Passports of freedom?

Among those who were involved in helping Jews during World War II were also diplomats, employees of Polish missions in various European countries. Polish diplomats at the Polish Embassy in Bern were also a part of this group.

“The Final Solution”

The fate of the Jewish population gradually deteriorated after the outbreak of World War II. The following months brought new humiliating regulations and restrictions on personal and property freedoms. Over time, Jews were alienated from the society in which they had previously lived, through labeling and confinement to segregated parts of cities. Since the fall of 1939, some Jewish people were already looking for opportunities to escape, for example to the Soviet Union. Others waited for events to unfold, hoping that the war would soon end and the previous order would be restored. In the summer of 1941, after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, the Germans began the mass murder of Jews. In the months that followed, the plan of the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question was being executed with brutality. At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the logistics of this plan was established. From December 1941, Jewish people were murdered in mobile gas chambers at the Kulmhof extermination camp in Chełmno on Ner. In the spring of 1942, as part of the  “Reinhardt” operation which aimed to exterminate the Jews from the General Government district and Bezirk Bialystok, Germans launched three death camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, where in the summer of 1942 Jews from liquidated ghettos in the General Government district were transported. Jews from the Third Reich and other countries of occupied Europe were also sent to these centers. Around the same time, mass deportations of Jews to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp located within the territory of the Third Reich also began.

Fleeing from extermination, Jews sought shelter for themselves and their loved ones outside the ghettos, on the  Aryan side. The reaction of the population towards the escaping Jews varied from passivity, through active help, to handing them over to the Germans or even murdering them. Some of the Jews in hiding tried to get to other countries that were outside the control of Nazi Germany.

Employees of the Polish Embassy

Individuals, representatives of various political circles, organisations and religions, as well as some diplomats, came to the aid of Jews seeking rescue. Both just before the outbreak and during the World War II, they supported activities aimed at obtaining documents that would allow Jews to emigrate to neutral countries or outside Europe. Some also offered persecuted Jews shelter in buildings belonging to diplomatic missions, which were protected by international immunity.

This group included four diplomats involved in the Polish diplomatic mission in Bern, Switzerland, which remained neutral during World War II. They contributed to creating aid network, in historiography referred to as the Bern Group, named after the city that was the center of the operation. Employees of the Polish Embassy involved in helping Jews are also known as the Ładoś Group, as that was the last name of the head of the institution who led these operations. However, this name no longer includes the circle of people who cooperated with the Embassy in Bern because they did not report directly to Ładoś. Aleksander Ładoś (1891-1963), was born in Lviv and spent his early years there. He studied history at the local Jan Kazimierz University. After the outbreak of World War I, he went to Lausanne where he continued his studies. Upon his return in 1919, to already independent Poland, he began working in diplomatic service: in the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in foreign missions in Riga and Munich, among others. In 1931, after Józef Beck became Deputy Foreign Minister, he was dismissed from the service. Since then he has been engaged in journalistic activities, among other things. In October 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, Ładoś went to Paris. He joined the Polish government-in-exile led by Władysław Sikorski as minister without portfolio. In 1940, Ładoś was appointed the head of the Polish diplomatic mission in Bern. Over time, he gave permission for his ministry’s employees to engage in obtaining blank forms and passing on forged passports and visas to Jewish people seeking refuge. Ładoś also negotiated with the Polish government-in-exile on transferring money and providing other forms of assistance to Poles interned in Switzerland.

Ładoś’ deputy was Stefan Ryniewicz (1903-1988), born in Tarnopol. He received his education in Lviv. In the 1930s, he began working in diplomacy. His first mission was the Polish Embassy in Bern, where initially he was a clerk and then the head of the consular department. He then worked in the office of Minister Józef Beck. In years 1935-38, he served as consul in Riga. Just before the outbreak of World War II, he worked again in the Polish Embassy in Bern. Among other things, Ryniewicz filled out passport forms purchased from Paraguay’s honorary consul Rudolf Hügli. In 1943, after Germans fell on the trail of the operation and arrested several members of the network, Ryniewicz successfully intervened in their case with the Swiss police chief.

Juliusz Kühl (1913-1985), born in Sanok into a family of Orthodox Jews, was another employee of the Polish mission involved in the relief effort. He studied economics at the University of Bern. In 1939, he completed his doctoral dissertation defence on Polish and Swiss trade relations, which drew the attention of the staff of the Polish Embassy. He was soon hired as the deputy head of the Consular Section of the Embassy. However, the Swiss authorities did not recognise his diplomat status. Together with other employees of this post, he became involved in obtaining fake passports for Jewish refugees. Juliusz Kühl’s role was important because he cooperated with local religious communities and Jewish aid organizations. He was responsible for the transportation of purchased forms, as well as transferring the funds and coordinating document smuggling activities. Kühl was in constant contact with representatives of various Jewish organizations. It was they who provided some of the funds as well as lists with the names of Jews who needed help. Despite being arrested by Swiss police and threats of deportation, Kühl refused to stop his activities.

