Ambassador Ładoś and his diplomats - an extraordinary rescue action saving Jews from the Holocaust
Among Poles saving Jews, the most frequently mentioned are people honored with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations: the Ulma family, Jan Karski, Irena Sendler or Henryk Sławik. Few people know about other heroes - diplomats of the Polish Legation in Berne, Switzerland, who in 1940-45 saved the lives of several hundred Jews.
I am thinking of the deputy Aleksander Ładoś, his deputy Stefan Ryniewicz, consul Konstanty Rokicki, as well as the consular officer Juliusz Kühl, who during the World War together with representatives of Jewish communities in Switzerland organized and conducted a daring operation of issuing South American passports to Jews staying in the ghettos of occupied Poland.
This action, abounding in dramatic moments, and at the same time being an example of the consistent and effective cooperation of Poles and Jews, is well documented in the archives located in Warsaw, Bern, Jerusalem and London, and in the future could serve as the basis for the script of a good and suspenseful film.
The sources of this operation dates back to 1939. We are talking here not only about the attack of Nazi Germany on Poland and the extermination of Jews, but also about events in Switzerland. For in connection with the German invasion, the Zionist member of the Polish Sejm, Dr. Abraham Silberschein, is forced to remain in Switzerland. Soon he will set up a Relief Committee in Geneva for the Jewish War Victims (RELICO), which will closely cooperate with the Polish Diplomatic Mission. At the same time, the Polish Legation in Bern employs a PhD graduate of the local university, a Polish Jew, Juliusz Kühl.
In May 1940, Aleksander Ładoś, former minister in the government-in-exile, came to Bern. Ładoś has over a dozen years of diplomatic service - he was an independence activist during the First World War, a negotiator of the treaty that ended the Polish-Bolshevik war, and then a deputy in Riga and a consul general in Munich. The government of General Władysław Sikorski appoints him this time as an MP, in today's terminology, the ambassador in Bern. The first task appears very quickly: in June 1940, Switzerland's borders exceed the 2nd Infantry Rifle Division, which prefers internment from capitulation to Germans conquering France. Soon, as Ładoś himself writes, "from Belgium, the Netherlands and France", Polish Jewish refugees are arriving. The institution takes the first fight - that soldiers, but also Jewish refugees, should not be sent to the areas occupied by the Third Reich. It is probably then that Juliusz Kühl makes contact with Silberschein and other Jewish organizations.
Most Polish Jews, however, remain in the occupied country and are at the mercy of the criminal occupant. At the end of 1941, the Legation came into possession of important information: one of the Jewish families from Switzerland managed to acquire a passport for the Republic of Paraguay for a loved one and, thus, to deport it from occupied Poland. Where did the idea of saving people through the passports of Latin American countries came from? It must be remembered that in the conditions of occupied Poland, our passport did not constitute any protection against deportation to the death camp or murder. On the other hand, citizens of neutral countries were not subjected to occupational regulations and were sent to internment camps in France or Germany, where they were under the care of the Red Cross. The Germans needed them for possible exchange for their citizens, interned in the countries of South America.
When Germany is already carrying out a large-scale extermination of Polish Jews, the Mission does its best to use the scheme in the most efficient way possible. After identifying potential collaborators, Polish diplomats made contact with several consuls of South American countries, including the honorary consul of Paraguay, who in summer 1942 agreed to cooperate. There are indications that consuls of Honduras, Chile, Haiti and Ecuador have decided to undertake similar cooperation.
The scheme of operations was simple: consuls supplied empty passports for money, Jewish organizations smuggled from the ghettos the lists of beneficiaries and their passport photos. All this went to the building of the Consular Section of the Polish Mission, where mass production of fake documents continued. Letters and forms were provided by Juliusz Kühl, and the documents were handwritten by the Consul Konstanty Rokicki. The false passports created this way returned to the South American consulates, were sealed and certified with appropriate signatures. They were made of certified copies or documents certifying citizenship of a given state and were provided - often corrupting the occupation officials - to the addresses indicated earlier in Poland. Everything took place on two Bernese streets, only one kilometer away from each other. In this way hundreds and maybe thousands of citizens of Paraguay, Honduras and other South American countries appear in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and 1943. The issue of falsifying passports is widely known, but nothing is known about who produced them. "I would like to have a Paraguay passport, gold and a free country," writes Władysław Szlengel, a pre-war Polish-Jewish poet and author of many hits of the 1930s. He died shortly thereafter during the liquidation of the ghetto.
