The Joint Polish-Jewish Effort to Save Hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust

January 20, 2020 | Menachem Rosensaft
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In 1942 and 1943, diplomats from the Polish government in exile, together with Jewish activists, forged Latin American passports and certificates of citizenship for 3,262 Jews in the clutches of the Third Reich. Menachem Rosensaft tells their story:

The Bernese Group’s clandestine rescue operation was spearheaded by Konstanty Rokicki, a consul at the Polish legation in Bern, who acted with the full knowledge and support of Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland, and Abraham Silberschein, a former member of the Polish parliament, and was largely funded by the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress through an organization called RELICO (the Relief Committee for the War-Stricken Jewish Population) headed by Silberschein.

Rokicki, together with Juliusz Kühl, a Jewish attaché at the legation, bribed Latin American diplomats—[like] the honorary consul of Paraguay in Switzerland—to obtain blank passports, which Rokicki then proceeded to forge manually. Rokicki also obtained blank-signed letters from the honorary consul . . . stating that the recipient was a Paraguayan national.

Ambassador Ładoś oversaw both the operation and its cover-up, provided his fellow conspirators with diplomatic support, and convinced the Swiss authorities to turn a blind eye to the group’s efforts. Helped by Jews in Switzerland with contacts in various ghettos of Poland, including . . . Nathan Schwalb, an official of the World Zionist Organization in Geneva, the Bernese Group compiled lists of Jews for whom the forged passports or nationality letters could be created, and then arranged for the fake documents to be smuggled to the Warsaw Ghetto . . . and other locations in Nazi-occupied Poland. The other two key members of the Bernese Group were Stefan Jan Ryniewicz, the deputy head of the Polish legation in Bern, and Chaim Yisroel Eiss, a leader of the Orthodox Agudath Israel movement in Switzerland.

In most cases, the documents didn’t reach their recipients in time to allow for their escape. Rosensaft’s father was one such recipient, who in the end was sent to Auschwitz but managed, against the odds, to survive.

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