“Polish Legation in Bern. The unspoken history” - first monograph about the group led by Aleksander Ładoś
“The Polish Legation in Bern. The unspoken history” is a new publication that describes the activities of the so-called “Łados group” - a group of Polish diplomats from the war times, who along with activists of Jewish organisations attempted to save the Jews endangered by the Holocaust. Ładoś and his associates forged Latin American documents, smuggled people through the territory of Vichy France, took care of Jewish refugees, and in the last phase of the war assisted Jewish organisations in attempts to buy out Jews from the Nazis. The publication is available in Polish in PDF format.
The author of the publication - the first such extensive monographic work on the Ładoś group - is Dr. Danuta Drywa, Holocaust historian and head of the Documentation Department of the Stutthof Museum in Sztutowo. Danuta Drywa is the author of various scientific and public interest publications devoted to the history of KL Stutthof, and exhibitions, including “Jews in Stutthof Concentration Camp” and “Secret Teaching of Polish Women in KL Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.” Her work also includes one of the first articles describing the activities of the Ładoś group.
'Initially, the monograph was only intended to address the assistance provided to Polish citizens of Jewish origin residing in Switzerland by the Polish Legation in Bern. However, research has shown that it is impossible to separate certain matters, that everything is connected and that the activities of the various Polish Refugee Care Committees, which were set up in the countries where Polish citizens were present, would not have been entirely possible if it had not been for the intermediation of the Berne-based Polish Legation with the Polish Government in London,' said Dr. Danuta Drywa.
“The author of the book presented in detail how the Bernese post was deliberately chosen as a tool in the rescue, relief and information activities carried out by the Polish government in London,” wrote the director of the Auschwitz Museum, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński in the introduction.
Over the last two years, the Polish embassy in Bern, headed by Ambassador Jakub Kumoch in the years 2016-2020, committed to saving the archival legacy of the group’s activity. Thanks to the joint efforts of the ambassador and the honorary consul in Zurich, Markus Blechner, and the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, some of the preserved documents about the group - the so-called Eiss Archive - were transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives in 2018.
'Dr. Danuta Drywa, whose first manuscript of the book was written many years ago, is a research pioneer on Ładoś. Her work is the result of an arduous survey of the Swiss archives. The book also shows that the falsification of Latin American passports was only a fraction of Ładoś’s activity, which rose to become one of the main protagonists of the global diplomatic rescue during the Holocaust,’ said Jakub Kumoch, now Polish ambassador to Turkey.
Ambassador Kumoch also added that “the unspoken history” is, in his opinion, the “perfect subtitle”: 'The silence of Ładoś places a burden on our studies on the Holocaust and ourselves. There are streets named after Wallenberg all over the country, but not a single Aleksander Ładoś street. By publishing this monograph, the Auschwitz Museum partly rectifies this injustice many years after the death of the Polish ambassador, who during the Holocaust was often referred to by his Jewish colleagues as “Righteous Among the Nations,” - says Kumoch.
The publication is divided into four chapters. The beginning of the book describes the activity of the Polish Legation in Bern from September 1939 to April 1940, when Łados’s predecessor, Tytus Komarnicki headed the post. Further chapters cover the period from May 1940, i.e. during the time of Ładoś. The publication also addresses the international activities of the Polish Legation in Bern. The last chapter deals with the Polish Legation as an information centre about the Holocaust.
“Dr. Drywa describes Ładoś in much more detail than previous authors, including myself. While we focused mainly on the phenomenon of Latin American passports, the researcher shows the operation in a much broader perspective. It deals in detail with, among other things, the unprecedented issue of Ładoś’s telegram - information about the Holocaust and the rescue from the Holocaust sent by Jewish organisations using the infrastructure of Polish Legation. Mr Ładoś was the one who permitted the use of Polish cyphers. Some of them bear his notes,” said Jakub Kumoch.
The researcher began working on the publication in autumn 2008 with queries in Swiss archives, including the Schweizerische Bundesarchiv in Bern, Archiv für Zeitgeschichte der ETH Zürich - afz.ethz.ch in Zurich (collections: Historisches Archiv der Schweizerischen Israelische Gemeindebundes, Saly Mayer Archiv-des American Jewish Joint Distribution Committe New York (1939-1950) and Memoiren von Dr Julius Kühl). In addition, she conducted a query in the Library and Archive of the Polish Museum at Rapperswil Castle and met with the author of the book "Poles - Jews - Swiss", Paul Stauffer, who briefly touched upon a number of issues related to the activities of the Polish Legation in Bern between 1939-1945. In Poland, she primarily examined the collection of the Polish Legation in Bern between 1939-1945, located in the Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, as well as the materials found in the Military Office of Historical Research in Warsaw.
