Poles and the Jews – an additional beacon of light

Righteous Poles serve as a beacon of light in better Polish-Jewish relations in the years ahead.

July 27, 2019 23:27
3 minute read.
PEOPLE VISIT the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in May.

PEOPLE VISIT the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in May. . (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

In the current debate about Polish-Jewish relations throughout the centuries, there is much to be said about Poles who caused sufferings to Jews during the World War II years. There is also reason to take note of Poles who saved Jews from the Nazis, and are honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

A story recently came to light about a group of Polish diplomats stationed in Bern, Switzerland, who in tandem with a group of Jewish activists initiated a vast secret rescue network that benefited a great number of Poles, mainly Jews, who were to be found either as refugees in Switzerland or in German-occupied countries throughout Europe. The figure, according to various sources, runs anywhere from many hundreds into several thousand beneficiaries of this clandestine rescue operation, people whose lives were saved.

It was a scheme devised to save Jews from deportation to German concentration and death camps by providing them with documents that said they were actually citizens of some Latin American countries, principally Paraguay. Jewish activists and Polish diplomats in Switzerland acquired blank passports from South American diplomats, usually in return for payment, that were then taken to the Polish legation in Bern, where they were filled with names and addresses of Jews in various European places, then returned to the Latin American diplomatic representatives for their signatures, and finally forwarded via couriers and other channels to the people in need of these documents to prevent their deportation.

The logic behind this scheme was the known German interest in having ethnic Germans living in Latin American countries returned to Germany in exchange for Jews holding passports of these countries. Consequently, the Germans would exempt these Jews from deportation and death.

The person principally responsible for this rescue conspiracy in the Polish legation was the ambassador himself, Aleksander Lados. He was supported by two aides, Stefan Ryniewicz and Konstanty Rokicki, as well as a Jewish employee Julius Kuhl, who headed the Jewish section in that legation. The foursome worked hand-in-hand with two principal Jewish activists, Rabbi Chaim Israel Eiss, representing the religious Agudat Israel movement, and Abraham Silberschein, of the World Jewish Congress.

When the Swiss authorities learned of this clandestine rescue operation based on false documents, Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Swiss Police, called in the principals of this network for interrogation and warned them against continuing their illegal activities on Swiss soil. Questioned by Rothmund, ambassador Lados answered, “It’s about saving human lives,” and disregarded the warning. Lados at first did not seek the consent of his superiors in the Polish government-in-exile operating out of London, regarding his legation’s participation in this maneuver of converting Polish Jewish nationals, stateless Jews, and Jews from other occupied countries, into citizens of South American countries based on fabricated documentation. When the government later learned of this, it gave its belated consent.

Yad Vashem has so far awarded the Righteous Among the Nations title on the late Rokicki and is studying the further awarding of the title to ambassador Lados and Ryniewicz, since this whole secret operation was launched, approved and backed principally by the ambassador and his closest aide.

In light of the ongoing spirited debate about the behavior of Poles of all ranks of stations vis-à-vis the large Jewish population in occupied Poland, it is gratifying and inspiring to learn of a group of Polish diplomats who worked hand-in-hand with a group of Jewish rescue activists to save as many Jews as possible, even by employing subterfuge to make that happen.

These righteous Poles serve as a beacon of light in better Polish-Jewish relations in the years ahead.

The writer is former head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, and currently teaching at Yeshiva University and Touro College.

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