 1938–1945, deputy of Ładoś, also helped in falsifying passports.

Dr. Juliusz Kühl (1913–1985)

Other Polish Diplomats Rescuing Jews

Ładoś and his group were not the first diplomats who saved Jews during the war. One of the most famous was Chiune Sugihara, Vice Consul of Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania, who, by issuing Japanese visas, enabled thousands of Jews to travel through the USSR. Jewish refugees – Polish citizens, were assisted by the Polish Ambassador to Japan, Tadeusz Romer. In September 1941, after Japan broke off relations with the Polish government, Romer liquidated the embassy in Tokyo and on November 1, 1941, moved by order of the Japanese government with family and staff to the Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where he headed a special diplomatic mission.

After moving to Shanghai, he continued to look after 946 Polish citizens expelled from Japan to Shanghai. Most of them were Polish Jews who were placed in the local ghetto in the northern part of the city. Due to the suspension of ship connections between Shanghai and other ports in the world, many of these people could not leave the city, despite having visas for Palestine and other countries.

Chaim Eiss (1876–1943)

Romer founded the Polish social welfare organization in Shanghai. He also helped organize education and gainful occupation for the Polish-Jewish population in the Shanghai Ghetto, with a total of approximately 2,100 people. Before leaving the city in 1942, Romer organized, with the consent of the Japanese occupation authorities, the organization Main Board of the Union of Poles in China, which was to continue these activities. Romer departed from Shanghai in August 1942 as part of exchanging Western diplomats for Japanese diplomats.

The Idea of ​​”Passports to Life”

The idea of ​​creating false passports by Polish diplomats in Switzerland arose at the end of 1939 or in 1940. Dozens of Paraguayan documents were to be produced so that influential Jews from the territories occupied by the Soviet Union could leave the country through Japan or through other neutral countries, including the countries of the Baltic and Scandinavia, as well as Turkey. Since the USSR authorities did not recognize Polish passports, it was necessary to obtain passports of other countries. The Polish legation established contact with the honorary consul of Paraguay, notary from Bern, Rudolf Hügli, who agreed to sell passports in blank. In this way, Sternbuch family from Geneva obtained documents for their relatives in the USSR.

Aleksander Lados and the Polish soldiers in Switzerland

Foreign passports for Jews living under German occupation were of great importance, as they were exempted from wearing the star of David, had freedom of movement and were protected against persecution that happened to other Jews. It is worth adding that until December 1941, the United States was not at war with the Third Reich, and therefore both American citizens and aid organizations could operate in areas occupied by Germany. The situation changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the US was at war with Germany.

When deportations to death camps began in spring 1942, Latin American passports or neutral state passports protected Jews from deportation to death camps, although they were not allowed to go abroad. The scheme for preparing passports was activated again by purchasing, completing and subsequent confirmation. Well-known Jewish personalities and organizations prepared lists of people for whom the Polish diplomats issued false passports. Chaim Eiss and Abraham Silberschein, former member of the Polish Parliament (Sejm), founder of the Relief Committee for Jewish War Victims (RELICO), participated in this operation. This organization sent both money and food parcels to occupied Poland. Having numerous contacts, the names of persons to whom passports were issued were provided. Both Chaim Eiss and Abraham Silberschein came from Poland. Chaim Eiss was born in Ustrzyki Dolne, Silberschein was born in Lwów.

Abraham Silberschein (1881–1951)

The money for bribing the Honorary Consul of Paraguay, Rudolf Hügli, came from collections organized by American and Swiss Jews, as well as from funds transferred by the Government of the Republic of Poland in London to help refugees. Lists of beneficiaries and their photos were smuggled to Bern from occupied Poland thanks to a network of Jewish organizations. Chaim Eiss, who was one of the founders and important activists of Agudat Israel, was well acquainted with orthodox Jews in occupied Poland. Silberschein mainly used RELICO’s network of contacts. Copies of passports were sent by post or by couriers.

This example of the operation of Polish diplomats proved to be effective in other cases. For example, Carl Lutz, saved thousands of Jews in Budapest in the last months of the war by issuing Swiss “safe-conduct” documents that enabled thousands of Hungarian Jewish children to emigrate and saved thousands of Jews in “safe houses”. Similar actions were taken by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

The Polish Embassy in Bern, Switzerland

Why The operation remained secret after the Holocaust?

 However, the question arises why these activities remained secret not only during the war but many decades later. As mentioned above, secrecy was a condition for this action to prepare fake passports to remain effective. Neither Germany nor the Swiss authorities could know about it. Although diplomats enjoyed diplomatic immunity, others who cooperated or were members of this group were not protected.

