Passports to life
"Aleksander Ładoś took the risk of saving people. Ładoś decided that he would not hide behind diplomatic custom and that he would become a document counterfeiter". About Aleksander Ładoś – a Polish diplomat and a leader of a secret action by the Polish diplomats and Jewish organizations who helped save several hundred Jews – we talk with his successor Jakub Kumoch, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland.
POLAND.PL: Aleksander Ładoś is sometimes called the "Forgotten Righteous". When did you first hear about his story?
JAKUB KUMOCH: Even before I assumed my post as ambassador in October 2016, I was told that my predecessor saved Jews during World War II. When I arrived in Bern, the honorary consul, Mr Markus Blechner, who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, told me about it. He remembers Juliusz Kühl, one of Ładoś’ co-workers, from childhood. I had a skeptical attitude to it, but when one of the guests at our May 3rd celebrations, an orthodox Jew, told me that the Polish Embassy is a holy place, I realised that my predecessor enjoys great respect among Swiss Jews. I then asked my diplomats to undertake thorough research - what did Ładoś do and what where his motives? After more than a year, we know that Ładoś’ people forged Paraguayan passports for 2,200 people, saving 700-800 lives. We also know that they helped Jewish organisations obtain passports from other countries – Honduras, Bolivia, Haiti etc. "On the way" we learned that in 1944 they shared their codes with the Jewish organisation Vaad Hatzalah and supported its attempts to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, and later attempted to buy Jews from Himmler. In addition, they constantly informed Switzerland and the diplomatic corps about the Holocaust. Recently, a well-known Swiss historian of the Holocaust admitted at a conference in Paris, which I attended, that the Polish legation was one of the sources of Swiss knowledge about the Holocaust.
Why is it worth reviving the memory of Aleksander Ładoś?
It is our moral duty. Aleksander Ładoś took the risk of saving people. He did it as an ambassador of a state that was occupied and not recognised by Germany. This is something that Israel Singer, who is known to us in Poland, drew attention to. Despite making statements that are unfavourable to Poland when it comes to Ładoś, Singer has a very clear, positive attitude. Ładoś decided that he would not hide behind diplomatic custom and that he would become a document counterfeiter. Not only that, along with his handful of insiders he took the risks on himself. If they were found out, they gave the RP government the chance to cut itself off from them. Please remember that Germany constantly demanded from Switzerland that they close the Polish legation. In addition, they went beyond their duty to save their own citizens. They also issued passports to Jews from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Slovakia, France and several other countries. They were heroes.
Ładoś did not work alone. Who else was involved in the so-called Bern Group?
Ładoś found full support in his deputy, counsellor Stefan Ryniewicz, an eminent diplomat who ensured the silence of Switzerland and tried to support the legations of other countries. However, he also had the help of someone unknown until recently – Consul Konstanty Rokicki. It was Rokicki's handwriting that was on almost all Paraguayan passports. One of our diplomats discovered this at the end of 2017 comparing the distinctive way that number were written, which the consul, even using a technical writing style, was unable to get rid of. The fourth figure involved in the Polish legation was Juliusz Kühl, a man less than 30 years old, with a PhD in economics and a Jew who knew almost all Jewish communities in Switzerland. It was probably thanks to Kühl that Poles and Jews trusted each other at this time. The partners of the Polish diplomats included representatives of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Abraham Silberschein and the religious Aguda Israel, Rebbe Chaim Eiss. These six people were called the Bern Group, although if one were to be precise, the group could also include the Polish legation’s code talker, Stanisław Nahlik, who was also initiated and Isaac Sternbuch, a Jewish activist who replaced Chaim Eiss when he died in November 1943. One can also widen the circle – adding those who prepared and smuggled lists of people to obtain passports, Polish diplomats from other institutions who secured recognition from Paraguay and unknown Swiss policemen who tried to stop investigations against the diplomats.
What did their rescue system look like?