The so-called Ladoś group was an informal form of cooperation between Polish diplomats from the Polish Legation in Bern and representatives of Jewish organisations for the rescue of European Jews. Under the leadership of Ambassador Aleksander Łados, the group provided forged South American passports, among others Paraguay, Peru, Haiti and Honduras, to protect their holders from being transported to death camps in German-occupied Poland. According to various estimates, a total of 8,000 to 10,000 such documents were issued. Jakub Kumoch and other authors of the recently published “Ładoś’s List” in Polish and English estimate the number of survivors to be between 2 and 3 thousand.
The group consisted of four diplomats from the Polish Legation: Aleksander Ładoś, Konstanty Rokicki, Stefan Ryniewicz and Juliusz Kühl, as well as two representatives of Swiss Jewish communities from Poland: a member of the RELICO Committee (Committee to Aid Jewish War Victims) set up by the World Jewish Congress, Abraham Silberschein, and a representative of Agudat Israel Chaim Eiss.
“Diplomats deserve a particular mention among those rescuing the most vulnerable - European Jews. They were able to issue passports, visas, documents that often helped to avoid deportation to death camps or permitted access to less dangerous zones. Some of the well-known names are Henryk Sławik, Chiune Sugihara or Raoul Wallenberg. Until recently, however, only a few researchers of the history of diplomacy have mentioned the measures taken by Polish diplomats in Switzerland - notably Aleksander Ładoś, Konstanty Rokicki, Juliusz Kühl and Stefan Ryniewicz," - Piotr M. A. Cywiński wrote.
“In the light of recently published documents, the Polish Legation (nowadays: the embassy) in Bern appears to be a kind of missionary post, to which the Polish government in exile specifically entrusted with the task of supporting Polish citizens at risk in various countries of occupied Europe - the vast majority of them Jews. In the longer term, attempts were also made to rescue Jews who were in hiding or ghettos in German-occupied Poland. It is no coincidence that Polish Legation could not exist in conquered or occupied countries, but in Switzerland - a neutral country, although surrounded by the Third Reich or its allies - was the one that could most fully attempt to organise aid, money, documents and information" - we read in the introduction.
'As my work shows, the activities of the Polish Legation in Bern in between 1939 and 1945 were carried out in various areas, in various political and social fields, as far as the situation allowed. We must remember that the activities of Polish diplomats were constantly under German observation. The Germans often lodged protests with the Swiss Government, forcing it to intervene and to call on Aleksander Ładoś, to make an explanation,' added Dr. Drywa.
After the war, Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś, having tried for several years to settle down near Paris, returned to Poland in 1960, seriously and terminally ill. He left behind unfinished memoirs in which he was unable to describe the passport action in depth before his death. Consul Konstanty Rokicki, who fabricated nearly half of all Bernese documents, lived in poverty after the war and died utterly forgotten in Lucerne in 1958. After the war, Juliusz Kühl resided in Canada where he developed his own business, and towards the end of his days, he moved to Florida. Stefan Ryniewicz emigrated to Argentina after the war, where he was active in the Polish community in Buenos Aires until his death in March 1988. Abraham Silberschein was arrested by the Swiss police in 1943 for his passport activities and released after the intervention of Polish diplomats. He died in Geneva a few years after the war. Chaim Eiss died of a heart attack in November 1943 and was laid to rest at the Orthodox Jewish cemetery near Zurich.
The latter activist left behind an extensive archive, two large parts of which were acquired by the Auschwitz Museum in 2018 and 2020. These include, among other things, original Paraguayan passports forged by Consul Konstantin Rokicki and correspondence between Eiss and Polish diplomats. The archive also includes passport photos of those who were rescued, including those who survived the Holocaust and those they failed to rescue. The collection contains, among other things, a previously unknown photograph of Rutka Laskier, “Polish Anna Frank”, a 14-year-old diarist from the Będzin Ghetto, murdered in 1943 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
Extensive research has led to Yad Vashem awarding the title of Righteous Among the Nations to Consul Konstanty Rokicki in Jerusalem in April 2019, and to the commendation of Aleksander Ładosi and Stefan Ryniewicz, mistakenly referred to as “consuls”. However, the decision was opposed by more than 30 people rescued by the Ładoś group and the Rokicki family, which refused to accept the medal.
The incident has led to the reopening of proceedings in the Ładoś and Ryniewicz case. The issue relating to the award of the titles of Righteous Among the Nations to both diplomats is currently in progress, and a prominent Israeli Holocaust historian, Mordecai Paldiel, himself a refugee child in Switzerland under the care of the Polish institution, is actively involved in this process.
The book “Polish Legation in Bern. The unspoken history” was published by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in collaboration with the Auschwitz Museum.