Why Jewish organization needed Polish Legation so badly? The countries of South America were represented by honorary consuls - the Swiss who did not have such experience in real consular activities. Meanwhile, the Kühl-Rokicki operation, supported politically by Ładoś and Ryniewicz, required writing out a dozen or so passports daily. It took a lot of time. The legations and embassies of other European states, unfortunately, did not show similar enthusiasm. In one of the documents, Abraham Silberschein wrote directly: "The Polish Legation in Bern is doing everything to save its citizens". For a Polish diplomat, a Jew from the ghetto was simply a Pole who needed help. Very cordial relations between Polish diplomats and their Jewish collaborators are significant in this matter. The correspondence between Silberschein, consul Rokicki and counselor Ryniewicz, the deputy of Ładośa, has been preserved. There is no Polish-Jewish issue at all. You can see that the Polish state does not divide its citizens according to religion and origin. What's more, both laic Jews, such as the Silberschein deputies and ultra-religious Jews, were cooperating. Among the latter, the key role was played by Chaim Eiss, an Orthodox rabbi from Zurich, born in Ustrzyki. He was probably the provider of the largest number of names - his effectiveness as an organizer of smuggling and fundraiser arouses respect. The action was kept secret from the Swiss authorities. Polish diplomats took on enormous risk - it was probable that if detected, they would be threatened not only with persona non grata status but also expulsion from the country (such a precedent took place in 1940 against our consul in Geneva). Switzerland was surrounded by the Axis states, and Germany did not recognize the government in exile in London, so Polish diplomats were exposed to mortal danger. However, Mr Ładoś, even pressed by the Swiss authorities, did not make any concessions.
Despite the threat and investigation carried out by the Swiss police for foreigners, the campaign was continued for a long time without the need of official position of the Polish government. With the knowledge and approval of MP Ładoś, who unbuttoned the umbrella of political protection over his subordinates, Juliusz Kühl and Stefan Ryniewicz regularly received parcels with passports that were filled by Rokicki's consul. To ensure success, our diplomats kept in touch with South American diplomats, the US Mission, and the apostolic nuncist. A great role in helping Polish Jews was played by Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Filippo Bernardini. The Mission was involved not only in issuing passports and documents confirming the citizenship of South American countries, but also in providing radio communication to Jewish organizations and mediating in transferring money collected by American Jewish organizations to fellow believers in Europe. It also participated in organizing and transferring parcels and medicines to occupied Poland. In addition, in 1940-42, the Mission informed the government in London of efforts to prevent the release of Polish refugees of Jewish origin who were caught on the Swiss-German border to Germans. In September 1943, someone reported on consul Paraguay. Eissa and Silberschein were detained, Kühl was interviewed, whose diplomatic status Switzerland did not recognize, and finally Ryniewicz and Ładoś were summoned to give explanations. The first of them met with Heinrich Rothmund himself, the head of the Swiss police, considered the main opponent of receiving Jews, and the second intervened with the foreign minister Marcel Pilet-Golaz. Thanks to their diplomatic talents, the Swiss authorities managed to convince the Swiss authorities to close their eyes to the procedure and not to draw severe consequences towards the institution and diplomats (it ended with an oral warning of Poles and the release of Jews). It should be noted that Mr Ładoś has always vigorously defended his subordinates, admitting at the same time full knowledge of the issuing of false passports. He refused to cease operations, opposed the conducted interrogations, and actions aimed at terminating the proceedings, and refused to release Juliusz Kühl, which was suggested by the Swiss federal authorities.
There is also a telegram from MP Ladych to the government in London, in which he asks the Polish government to "energetically intervene" with representatives of Latin American countries with a request to recognize ad hoc issued passports. In the meantime, the German authorities, alarmed by the scale of the phenomenon of using documents in Poland, asked the South American countries to verify the authenticity of the identity of persons staying in interned camps. Despite the initiative of the Polish Mission and the Bernese Apostolic Nunciature, the vast majority of states did it too late, which led most people to go to extermination camps. Recognition came, among others from Paraguay, thanks to which several hundred people survived.
Today, it is impossible to accurately determine the number of people saved thanks to diplomats from Bern. It should be borne in mind that a similar procedure was also conducted by some consuls, other diplomatic missions, as well as individuals. The vast majority of people who survived the Holocaust did not realize who issued the passports, and therefore they unaware of whom they owed their survival. Jewish circles had no doubts about the effectiveness of Polish diplomats. Many individual and collective thanks have been preserved for the employees of the Mission, sent directly to its address or to the Polish government in London. These documents point out the key role of the Mission in the practice and indicate that it did everything to save as many people as possible.
In the archives of the Polish government in London, among many others, document from January 1945 can be found. The World Jewish Organization Agudas Israel sent a letter of thanks to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which it recalled the merits of Aleksander Ładoś, Stefan Ryniewicz, Konstanty Rokicki and Julisz Kühl, pointing out that "without their involvement and help, it would be impossible to save hundreds of Jews."
The post-war fates of the participants of the action went on very different, sometimes sad paths.
MP Aleksander Ładoś stayed in Switzerland, then he lived in France and in 1960, probably already seriously ill, he decided to return to Poland. He died in December 1963 in Warsaw, working on the third volume of his memories. He announced that he would describe the issue of passports there, but he finally did not make it. Consul Konstanty Rokicki died in oblivion in Lucerne in 1958. The fate of Stefan Ryniewicz, who lived in Buenos Aires at the end of the 1980s, fared better. He was awarded by the President of the Republic of Poland in exile for his Polonia activities. Juliusz Kühl settled in Canada and was successful as a real estate businessman.
Regardless of the subsequent fate, political and life choices of our four diplomats, their action carried out during World War II is a source of pride for Polish diplomacy. It is significant, however, that it took so long to discover this truth, and the survivors find out today, thanks to whom they survived the Holocaust. This action also shows an example of Polish-Jewish cooperation in the face of the Holocaust and, let’s hope, puts to an end all anti-Polish and anti-Semitic stereotypes.