Polish Bernese group may have tried to save thousands of Jews in Holocaust

The so-called "Bernese group" of six Polish diplomats working out of the Swiss capital Bern sought to provide Jews in Poland with forged South American passports, mostly from Paraguay

DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland (photo credit: REUTERS)
DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland
(photo credit: REUTERS)
New research suggests that Polish diplomats who worked during World War II to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe attempted to save several thousand Jews through their efforts.
The so-called Bernese Group of six Polish diplomats working out of the Swiss capital, Bern, sought to provide Jews in Poland with forged South American passports, mostly from Paraguay. The passport holders in some cases were allowed to live outside the Jewish ghettos or were sent to internment camps instead of Nazi death camps.
Until recently, it was thought that the group helped save several hundred Jews. But research conducted by the Warsaw-based Pilecki Institute, the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum and the Polish Institute of National Remembrance suggests that the Bernese Group produced thousands of forged passports that may have helped save 2,000 to 3,000 Jews.
According to Polish Ambassador to Switzerland Jakub Kumoch, the editor of the study, between 26% and 46% of the 3,253 Jews who received the Polish-forged documents survived the Holocaust.
“We estimate that the Ładoś Group contributed to the rescue of between 2,000 and 3,000 people,” he said.
The Bernese Group is alternatively known as the Ładoś Group, named after then-Polish ambassador to Switzerland Aleksander Ładoś, who served in Switzerland from 1940-1945 and oversaw the effort to forge passports.
Thousands more Jews are believed to have benefited from the forgery efforts, although their names remain undocumented, Kumoch said.
According to Efraim Zuroff, a Holocaust historian and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, the initiative to provide Polish Jews with fake South American passports came largely from Juliusz Kühl, a Polish Jewish diplomat in Bern; Chaim Yisroel Eiss of the Agudat Yisrael organization, who lived in Zurich; and Abraham Silberschein.
Bern-based Polish diplomat Konstanty Rokicki was responsible for obtaining the blank South American passports and filling them out, while Ładoś and Polish diplomat Stefan Ryniewicz gave the scheme diplomatic cover.
Silberschein and Eiss dealt with smuggling the passports into Nazi-occupied Poland and into the ghettos.
The Ładoś Group assisted Jews from all over Europe, though the majority of the passports identified and documented in the research were used by Jews in occupied Poland, the Netherlands and to some extent Germany, according to Monika Maniewska, a Pilecki Institute archivist and co-author of “The Ładoś List” study.
According to the study, the Polish government in exile gave its full support to the operation, pressuring Latin American states to recognize the forged documents for humanitarian reasons.
The initiative ended in 1943 when the Swiss authorities became suspicious and demanded that it be shut down.
The list of Jews who were saved by the Ładoś Group includes several fighters of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, including Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzchak Zuckerman, and leaders of the Jewish resistance from Slovakia, France and Italy.
Among the thousands of survivors were Mirjam Finkelstein, mother of British politician and associate editor of The Times, Lord Daniel Finkelstein; and the best friend of Anne Frank, Hannah “Hanneli” Goslar.
The English version of “The Ładoś List” was presented under the patronage of the World Jewish Congress on February 27 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.