The forgery of passports was eventually detected by the Swiss police for foreigners. In January 1943, the police questioned Rudolf Hügli, who pleaded guilty. Fearing more serious charges, he most likely decided that admitting corruption would be the best solution. Julius Kühl was also arrested. He was interrogated by the Swiss police twice and faced threats of deportation. In the years 1940–1945, Juliusz Kühl was the deputy head of the Consular Section of the Polish Legation even though Switzerland did not recognize his diplomatic status. The requests from the Swiss authorities to release him or to remove him from his duties were repeatedly rejected by Ambassador Ładoś. Until the end of the war, Switzerland did not recognize the diplomatic status of Julius Kühl, despite his official employment in 1944 by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In May 1943, Chaim Eiss was arrested, and in the fall of 1943, the police arrested Abraham Silberschein. Apart from Juliusz Kühl, the others arrested were either Swiss citizens or citizens of other countries and did not have diplomatic immunity. They testified to the police how the group forging passports had been operating. These testimonies have been preserved in the Swiss Federal Archives and are a valuable source of information about this group.

Counsel and deputy head of the Consular Department Stefan Ryniewicz intervened with Heinrich Rothmund, the head of the Swiss police responsible for policy towards refugees. Ryniewicz admitted to falsifying passports, emphasizing at the same time the humanitarian reasons and persuaded the interlocutor to close the case. Rothmund wrote in his note that he was categorically opposed to the activity of falsifying passports in Switzerland. A big impact on covering up the matter could have had a conversation of Ambassador Ładoś with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, Marcel Pilet-Golaz. After the intervention of the Polish Ambassador, the Swiss authorities withdrew from taking any steps against Polish and Jewish participants in the action. Silberschein was released. However, Chaim Eiss died suddenly in November 1943 of a heart attack. There were no consequences for Polish diplomats. Apparently, the Swiss authorities understood in 1943 that the fate of the war was already clear, and that their role in relation to refugees would be important after the end of the war, therefore they abandoned further actions against the Polish-Jewish group.

The number of people who knew about the possibility of turning to brokers who had access to the narrowest circle was much larger. Collecting information and data of people who were prepared for passports also required many contacts. This required not only personal data but also obtaining photographs, and forms provided by friendly diplomats of selected Latin American countries. After graphological analysis, it turned out that many passports were filled and signed by Konstanty Rokicki personally. To a close Polish-Jewish group belonged its creator, Aleksander Ładoś as well as Konstanty Rokicki, Juliusz Kühl and Stefan Ryniewicz. Chaim Eiss, who died in 1943, and Abraham Silberschein collaborated closely on the Jewish side. An important element of the Polish-Jewish group was Juliusz Kühl. He maintained constant contact with Jewish organizations cooperating with the mission, in particular with the influential family of Isaak and Recha Sternbuch from Montreux, RELICO in Geneva and a group of Jewish orthodox gathered in Agudat Israel. Juliusz Kühl was responsible for bringing in forms purchased from the Honorary Consul of Paraguay, and Konstanty Rokicki for filling them in and giving them the appearance of legality.

Konstanty Rokicki (1899–1958), on the left without umbrella

The Government of the Republic of Poland in exile in London and the Ładoś Group

The Polish government in exile in London also knew about the activities of the Polish-Jewish aid group in Switzerland. This is known from secret, encrypted messages sent from Bern to London. The Polish government financed the rescue of Jews from the German-occupied territories not only by the group in Switzerland, but also through other rescue operations in the occupied territories. Among other things, the government delegation in the country financed the assistance activities of Żegota – the Polish Council to Aid Jews with the Government Delegation for Poland, which provided Jews in hiding in financial assistance, medication as well as financing and making false documents. It is important to emphasize that the false passports made by the Ładoś Group were delivered not only to Polish Jews, but also to German, Dutch, French and even Italian Jews. Perhaps the best-known case is the saving of the future Prime Minister of France, Mendès France (1907-1982). There were also several cases of issuing false passports to non-Jews.

Dr. Josef Burg  (1909-1999)

Josef Burg (1909-1999) was one of the beneficiaries of the activity of Polish diplomats. Burg was a German citizen, born in Dresden. In August 1939 he was in Switzerland at the Zionist Congress, where he was found by the war. Despite the fact that he was not a Polish citizen and there were no grounds for him to obtain a Polish passport, he received it from Polish diplomats in Switzerland in 1940. This passport enabled him to leave Switzerland through France to Spain and Portugal, from where he went to Palestine and continued his activities to build the future state of Israel. Burg didn’t mention it earlier. Only recently conducted research revealed documents confirming Burg’s possession of a Polish passport.

Difficult choices

While the issuing of false passports by the Ładoś Group was secret, their activities were also kept secret after the end of the war. There were several reasons for this. First of all, the fate of individual group members threw them to different places. When the Polish government in London lost its international recognition on July 6, 1945 and was replaced by the Provisional Government of National Unity – the new communist government in Poland, the diplomats lost their diplomatic status and faced a difficult choice – to remain in exile or return to communist Poland, where they faced the risk of interrogation, imprisonment and convictions for acting in the London diplomatic service.

