The Unknown Story of the Polish Diplomats Who Saved Jews From the Nazis

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Photos intended to be used for fake passports at the Polish Embassy in Bern
Photos intended to be used for fake passports at the Polish Embassy in BernCredit: Polish Embassy / Switzerland

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Paraguay’s government this week for moving its embassy to Jerusalem, he said that before, during and after the Holocaust, Paraguay opened its doors to Europe’s Jews – “an act of benevolence and mercy that is forever etched in our hearts.”

A main part of the rescue story to which Netanyahu was referring was carried out by Polish diplomats. As noted this week by the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, almost all the forged Paraguayan passports that were designed to help Jews flee Nazi-occupied Europe were prepared by Polish diplomats who were serving in the Swiss capital Bern.

This rescue story is not known in Israel and there is almost no material about it in Hebrew. In recent months it was brought to light once again by the Polish Embassy in Switzerland, which on Twitter posted documents and photographs discovered last year and added fresh details.

A fake document issued by the Polish Embassy in Switzerland during World War IICredit: Embassy of Poland / Switzerland
A fake document intended for Nathan Garfinkel, a Polish JewCredit: Shimron Shiff

At the center of the rescue operation was a group of Polish diplomats who formed the heart of the so-called Bernese Group. To save Jews from the Holocaust, they ran an underground factory in Switzerland to create illegal passports for Latin American countries.

Five members of the group were Polish citizens and half were Jews.

Officials at the Polish Embassy in Switzerland say that to the best of their knowledge, 1,050 Paraguayan passports were issued by the legation in Bern, but they were used by twice as many people because they were issued for couples. The embassy is familiar with 1,000 family names of Jews who received passports this way.

“Many of them survived, some are still alive,” an official said.

Evidence of one case was recently provided on Twitter, when a grandson of a survivor who received a Bernese Group passport responded to a tweet by the Swiss Embassy.

In May 1943 his grandfather from the Polish town of Bedzin was among the recipients of a forged Paraguayan passport, but the Nazis still sent him to Auschwitz.

In the end he survived the Holocaust and managed to save the passport. His name appears on the lists found at the Polish Embassy in Switzerland as evidence of this Polish-Jewish rescue operation.

Among the documents found at the embassy is a telegram sent on May 19, 1943 from the Polish Foreign Ministry (of the government in exile in London). The ministry instructs the Polish ambassador in Bern to continue to forge the documents “for humanitarian purposes.”

A plaque is now up at the Polish Embassy to honor two of the members of the Bernese Group.

The six members of the group:

A memorial plaque honoring the work of two Polish diplomats at the Polish Embassy in BernCredit: Polish Embassy / Switzerland

■ Aleksander Lados (1891-1963), Polish ambassador in Bern from 1940 to 1945

■ Abraham Silberschein (1881-1951), former Polish MP and a Zionist activist

■ Konstanty Rokicki (1899-1958), Polish consul in Bern from 1939 to 1945

■ Chaim Yisroel Eiss (1876-1943), Agudath Israel activist in Switzerland

■ Stefan Ryniewicz (1903-1987), Polish consul in Bern from 1940 to 1945 and Lados’ deputy

■ Juliusz Kühl (1913-1985), Polish attaché in Switzerland

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