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The Polish Diplomats who Saved Jews

January 1, 2020 | by Eldad Beck and

New documents shed light on the massive rescue effort of the Polish government-in-exile during World War II and unsung hero Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś.

The second floor of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, located in Basel, has six "memory scrolls" with 3,262 names on them. Those scrolls, put on display for the first time in December, were part of an extensive operation to save thousands of Jews from extermination during the Holocaust.

These were Jews from Poland, the Netherlands, and Germany who were issued fake Latin American passports in Switzerland, thus granting them a chance to get out of Nazi-occupied Europe in exchange for Germans in those countries.

The scrolls are the final phase in a new exhibition on this fascinating story. A similar exhibition opened in Israel at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on Dec. 15.

(Pictured above, Swiss authorities seized photos before they could be used to issue passports for Jews during the Holocaust | Photo: Swiss Federal Archives)

Only 796 of the people mentioned in the scrolls survived the Holocaust, 957 were murdered by the Germans, while the fate of the rest remains a mystery.

According to various accounts, there were others who were issued passports but did not make it to the list. This makes sense because more than 10,000 fake passports were issued.

But what is clear is that Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish government-in-exile’s de facto ambassador to Switzerland, played a crucial role in orchestrating this operation, which ran all through World War II and turned the Polish Legation in Bern (a diplomatic mission similar to an embassy) into the nerve center for saving the Jews worldwide.

Aleksander Ładoś

Aleksander Ładoś

Because of his important role as the chief of the mission, the list of names has been colloquially called the Ładoś List. The title Righteous Among the Nations is usually given by Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem to non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, but the organization has so far decided to recognize only one of the employees in the legation during the war: the Polish Vice-Consul Konstanty Rokicki.

Rokicki was the one who wrote down the fake names and other fields in the fake passports so that the Jews could leave. Ładoś, who died in 1963, got a letter of commendation, but the historical documents, revealed in this piece, show the extensive degree to which Ładoś was involved in this massive operation to save Jews, as was the Polish government-in-exile in London.

Hundreds of encrypted diplomatic cables were sent from the legation in Bern to the government-in-exile’s Foreign Ministry in London, to the Polish Embassy in Washington, to Polish missions in New York and Latin American countries, as well as to the Polish consulates in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in order to marshal their support for the operation.

Initial reports on the horrors of the Holocaust can also found in those cables. The cables made a plea to inform the US and British governments of the unfolding genocide and called on the Allies to bomb the railways to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. They also included specific instructions on the ways people and communities could be saved, along with information on how the operation could be funded.

The cables were found in Poland’s national archives and at the Hoover Institution in the United States. They show that the efforts to save Jews were underway as early as April 1941, two months before Germany opened the eastern front by attacking the Soviet Union.

The first cable talks about 400 passports that would get sent to Jews in Lithuania, including Polish Jews, so that they could immigrate to British-mandate Palestine.

Aleksander Ładoś

Aleksander Ładoś

The cable also talks about an understanding with the Chilean Embassy in Rome, which issued passports for Polish Jews who were in Axis-member Italy and Nazi-occupied France.

In July 1942, the Polish Embassy in Washington got a cable providing initial information on the "great deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto" and another cable, sent the same month, notes how "a very big part of the ghetto has been cleansed" and that 100,000 Jews have been brutally murdered.

The cables include rumors on how the victims’ bodies have been used to create "fertilizer and soap." Isaac Sternbuch, the head of Vaad Hatzalah – the Rescue Committee of the American Union of Orthodox Rabbis – noted in one of the cables that "a similar fate was expected for other deportees and only an American response and significant countersteps can end this oppression."

In the cable, he asks the organization to pressure politicians, the media and other important figures, such as Albert Einstein.

In September 1942, Ładoś updated the prime minister in the Polish government-in-exile that throngs of Jewish refugees from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands had been flocking to Switzerland, only to be refused entry by the Swiss authorities.

In some cases, the refugees were being handed over to the Germans. Ładoś said that he had asked the Swiss authorities to prevent the Polish Jews from being sent back. "My understanding is that they [the Swiss] will agree if we ensure that the Allies let the refugees enter their territories or colonies and provide funds that would finance their stay in Switzerland."

In March 1943, the Polish government-in-exile Foreign Minister Count Edward Raczyński wrote the Polish embassies in Rome and the Holy See a cable informing them that the Italian government was interested in allowing all Jewish Poles in Italy to leave. "We will try to speak with the governments in the UK and US so that all of our citizens would get refuge," he wrote.

One of the main protagonists in this rescuing effort was Abraham Silberschein, who was a representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland and a former Polish Zionist member of the Polish parliament.

Abraham Silberschein

Abraham Silberschein

On May 12, 1943, he sent an encrypted cable to Washington and London in which he described the horrors of the Holocaust: "According to reliable information, only 10% of the Jewish population in the Generalgouvernement region [one of the occupied Polish territories administered by the Germans] are still alive, and therefore we have to rescue the remainder … this operation is based on issuing passports of Latin American countries, chiefly among them Paraguay and Honduras, because if Jews become nationals of those countries, they will be held in detention camps until the end of the war. We have reached an understanding with those countries that the passports are only meant for rescue purposes."

