British Jews helped save an estimated 8,000 people from the Holocaust by supporting a secret scheme run by Polish diplomats, newly-discovered documents seen by Jewish News reveal.
The dramatic operation, which took place from 1941 to 1943, was spearheaded by Poland’s consul in Switzerland, Konstanty Rokicki, and his colleagues, and was known as the Ładoś Group – after the ambassador of the day, Aleksander Ładoś.
Ambassador Jakub Kumoch, Poland’s current envoy in Bern, has been researching the story of the Ładoś Group for two years.
The operation, said Dr Kumoch, meant “the Embassy of Poland turned into a centre for forgery of [Latin American] passports and confirmation of citizenships”.
It worked like this: passports were bought, half of them from the honorary consul of Paraguay in Switzerland, and the remainder from the honorary consuls of Honduras, Haiti and Peru. All but one of the honorary consuls, notes Dr Kumoch, were Swiss “and their respective governments did not know what they were doing”.
The documents were then worked on in the Polish legation and forged in the new identities of Jews who would use the passports — not to travel to those countries, but to register with the Nazi authorities and be interned as citizens of the third countries.
In this way, an estimated 8,000 Jews avoided deportation to concentration camps.
About half of the passports, says Dr Kumoch, were “documents of Paraguay forged by Konstanty Rokicki”. He was Poland’s consul in Bern and was named earlier this year as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
However, since the work was also carried out by other diplomats, including Ambassador Ładoś, Julius Kuhl and Stefan Ryniewicz, Rokicki’s cousin refused to accept the Yad Vashem honour until the contribution of the others was recognised.
The passports cost a great deal — between 500 and 700 Swiss francs, sometimes more. But the recent document, which shows the funding of the operation primarily came from Jews in Britain (an estimated £220,000), has “astonished” Dr Kumoch.
He says: “Previously we believed that the World Jewish Congress and government of Poland, together with [the strictly-Orthodox Jewish organisation] Agudath Yisrael, co-financed the operation.
We now know channels were opened in Washington and London so members of local Jewish communities could transfer money to their Swiss relatives — and then the latter could buy passports for members of their families in Nazi held territories”.
Rokicki died in a homeless shelter in 1958, His grave shows him as someone who rescued people in the Holocaust.