The Forgers

From The Wall Street Journal:

By 1940 the possibility of escape had become so small for the millions of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe that even the most outlandish-sounding gambit seemed worth a try. One such ploy was to obtain a forged Paraguayan passport. Far-fetched though that plan may have been, the exit papers helped somewhere between 800 and 3,000 Jews flee across Nazi borders and survive the Holocaust.

Put into perspective, that makes the tactic among the most successful wartime efforts to free Jews from the Nazi death machine. (Perhaps the best-known strategy, organized by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, saved approximately 1,200 Jews.) Yet, as we learn in Roger Moorhouse’s valuable but uneven chronicle, “The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation,” for years the Paraguayan-passport scheme remained virtually forgotten. Mr. Moorhouse’s subject thus encompasses a double mystery: how the operation worked and succeeded, and why it seems to have disappeared from the historical record. The author does better explaining the former than the latter.

Of the many threads that weave through the story, perhaps the most intriguing describes the unlikely bedfellows who masterminded the operation: a Swiss-based group of officials from the Polish government-in-exile, working in tandem with Polish-born Jewish community leaders who had found refuge in Switzerland. Then, as now, the very notion of a joint Polish-Jewish humanitarian project can seem surprising against the backdrop of Poland’s long history of often-violent antisemitism. But in numerous documents cited by Mr. Moorhouse, a British World War II historian and the author of “Poland 1939,” the Polish government-in-exile affirmed its intention to protect all Polish citizens, Jewish or otherwise, from Nazi persecution.

The declaration was humanitarian, but the intention was also strategic. Jan Karski—the Polish resistance fighter sent by the government-in-exile on clandestine trips into Nazi-occupied Poland to report on conditions there—warned in early 1940 that Polish antisemitism could “create something akin to a narrow bridge” that would align Polish citizens with Nazi aims and persuade them to collaborate. To counter that, Karski advised building “a common front . . . an understanding that in the end both peoples are being unjustly persecuted by the same enemy.” Karski would later smuggle out his eyewitness accounts of the harrowing conditions in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and at Izbica, the transit camp from which Jews were sent to the Bełżec death camp. He would travel to Washington and London to attest to the mass murder of Jews by cyanide at Auschwitz. To save the Jews of Poland, these reports made clear, additional Allied intervention would be needed.

That help did not arrive. In the breach, the men who would launch the Paraguayan-passports scheme found each other. Their team, called the Ładoś Group, was led by the career Polish diplomat Aleksander Ładoś, who came to the Swiss capital of Bern in 1940 to serve as the unofficial ambassador of Poland’s government-in-exile. In addition to being “positively predisposed toward Poland’s Jewish populations,” Mr. Moorhouse tells us, Ładoś “was not a man overly burdened with respect for the legal sanctity of official documents.” He was the perfect candidate to helm the covert operation.

Rudolf Hügli, a Swiss notary and an honorary consul of Paraguay, would, for a fee, provide the blank passport documents. Joining Ładoś in providing cover for and operating the scheme were three consular colleagues: Stefan Ryniewicz, his deputy; Konstanty Rokicki, whose responsibilities included handling passport applications and often filling in the names of the passport bearers; and Juliusz Kühl, an attaché who himself was Jewish and was the legation’s representative for Jewish affairs.

Kühl became the liaison to several representatives from Jewish aid organizations, most notably Abraham Silberschein, a former member of the Polish Parliament who had helped found the Relief Committee for Jewish War Victims, and Rabbi Israel Chaim Eiss, a founder of the Orthodox Agudath Israel movement. These two community leaders, along with several others, took charge of spreading word of the passport scheme through the ghettos and camps. They also oversaw the coded correspondence used to collect individual information and photos for the fake passports, and managed the passports’ delivery.

After a German spy exposed the scheme in 1943, Swiss authorities arrested or sanctioned most of the group and no more passports were issued. But the documents that had already been distributed still helped some survive, Mr. Moorhouse explains. As the war neared its end, reclaiming soldiers to fight for Hitler took precedence in Germany over vetoing forged passports. And so Germany sought a deal with the Allies to trade German prisoners of war for those Jewish camp inmates who held papers, valid or not, from countries beyond the Reich. Even so, the negotiations were so prolonged that many Jews died while awaiting their release.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “The Forgers”

  1. The latter is no mystery: the same gambit that allowed Jews to escape their would-be murderers worked equally well for the murderers.

    The system that led german wwII fugitives escape justice to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and even the US was called the ratline. And if the ratline to paraguay was to go unnoticed, its precursor had to be forgotten.

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