Silberschein goes on, saying that the US Embassy was pushing back against the rescue efforts because it worried that the issuance of fake passports would ultimately result in German agents using them to enter the country.

"This claim is entirely unfounded because the original passports will stay in Switzerland," Silberschein writes. "Please help us expand the rescue effort," he responds.

Ładoś also signs this response, to show that he agrees with its content. Several weeks later a cable is sent from the Polish government-in-exile in London to Ładoś with a clear green light. "For humanitarian reasons, we must do our utmost," it reads. From this point onwards, the Polish embassies in Latin America join the effort.

On May 31, internal correspondence takes place between the foreign and finance ministries of the Polish government-in-exile. It included the following passage: "There is a possibility of obtaining Latin American passports that could protect the people in Poland from the slaughter in the ghettos and will grant them the possibility of moving to detention camps. Getting those passports depends on certain expenses through the legation in Switzerland. The Welfare and Labour Ministry believes that due to humanitarian reasons, we cannot prevent this help from people, which are few in number. The payment instructions will be transmitted after the people in London pay their expenses."

Rabbi Chaim Eiss

Rabbi Chaim Eiss

This correspondence reveals how three Polish ministries cooperated in transferring the funds that made the rescue efforts possible, especially from Jewish organizations.

At the end of June, the Polish foreign minister told the Polish ambassador in Brazil the following: "In the wake of the German announcement on the complete annihilation of the Jews, Jewish groups have asked me to intervene and inquire with South American countries regarding the possibility of having Polish Jews exchanged for German nationals in those countries."

In 1943, the rescue efforts hit a road bump: One of the main Jewish activists, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss, passed away. Meanwhile, the Swiss police started investigating those who were involved in forging passports after being tipped off by Paraguay’s consul-general, who noticed that the honorary consul in Bern had been receiving funds for illegal documents.

That consul, who sold half of the forged passports, was fired and on top of that, the Germans also noticed several Latin American passports among Jews in the ghettos and the camps and threatened to send many of them away, especially those who were held in France, mostly in the Vittel detention camp.

Le Vittel Palace

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

At the end of that year, Ładoś sent a cable to his new foreign minister, Tadeusz Romer, with the following message: "A German delegation has arrived in Vittel and began checking passports. Please engage all the governments so that all diplomatic missions operating in Berlin make sure that all the passports, which have been saving lives, are in fact valid."

Romer sent Ładoś’s request to the Polish missions in Latin America and added that "this will save lives." Despite the intense Polish effort over the course of several months, most of the detainees at the camp were eventually sent to the death camps.

When the die was cast for those Jews in the spring of 1944, the Polish legation began saving the Jews of Hungary and Slovakia in collaboration with Jewish organizations. "The situation in Budapest is catastrophic," a cable dated to June 2 reads. Some of these cables were coded messages brought to the legation by Jewish rescuers, others were signed directly by Ładoś.

"Conditions are worsening in the ghetto and in other cities, people have been deported without even having the opportunity to take their personal effects. Jews are being woken up in the middle of the night and beaten harshly. This is designed to break them mentally ... everything is up to you now. Do not think too much – there is still time [to act]."

A desperate plea was made in a cable to Washington ten days later: "Since April, we have been receiving letters and cables with horrific details on the deportation of Jews from Hungary and Slovakia for their extermination. Some 10,000 to 15,000 Jews are deported daily. We have asked the British and the Americans to bomb the railways but that has not happened. If no drastic step is taken, how can the other efforts be of any help? Please engage [US president] Roosevelt and [Russian leader] Stalin so that the bombings will help save some of those people."

Dr. Naomi Lubrich

Dr. Naomi Lubrich
(Photo: Eldad Beck)

The last cable on the rescue efforts was sent from the Polish legation in Bern on May 11, 1945, three days after Germany surrendered to the Allies and two months before Ładoś resigned as envoy and decided to remain in exile rather than to come back to now-communist Poland.

Mordecai Paldiel, the former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem and currently an adjunct professor for Jewish studies at Yeshiva University in New York told Israel Hayom that the rescue efforts undertaken by Ładoś and other Polish officials were "extraordinary for several reasons."

According to Paldiel, "not only did Polish diplomats go out of their way to save Jews, they also joined forces with Jewish organizations and worked in close contact with them."

Paldiel said that "there is a big debate over the treatment of Jews by the Poles, over what Polish citizens did or did not do to save their fellow Jewish compatriots. But in this case, we are talking about an official Polish diplomatic mission on Swiss territory, with the head of the mission taking it upon himself to carry out this initiative, who says: ‘I have to use everything at my disposal through this office to save Jews.'"

Paldiel speaks highly of the creativity Ładoś displayed. "He did several things. Before the war, in 1938, the Polish government passed a law that denied citizenship to any Jew who left the country and did not renew his or her passport. Thousands of Jews who had left Poland to Switzerland, France, and Belgium because of anti-Semitism or because they lost their job in Poland did not renew their passport. But meanwhile, they had kids, and Ładoś reinstated their citizenship and they were allowed to stay in those countries because their Polish citizenship was valid."

