Sixty years after his death, the Polish government dedicated on Tuesday a new gravestone in honor of Konstanty Rokicki, a Polish diplomat who saved the lives of 800 Jews during the Holocaust.
The heroic story of Rokicki, who served as the Polish vice-consul in Berne during World War II, was forgotten over the years and was only fully revealed in recent months. Extensive archival research revealed that he aided hundreds of Jews by issuing forged passports for them during the war.
In 1942 and 1943, Rokicki ran an operation that issued fake passports under the auspices of the Polish Embassy in Switzerland, with the knowledge of the ambassador and under the noses of Swiss authorities. With a few accomplices, including other Polish diplomats and Jewish activists known as the “Berne Group,” and using bribery, he obtained blank passports from Paraguay, Honduras and Haiti and filled out the names and photographs of Jewish prisoners held in Nazi camps and ghettoes. He received the names of people in the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Slovakia and other countries from Jewish and underground organizations.
The passports that reached the Jews saved some of them from being sent to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps.
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The recent archival research that took place around the world, led by the Polish Embassy in Switzerland, revealed the extent of Rokicki’s rescue operation. A great number of documents and testimony was found, including lists of the false passports he issued and a telegram sent on May 19, 1943 from the Polish Foreign Ministry (of the Polish government in exile in London during the war) to the ambassador in Switzerland, Aleksander Lados, instructing him to continue to forge the documents for “humanitarian purposes.”
About 20 of those who survived thanks to Rokicki are still alive. Families of some of the survivors who received the passports were located in Israel and several attended the commemoration, along with some of Rokicki’s relatives. Relatives of some of those he saved displayed the documents issued by Rokicki during the ceremony.
Rokicki’s actions were a “brighter star in that night of black despair,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said during the ceremony held on Tuesday at the Friedental Cemetery in Lucerne as part of Duda’s state visit to Switzerland. Duda also laid a wreath on the grave.
After the war, when Poland was under Communist rule, Rokicki did not return to his homeland. He died in 1958, at 59, and was buried in a plain grave, forgotten and unknown in Lucerne. The Communist regime in Poland never did anything to commemorate or honor him or his work.
Historians believe that he issued about 2,200 false passports, and that an estimated 800 people were saved as a result. Some 330 people were known to have been saved thanks to these passports, while the fate of another 430 has not been determined. A further 387 were killed despite having the false documents.
Among the Jews who were on the list to receive the false passports was the chief rabbi of Holland, Aron Schuster; Rabbi Yisrael Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe, who moved to the United States after the war; Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel, the well-known author of Judaica literature; Nathan Eck, a historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem; as well as the leaders of the underground in Slovakia and the Bedzin Ghetto in Poland. At least one of those who received a passport from Rokicki was killed later during Israel’s War of Independence.