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The Poles Who Tried to Save My Father

The unknown story of the Bernese Group, a collective of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists in Switzerland who forged passports to try and help Jews escape the horrors of the Holocaust

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
January 16, 2020
Original image: Wikipedia
Residence of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Bern Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Residence of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Bern Original image: Wikipedia

In the midst of the international controversy over who was responsible for World War II and its carnage, three immutable realities must underlie any constructive discussion: Nazi Germany started the war by invading Poland on Sept. 1, 1939; Poland did not bear any responsibility for the Hitlerite aggression of which it was the target; and the histories of Jewish Poles and Christian Poles during the Holocaust era are symbiotically albeit often uneasily intertwined.

The third of these realities is epitomized by a fascinating and eye-opening document that my friend Jakub Kumoch, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland, sent me a few days ago: a list of 3,262 Jews in countries under Nazi occupation for whom forged Latin American passports and certificates of citizenship were issued at the height of the Holocaust by a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists in Switzerland known as the Bernese Group.

More than 25% of the names on the list–835 out of the 3,262–belonged to Jews from my father’s hometown of Będzin in southern Poland, followed by 497 from Warsaw, 262 from Amsterdam, 215 from the city of Sosnowiec near Będzin, and smaller numbers from other cities. The disproportionate representation of Jews from Będzin on the list is due to the efforts of Alfred Schwarzbaum, a refugee from that city then living in Lausanne.

This list is of far more than academic interest to me. Among the 3,262 names are those of my father, Józef Rozenzaft, born in 1911; my grandfather, Mendel Rozenzaft, born in 1864; my father’s first wife, Braindla Rozenzaft (née Erlich), born in 1903; and her daughter from her previous marriage, Sulmit Bajtner. My father is the only one of the four listed as having “survived.” I also found the names of a number of my father’s friends from Będzin, such as David, Miriam, and Menachem Liwer, Iser Londner, and Jechezkiel (later Jack) Rozmaryn.

In my father’s case, I have known that a forged certificate of Paraguayan citizenship, a letter dated Nov. 17, 1942, on the letterhead of the Consulate of the Republic of Paraguay in Bern, had been prepared for him since I learned about it early last year upon receiving a copy of it from Markus Blechner, the honorary consul of Poland in Zurich, who had discovered it in an Israeli archive.

The letter was addressed to Mr. Josef Rozenzaft (the Polish spelling of our family name that became Rosensaft after the war) “and family” in Bendsburg, the Germanized name of Będzin following its annexation by the Third Reich in 1939, and bore both the signature of the Paraguayan honorary consul, Rudolf Hügli, and the consulate’s seal.

“Dear Mr. Rozenzaft,” the letter reads, “I am herewith honored to inform you that as the result of efforts by your relatives, you as well as your family have acquired Paraguayan citizenship (Staatszugehőrigkeit).”

I am quite certain that this letter never reached my father, and don’t know if he ever learned of its existence. He certainly never mentioned it to me.

According to a ledger page sent to me by Ambassador Kumoch, the letter was sent to my father on May 25, 1943. By then, tragically, the Final Solution was underway in full force. On June 22 of that year, less than a month after the letter supposedly left Bern, my father was put on a transport bound for Auschwitz. He escaped before he got there by diving from the moving train into the Vistula River, and although he was struck by three German bullets–one grazed his forehead, another hit his arm and a third remained lodged in his leg the rest of his life–my father managed to return to the Będzin Ghetto, only to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau again in late August 1943. After he was transferred from there to a labor camp near Będzin, he escaped and was hidden by a Polish friend before being recaptured and taken back to Auschwitz for a third time, where he spent months in the camp’s notorious Block 11. He was then sent to two concentration camps in Germany–Langensalza and Dora-Mittelbau–and was liberated by British troops at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.

The Bernese Group’s clandestine rescue operation was spearheaded by Konstanty Rokicki, a consul at the Polish legation in Bern, who acted with the full knowledge and support of Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland, and Dr. Abraham Silberschein, a former member of the Polish parliament, and was largely funded by the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress through an organization called RELICO (the Relief Committee for the War-Stricken Jewish Population) headed by Silberschein.