According to Paldiel, Ładoś issued Polish passports to people who were never Polish nationals so that they could leave Europe. "There are two primary examples. Dr. Yosef Burg, who would later be appointed as a minister in the Israeli cabinet, arrived in Switzerland on the eve of WWII and could not leave the country when the war broke out.

"He was a German citizen, and the Polish diplomatic mission gave him a forged passport that helped him leave to France, and then later to Spain and Portugal and then to Palestine.

"Another case was that of a French Jew called Pierre Mendès France, who later became France’s prime minister. When France fell to the Germans, he was detained and put on trial over his socialist political activities. He was given a prison sentence but managed to escape to Switzerland, where he took refuge and got a forged Polish passport under a different name. This allowed him to leave to Spain, then Portugal, and eventually to Britain, where he joined the French government-in-exile."

Paldiel notes that there were many German Nazis in Latin America who wanted to return home, especially in Paraguay but also in Costa Rica and Honduras. "A plan was being devised under which Jews who lived in Poland, the Netherlands and France would be able to get citizenship of Latin American countries that still had relations with Germany, and this would protect the Jews. There was also the communication of information on the unfolding Holocaust via the diplomatic mail, using encryption. The Polish head of mission in Bern let Jewish organizations send messages on what was happening in Europe practically every day. The first glimpse into what was happening in the Holocaust arrived in New York thanks to the Polish legation in Bern.

"All those steps were taken with the approval of Ładoś. The Swiss authorities eventually caught wind of this activity and warned the Polish officials to stop it, lest the mission is shut. But Ładoś replied: ‘I can’t, I am doing this because this is for saving lives, and while I may be engaged in illegal methods that I would normally deplore, I have to continue.'"

Paldiel said this encapsulated the heroism of the Polish diplomat. "Doing all this put him at risk, but he nevertheless stayed the course until the end of the war. I think this story is unique and Ładoś should be recognized as a righteous among the nations."

Yad Vashem issued the following statement: "We have received additional information that is currently being assessed. It is important to note that the new documents do not automatically guarantee a re-evaluation by the committee tasked with recognizing righteous among the nations unless they involve new information that was previously not discussed in the case."

Dr. Naomi Lubrich, the director of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland in Basel, has recently inaugurated a new exhibition called Passports, Profiteers, Police. A Swiss War Secret, which details the entire rescue effort undertaken by Polish diplomats.

She says the Polish legation in Bern played a crucial role in this operation. "Yad Vashem has a list of some 200 people who helped this rescue effort from all over Switzerland. It was compiled by Silberschein, who took part in the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva in August 1939. He read about the German invasion of Poland in the press and decided to stay in Switzerland and dedicate his time there to helping others. Despite there being many people involved, the Polish legation was the epicenter of the entire operation."

Lubrich said she was surprised by how little is known about the scope of the rescue efforts. "I asked professors who teach Swiss-Jewish history whether they know about this operation and all of them responded that they thought that only a handful of passports were issued," she continued. “None of them were aware of just how massive this undertaking was and the degree to which the Polish mission was involved. I approached the federal archive in Switzerland and found hundreds of thousands of documents attesting to the fact that the local police were fully aware of the operation and the volume of passports that were issued but decided to keep this matter under wraps."

The Swiss authorities had information as early as 1941 stemming from the complaint of Paraguay’s consul-general, but they did not pursue this matter any further for the next 18 months for unexplained reasons until finally they had no choice but do something about it.

"We try to show in the exhibition how people in various institutions in Switzerland tried, in various ways and due to different motives, to stop this operation," Lubrich said. "In 1943, the Swiss Foreign Minister Marcel Pilet-Golaz said that ‘consular agents are working in a way that is in breach of their mandate and duties’ and then added that ‘as soon as we discovered that we had to impose order.’ His actions toward the Jews have been a source of debate. Ładoś wrote in his memoirs that he did not get the feeling that the minister was an anti-Semite, but others saw this differently. The head of the Swiss Fremdenpolizei Dr. Heinrich Rothmund was undoubtedly an anti-Semite and as early as 1939, he said: ‘We did not fight to stop the inundation of Switzerland from foreigners for the past 20 years, primarily against Jews, in order to impose this immigration upon us.’ The American consul took the initiative and went to the Swiss authorities and alerted them that ‘there are people who have been arriving at the United States with Swiss-issued Latin American passports and we think they are German spies trying to enter our country.’ By passing on this information, he was relaying unfounded claims and wanted to bring an end to the operation."

But despite Swiss and American officials trying to stop the operation, it continued. "There was a convergence of people who were trying to help Jews," Lubrich said. "You can assume that a person who headed the legation would know exactly what was happening there and wanted the operation to be carried out. We know that Ładoś received support from the government-in-exile and continued issuing passports, and he was very much involved in the operation. Why hasn’t he been recognized for his role? I don’t know. It is important for us to put this complex story together and to shine a light on the operation through the prism of how things unfolded at the legation in Switzerland."

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