Archive reveals Polish efforts to rescue WWII Jews

The Archive of Rabbi Chaim Eiss from the so-called Bernese Group is one of the largest collections of documents on the Polish diplomacy in Switzerland’s operation to rescue Jews from the horror of the Holocaust by forging Latin American passports.

Polish diplomat who saved Jews during WWII

The Bernese group, run from of the Polish embassy in Bern,the Swiss capital, was the name of an illegal Polish-Jewish organization who dealt in the...

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The news was announced by the Polish Embassy in Bern, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

The Eiss Archive documents the efforts of Aleksander Ładoś – the Polish Ambassador in Bern during WWII – his diplomats and the Jewish organizations they cooperated with. The so-called Bernese Group forged and distributed several thousand forged Latin American passports which went on to save hundreds of lives. “It is our duty to get back this incontrovertible evidence that Poles, the Polish state and its representatives, were systematically and institutionally involved in the saving of Jewish lives during WWII,” said deputy prime minister and minister of culture and national heritage Piotr Gliński.

“The actions of those Polish diplomats in Switzerland, newly discovered and documented, are an inspiration for historians, as well as for writers, for filmmakers and artists,” the deputy PM said.

Photo: Eiss Archive

Former Polish FM received help from ‘Bernese Group’

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The Eiss Archive is a collection of documents belonging to Rabbi Chaim Eiss (1876-1943). Rabbi Eiss was born in Ustrzyki in what is now southeastern Poland and was one of the leaders of the Agudath Israel movement, the political arm of orthodox Judaism with its base of support in eastern Europe prior to WWII.

He was also a member of the so-called Bernese Group, which, under the guidance and leadership of the Polish Ambassador in Switzerland, Aleksander Ładoś, forged Latin American passports with the aim of distributing them among Polish Jews in order to save their lives, whereby the holders of the passports were taken to be the citizens of neutral nations, and therefore placed in internment camps to wait out the end of the war, instead of being taken to the Nazi German death camps to be exterminated.

According to dr Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, the collection includes eight Paraguayan passports forged by the Polish diplomats, as well as unique and never-before-used photographs of the people who were trying to acquire those passports. There is also an original list of several thousand names of Jews from the ghettos who were trying to save themselves in this way from the Holocaust, as well as a collection of letters sent between the Polish diplomats and various Jewish organizations, and a list of the first names of children in Warsaw’s orphanages.

Photo: Eiss Archive

The man who forged over 1,000 passports

According to Poland's ambassador to Switzerland, Konstanty Rokicki forged 1,056 passports for Jewish people during WWII, in effect saving several...

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“These documents make up an extremely important collection which on one hand shows the drama facing Poland’s Jewish families, and on the other hand the lengths gone to in order to pull as many people as possible out of the hellish circle of the Holocaust which was closing around them,” dr Cywiński said.

The current Polish Ambassador in Switzerland, Dr. Jakub Kumoch, explained that they had been able to locate the Eiss Archive in a private family collection not long after the publication of the first documents concerning the Bernese Group.

“It is the great success of our honorary consul in Zurich, Markus Blechner, who for nearly a year has been working on acquiring the collection from the descendants of Chaim Eiss, and who convinced them that its rightful place is in Poland, in institutions which document the Holocaust and pre-war Jewish life,” the Ambassador said.

Rabbi Eiss was personally responsible for delivering the lists of intended recipients of the forged passports to the Polish diplomats, as well as smuggling the bogus documents into occupied Poland. The heroic Rabbi died suddenly of a heart attack in November 1943.

After the war, Rabbi Eiss’s documents went with his descendants to Israel. Negotiations regarding getting them back began in summer 2017.

The collection will be exhibited in Bern, Switzerland, for several months, before coming to Poland at the beginning of 2019. The documents will be given to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, where they will undergo detailed analysis by historians.

The Bernese Group

The group was centered around the Polish embassy in Bern, and was an illegal Polish-Jewish organization who dealt in the mass-forging of documents with the aim of saving Jews during Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to exterminate the majority of Polish Jews in German-occupied Poland during WWII.

The group consisted of four Polish diplomats and two representatives of Jewish organizations: MP Aleksander Ładoś, his assistant and head of the political branch Stefan Ryniewicz, consul Konstanty Rokicki and the attaché and specialist in Jewish affairs Dr Juliusz Kühl, as well as the Zionist activist and Polish MP Abraham Silberschein and the Rabbi Chaim Eiss.

As for now the name and surname of 330 people are known who were saved as a direct result of the forged Latin American passports, and of 387 people who died in spite of their false documents. The fate of the rest – more than 430 people of whom only the surname is known – remains a mystery.

Photo: Eiss Archive

A letter from the Eiss Archive: from a member Agudath Israel to Consul Konstanty Rokicki

March 29, 1943

The Polish Consulate
21 Thunstrasse

Dear Consul,

As a member of the executive committee of the Agudath Israel world organization, I am in contact with all our national organizations and also mediate between our managers in London as well as in Newyork (sic) and the rest of the country. I feel compelled, dear Consul, to express to you the most intimate thanks for your kindness and your goodness, that on several occasions you intervened with your Paraguayan colleagues in Bern, so that more Jews in Poland, who were in mortal danger, might present passports from Paraguay and thus have their lives saved.

As I have been told, these people are already out of danger and will soon be interned.

Among those people rescued are parliamentarians, councilmen from Łódź and Warsaw, editors of the Jewish daily newspaper in Warsaw and of weekly and monthly publications, teachers, and rabbinical persons.

Your deed, which is to be considered nothing less than the saving of human lives, cannot be held in high enough esteem. I can also assure you that the benevolent actions of His Excellency the Polish envoy and his officials, who are filled with compassion for the Jews, are known to the Jews across the world and are also evaluated and praised appropriately.

I am also convinced that at the end of the war the rescued persons will no longer have any need of the passports in order potentially to make use of them and travel to Paraguay, but will deliver these protective documents back to those who saved their lives, their Paraguayan colleagues in Bern, with the deepest thanks, for they, having been saved, will once more possess Polish citizenship and will have no wishes to change that fact.

I send you my greetings, esteemed Consul, and the expression of my reverence and deepest respect.