Another employee of the Embassy, the Warsaw-born Konstanty Rokicki (1899-1958), also provided assistance. Well educated, he spoke several languages. He served in the army with the rank of second lieutenant of cavalry and took part in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920, during which he was decorated for bravery. Since 1931, he worked in Polish diplomacy, i.a., at the Polish Consulate in Minsk, the Polish Consulate in Riga, and the Polish Embassy in Cairo. Since 1939, he became Polish Vice Consul in Bern. Konstanty Rokicki was involved in, among other things, filling in passport forms, which were then smuggled out of Switzerland to Jews in need of help.

Employees of the Polish Embassy in Bern cooperated with representatives of Jewish organisations: Chaim Eiss from the Agudat Israel party in Zurich and Abraham Silberschein, before the war a member of the Polish Parliament, and during the war a representative of the RELICO Relief Committee for the War-stricken Jewish Population in Geneva. Their associates responsible for maintaining contact with the Dutch Jews were, i.a., Recha and Yitzhak Sternbuch who were in Montreux, Switzerland.

Paid blank forms

Diplomats from the Bern Group provided assistance mainly to Polish Jews, but also to Dutch and German Jews. Their operations began in 1941 from establishing informal cooperation with representatives of Jewish organisations in Switzerland. Polish diplomats obtained blank Latin American passport forms, which they then filled out and gave to Jewish organisations for distribution. The documents – passports and proofs of citizenship – were typically purchased in cooperation with the diplomatic representatives of Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti, and Peru. For the diplomats of these countries, it was an additional opportunity to earn money. In turn, Jews who received these documents, as citizens of Latin American countries, often avoided deportation to death camps. They were sent to transit camps in France or Germany (i.a., Vittel and Bergen-Belsen), where they were to await exchange for interned German soldiers. Documents prepared by Polish diplomats also reached Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. However, sending them to occupied Poland was a time-consuming process and required a significant workforce. Due to the Great Deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in the summer of 1942, some of the passports prepared by the staff of the Polish Embassy in Bern never reached their addressees. Some of them were intercepted by the Germans and in 1943, after the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, they were sold by the Gestapo and their collaborating Jewish informers to Jews who were hiding on the Aryan side.

In the second half of 1943, Germany asked South American governments to confirm the authenticity of the passports they issued. In most cases, no such confirmation was obtained or the response was delayed significantly. To speed up this process, Polish diplomats decided to influence Latin American governments through the Vatican. They made contact with the Apostolic Nunciature in Bern, which was able to enlist their cooperation and thus increase the number of confirmed passports. This was extremely important because Polish Jews whose documents were not successfully verified in 1944 were deported to extermination camps, mainly KL Auschwitz, where, unfortunately, the vast majority of them died.

Diplomats from the Polish Embassy in Bern not only helped obtain passports, but also offered financial support to Jews living or interned in Switzerland. They also helped Polish Jews, refugees in Shanghai, as well as in Hungary, Romania, Greece, Italy and France. Thanks to the radio station at the embassy in Bern it was possible to provide some information about the ongoing situation in occupied Poland, including the fate of the Jewish community.

Research on the activities of the staff of the Polish Embassy in Bern has been properly undertaken by historians only in recent years. So far, thanks to Ładoś’ letters, they have managed to successfully identify about 800 names of the Jews who survived the war thanks to passports obtained from Polish diplomats and of approx. 900 people who died despite having them. However, given that the estimated scope of the relief operation was 8,000 to 10,000 people, the total number of survivors should be considered much higher. The problem of determining the exact number of Jews rescued with the help of Polish diplomats from Bern is amplified by the fact that most of the survivors – due to the rules of conspiracy – did not know where they got the help from. The documents received from diplomats were often one of many steps on the road to being saved from the Holocaust and just having them did not mean it would automatically happen.  Indeed, the survival of Jewish people was affected by various circumstances and factors beyond the control of the diplomats.

dr Martyna Grądzka-Rejak – historian, Jewish studies specialist and educator, Doctor of Humanities. The graduate of the History Institute at the KEN Pedagogical University in Cracow and the Jewish Studies Department at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Head of the Research Department of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.