List of Jews granted forged passports by Bernese Group completed

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and the Polish Embassy in Bern have announced that the list of surnames belonging to hundreds of Jews aided by Polish diplomats, operating during WWII as the Bernese Group, is now complete.

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“IPN employees managed to check a total of 1,114 surnames, and found information in 12,000 documents, about 754 people, mainly holders of Paraguayan passports,” Mateusz Szpytma, the deputy head of the IPN said.

The verification was conducted based on the International Tracing Service electronic database, created to help find people saved from the Holocaust.

The work on the verification of over a thousand individuals from the “Paraguayan sub-list” has been ongoing since September 2018. The list of surnames was created by incumbent diplomats in the Embassy in Bern, working to commemorate Aleksander Ładoś, the ambassador of Poland in Switzerland during WWII, and his associates – the so-called “Bernese Group”.

“We used copies of Paraguayan passports found in the archives, as well as partial lists of their owners. A significant part of them were in the notes and reports left by Abraham Silberschein, one of the most important members of the Bernese Group,” Jakub Kumoch, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland said.

“It was a major operation and everyone involved in it achieved a great thing,” the ambassador added.

Members of the Bernese Group: Consul Konstanty Rokicki (L), Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś (C) and deputy Ambassador Stefan Ryniewicz (R). Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Zbigniew Popadiuch

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Not just Paraguayan passports

Apart from the Paraguayan part of the “Ładoś list” there are also Honduran, Haitian and Peruvian ones, prepared by the Pilecki Institute. While passports and, mostly forged, confirmations of Paraguayan citizenship, were nearly entirely created by Polish diplomats, the Honduran, Haitian and Peruvian documents were obtained via Jewish organisations cooperating with Polish diplomats, especially the RELICO committee of Mr Silberschein.

The Latin-American passports were distributed among Jews in ghettos, thanks to which they were sent to internment instead of death camps. In other words, via the fake passports, the group of Polish diplomats in Bern known as the Bernese Group saved a yet unspecified number of Jews from death in the Holocaust. Although the total number of Jews saved remains unknown, thanks to their series numbers and Mr Silbershein’s reports it is believed over 8,000 passports were issued.

According to Mr Kumoch, the work on “Ładoś’s List” helped reconstruct 40 percent of the surnames of Jews who received the fake passports, hundreds of whom were saved.

“Work on the list will continue and the IPN will keep supporting them… We are talking about one of the biggest anti-Holocaust actions in the history of not only Polish but world diplomacy,” said Mr Szpytma.

Aside from the Polish Embassy in Bern and the IPN, the Pilecki Institute, the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Jewish Historical Institute, Polish, Israeli, US and Dutch genealogists, microhistorians and the survivors’ community have been contributing to the work on the surnames’ verification.

Over 8,000 fake passports were issued by the Bernese Group. Photo: PolandIN

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The Bernese Group story

The Bernese group, or the Bernese Six, was a Polish-Jewish organisation during WWII. It dealt in the mass-forging of documents in an attempt to save European Jews from the Nazi German death camps. It was centred around the Polish consulate in Bern, Switzerland.

Headed by Aleksander Ładoś, Poland's ambassador to Switzerland during the war, the group comprised of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists. It forged South American, predominantly Paraguayan passports, which were then smuggled into Nazi German-occupied Poland.

The efforts of the Bernese Six went unknown by the broader public for decades. Last year, Poland gained access to the so-called Eiss archive which has shed new light on the scale of the group’s work.