With regard to passports, it consisted of buying blank passports, which were then issued to Jews from occupied Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, as well as Jews from Germany, Slovakia and several other countries. Such people pretended to the Germans to be “Latino" and were sent to internment camps instead of to extermination camps. The honorary consuls of Latin American states took bribes, in particular Paraguay and Honduras. It should be noted, however, that these were rich Bernese lawyers who had little to do with Paraguay and Honduras. The actual governments of Latin America, such as Paraguay, El Salvador or Chile, behaved very forthrightly in this matter, and they accepted Polish requests to temporarily recognise passports. Thanks to these documents, Jews were sent to interned camps, not to Auschwitz, Treblinka or Sobibór. Poland wanted to exchange them for Germans held by the Allies. Regarding the bribe for Himmler, Poles made their codes available to Jewish organisations. Thanks to this, their representative, the former president of Switzerland, who negotiated a bribe (20 million francs for 300,000 people), could pass this on to Jewish communities in the USA to start fundraising. When one reads the telegrams from Bern, one can see that a large part of them is written by Jews to Jews. Jewish organisations acted simply as external partners. Ładoś gave them tasks as well as a free hand.
According to the documents we know of so far, some of the papers saved the lives of many people, but some documents were not used in time. When and in what circumstances did the plan fall apart?
The plan never fell apart. The rescue effort lasted until the last day of the war. As for the passports, I think that at least 1/3 of the owners survived. A 33% chance of survival was more than for people without passports. In addition, some people avoided being deported to Auschwitz, and yet they did not survive, for example due to the typhoid epidemic in Bergen-Belsen. There is the devastating story of the so-called missing train with evacuated prisoners from this camp, who the Russians found in April 1945 at a station located in what would later become East Germany. In the train they found many sick and dying people. Some died in the summer of 1945. There were many holders of Rokicki's passports on this train. Many of those interned at the Vittel camp also did not survive. It is too early to talk about the causes, but some documents indicate that a Western diplomat who was acting in this matter proved sluggish. Poland and Paraguay did what was needed.
Last week, it turned out that in the Archive of New Files, previously unknown documents related to the activity of Aleksander Ładoś and his fellow conspirers were discovered. What new facts came to light?
Until recently, I also believed that Poland only produced Paraguayan passports, and all the others – passports from Honduras, Haiti, Bolivia, etc – were the result of efforts by Jewish organisations "on the side". It turns out that was not quite the case. Abraham Silberschein wrote in May 1943, using the Polish code, that the legation is helping him obtain Honduran passports as well. In addition, Ładoś did something very strange - he demanded that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland personally pass on condolences to the widow of the diplomatic representative of Haiti, calling him our "real friend." A minister sending condolences to the widow of an ambassador of a distant country is pretty absurd when it comes to diplomatic practice. Absurd, if you do not take into account that Haiti also issued a number of passports. The third telegram is from 1941. Ładoś reports in it that the Chilean embassy in Italy made some concessions and gave some passports to Poles, which should be understood as "Polish Jews". We therefore know that Poles generally used this scheme before the “Final Solution”.
Did discovering further facts about the life of Ładoś help you find out what happened to those he saved and his fellow conspirers?
I have a very good team in Bern and thanks to its hard work, we have recreated half of the Paraguayan list – we know the names of approximately 1,100 Rokicki passport holders. On our list, we found about 330 survivors, of which some 10–15 people are still alive today. They had different fates. We found the most survivors later in Israel. Among them is a university professor, doctors, lawyers, as well as one person who died in the war for independence. Sometimes we find survivors in the USA, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany. Paradoxically, only on one occasion did we hear of a case where someone survived thanks to a passport and then lived in Poland. In general, it should be admitted that the passport initiative was more effective outside Poland – 75% of the surviving fake Paraguayans were Dutch and German. In Poland, a significant part of passports went to the ghetto in Będzin and Sosnowiec, and here it worked only to a limited extent. I do not want to talk about the causes. Jewish historians wrote a lot about this painful matter.
In your opinion, why is the memory of these people not as vivid as that of other World War II heroes?
Years of neglect are to blame. Documents about Ładoś whiled away in archives, some of them unchecked for 75 years. Compiling them required trips around the world, only then did we begin to fully understand the context. The documents are in Yad Vashem, in the House of the Ghetto Heroes in Israel, in the Archive of New Files in Warsaw, in London, in Bern, as well as in private collections. One of them was the Eiss Archive, which we acquired and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum from private owners.
I must add one more thing - none of our diplomats considered themselves heroes. They were convinced that they were doing their clerical work and that's all. The Swiss note about Rokicki is touching. He stayed in Switzerland and wanted to obtain a permanent residence card. The police wrote in 1946 that although he is a document counterfeiter everything he did in 1943 did not result from a desire to profit, but from wanting to save lives. They decided to let it go. This is what happened. Rokicki stayed in Switzerland, where he died in 1958. Sadly, in poverty and oblivion.