Aleksander Ładoś remained abroad. From September 1945 to July 1946 he lived in Lausanne, and from 1946 he settled in Clamart near Paris. In 1960 he returned to Poland. He settled in Warsaw, where he died in 1963. Konstanty Rokicki (1899–1958) left the service in 1945. He settled permanently in Switzerland, where he lived for many years in poverty. He died on July 18, 1958 in Luzern. Juliusz Kühl (1913-1985) left the service in July 1945. He was in Switzerland from 1945 to 1949. Then he went to Canada, where he became a successful businessman. In 1980 he moved to the USA and died there in Florida. Abraham Silberschein (1881–1951) remained in Geneva after the war, died in December 1951 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery there. Stefan Ryniewicz (1903–1987), resigned from work in July 1945 and opted for the government of the Republic of Poland in exile. Ryniewicz settled in Argentina, where he was the president of the Polish Club (Club Polaco) in Buenos Aires. At the same time, he run his own business. He died on March 9, 1988 in Buenos Aires. In fact, towards the end of the 1940s, the paths of Polish diplomats who falsified passports for Jews during the Holocaust diverged. Juliusz Kühl emigrated to Canada, Aleksnder Ładoś and Stefan Ryniewicz to France. Only Konstanty Rokicki remained forever in Switzerland. Fifteen years after the war, only two members of Ładoś Grup remained alive, scattered throughout the world. No one at that time was interested in the matter of saving Jews during the Holocaust.

Depeche of gratitude from Agudat Israel to the Polish Government in Exile, April 24, 1943

The activities of the Ładosia group require further research. However, it is already clear that these activities remained secret for many years, and the members of this group did not disclose the scope of their activities. Those who received passports knew that they came from Switzerland and that they were Latin American passports. However, almost nothing was known about the mechanism of action of this Polish-Jewish group, about the method of financing this activity and about the extent of this activity. Only by chance were discovered interrogation protocols of members of the Ładoś Group by the Swiss police in the Federal Archives in Switzerland, which contain accurate descriptions of the operation. However, this is only part of the story. The next part is to trace the fate of the saved Jews, because “whoever saves one life, as if the whole world saved”, and a group from Bern saved many worlds! Only telling these stories and collecting as much data as possible will show the size of this work.

The Letter of the Envoy of the Polish Republik to Argentina, Mirosław Arciszewski, confirming the fact of recognizing false passports issued during the Holocaust in Switzerland by the Republic of Paraguay

An unknown fragment of history associated with Ładoś Group is part of many activities of the Polish authorities and Polish diplomats in the work of saving Jews during the Holocaust. Other such activities were the establishment of Żegota – Polish Council to Aid Jews with the Government Delegation for Poland, assistance to Jews by Polish diplomats in Japan, or the removal of thousands of soldiers and civilians of Jewish origin from the Soviet Union in 1942 by General Władysław Anders.

The Government of the Republic of Poland, Polish diplomats and Polish military commanders also operated in the field of providing information on the mass extermination of Jews. It is now known that the embassy of the Republic of Poland in Switzerland has enabled Jewish organizations to send messages using ciphertexts of the Polish diplomatic service. In the years 1942–1945 there was an uninterrupted flow of information between Jewish rescue committees in Switzerland and Jewish organizations in America, mainly in New York and London in Great Britain. Thanks to this, messages were sent informing about the extermination of ghettos and deportations to death camps. This requires further investigation and analysis of messages. Polish underground organizations and the Polish Government in Exile also sent Polish couriers to occupied Poland and Poland to Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and London. The most famous is Jan Karski’s mission. In addition to him, there were other messengers who reported on the extermination. The report of Captain Witold Pilecki from Auschwitz made it possible to understand the functioning of the camp and mass crimes committed there. News about the extermination of Jews was the basis for an official diplomatic note of the Government of the Republic of Poland in exile to the governments of 26 states, signatories of the United Nations Declaration. Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczyński’s note resulted in the official reaction of the signatories of the United Nations Declaration, which, in response to the Polish government’s note on December 17, 1942, simultaneously announced in London, Washington and Moscow a joint declaration condemning German crimes. This note was published in the form of the brochure ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’. These Polish actions enabled the world to learn about the mass murders of Jews in occupied Poland.

The brochure ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’

Today, many years after the war, thanks to new technologies, research and cooperation of large research teams, we can discover the secrets regarding saving Jews during World War II and the Holocaust. We are able to show the cooperation of Polish-Jewish groups in order to save as many Jews from destruction as possible. These activities have not always been effective, but their magnitude shows the determination and courage of the people involved. Many of them have not deserved recognition or commemoration so far. The only of the Ładoś Group, Konstanty Rokicki, was honored in April 2019 by Yad Vashem Institute with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The others are not yet recognized as such.

Any reader of this text, who may be in possession of the Latin American Passport from the time of the Holocaust is requested to contact the author of this article. Only with the assistance of the public we may research and establish the real range of this operation. Many recipients of those passport are not aware who, how and why issued such a passport. It is important also to establish the fate of those who perished despite having passports and who survived.

The Ładoś List is published online and will be updated. This is the link to the list:

https://instytutpileckiego.pl/pl/wydarzenia/t?setlang=true

Lista Ładosia (Ładoś List), ed. Jakub Kumoch et al., Pilecki Institute, Warsaw 2019.

About the Author
Historian and political scientists. Living and working in Israel for over 20 years, observing fascinating developments in the Middle East and Europe. His interests include history, archeology, politics, photography, sport and traveling.
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