Rokicki, together with Juliusz Kühl, a Jewish attaché at the legation, bribed Latin American diplomats–in particular the aforementioned honorary consul of Paraguay in Switzerland–to obtain blank passports, which Rokicki then proceeded to forge manually. Rokicki also obtained blank signed letters from the honorary consul–such as the one addressed to my father–stating that the recipient was a Paraguayan national.

Ambassador Ładoś oversaw both the operation and its cover-up, provided his fellow conspirators with diplomatic support, and convinced the Swiss authorities to turn a blind eye to the group’s efforts. Helped by Jews in Switzerland with contacts in various ghettos of Poland, including Schwarzbaum and Nathan Schwalb, an official of the World Zionist Organization in Geneva, the Bernese Group compiled lists of Jews for whom the forged passports or nationality letters could be created, and then arranged for the fake documents to be smuggled to the Warsaw Ghetto, Będzin, and other locations in Nazi-occupied Poland. The other two key members of the Bernese Group were Stefan Jan Ryniewicz, the deputy head of the Polish legation in Bern, and Chaim Yisroel Eiss, a leader of the Orthodox Agudath Israel movement in Switzerland.

Initially, the passports and certificates were intended exclusively for Jews in Poland, but in due course the Bernese Group’s rescue operation was expanded to include Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia and Italy, as well as German and Austrian Jews who had been stripped of their German citizenship and a number of Jews from other countries. These documents had the potential of getting their bearers sent to transit camps for possible prisoner exchange rather than being deported to Nazi German death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.

In addition, members of the Bernese Group provided false Polish passports to non-Polish Jewish refugees and others fleeing from the Germans, including Dr. Yosef Burg, who became one of the longest serving ministers of the government of Israel, and Pierre Mendès-France, the future prime minister of France, who in 1941 was able to travel from Geneva through occupied France to Portugal and from there to London on a Polish passport in the name of Jan Lemberg.

The vast majority of the individuals on what is often referred to as the Ładoś List perished, and it is likely that many if not most of them never even received the forged papers. But this is no way detracts from the Bernese Group’s monumental attempt to save lives at a time when much of the free world was turning a blind eye to the desperate plight of European Jewry. Moreover, Ambassador Kumoch estimates that the names on this list constitute only a fraction of the more than 8,000 such false documents he believes to have been created, but for which only anecdotal documentation has been located.

To be sure, we cannot and must not overlook those Poles who killed Jews or handed them over to the Germans to be killed, or who profiteered shamelessly from the ghettoization and deportation of their Jewish compatriots. At the same time, however, it is equally critical to emphasize that there were thousands of Poles who risked their lives to hide and save Jews, and that the London-based Polish government in exile was one of European Jewry’s few allies during the Holocaust years. Żegota, the underground Polish Council to Aid Jews that saved a few thousand Jews by spiriting them out of ghettos, providing them with false identity papers, and giving them refuge, operated under the auspices of the government in exile. We must also not lose sight of the fact that Żegota–like the Bernese Group for that matter–was a joint Polish-Jewish enterprise, with Polish Catholics and Polish Jews represented in its leadership.

Speaking before the monument to the heroes of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the Polish capital on April 18, 2018, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder noted that between 1939 and 1945 when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany, Jews and Poles both fought the Germans, “Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and, one year later, Polish Catholics in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. In many cases, they fought side-by-side. That is the special bond that cannot be broken by anyone.”

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945, it is important for us to remember that Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were victimized by the Hitlerite invaders of their country. Indeed, Polish Christians constituted the second largest group of those who perished at the largest and most notorious Nazi German death camp: According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as were 70,000 Poles and 21,000 Roma.

It is in this tragic context that the members of the Bernese Group must be recognized as a shining example of how Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles joined together in a desperate altruistic, almost quixotic initiative to try to save Jewish lives. And we owe Ambassador Kumoch and his colleagues an enormous debt of gratitude for their yeoman’s work in documenting this remarkable episode and integrating it into the historiography of the Holocaust.


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Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.

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