New archive reveals how Polish diplomats helped Jews escape Holocaust to Latin America

The cache of photographs and documents reveals the true extent of Polish efforts to save Jews from the gas chambers

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The infamous Auschwitz entrance gate that reads: "Arbeit macht frei", or "Work sets one free" 
Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty

They risked death at the hands of the Nazis by forging fake passports to help Jews escape Poland following Hitler’s invasion.

Now 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, a new cache of paperwork proving the bravery of a group of resistance fighters who saved hundreds from the gas chambers has been curated for the first time.

After nearly two years of negotiations, the Eiss Archive has now been handed to the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum in Oświęcim, Poland showing how the underground organisation led by Aleksander Ładoś, then Polish Ambassador to Bern in Switzerland provided Jews with Latin-American documents to evade the SS.

Known as the ‘Bern group’, Ładoś, his deputy Stefan Ryniewicz, consul Konstanty Rokicki and diplomat Juliusz Kuehl would provide lists of people who needed travel documents.

The Jewish rescue committee in Geneva and Zurich Rabbi Chaim Eiss, together with the Polish embassy, would then procure and fabricate passports from countries such as Paraguay, Honduras, Peru, Salvador, Bolivia and Haiti.

Credit: TMG

Rabbi Eiss personally delivered the names of those most in need of the fake passports to the Polish diplomats, as well as smuggling the documents into occupied Poland. 

It is thought that the Polish diplomats and their Jewish partners attempted to rescue up to 10,000 Jews from over 15 countries in occupied Europe and successfully saved up to 3,000 people from the Final Solution. 

Polish culture minister Pawel Lewandowski described the documents as "irrefutable evidence that the Polish government during WWII was systematically involved in rescuing Jews on the territory of occupied Poland from the extermination brought to them by the Germans."

The Polish government, along with the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum spent two years negotiating for the archive with a private owner in Israel, thought to be one of  Rabbi Eiss’s descendants.

The first part was obtained last year - but now the museum has the complete cache, which includes some of the forged passports, photos of Jews requesting them, and letters between the Polish diplomats and Jewish organisations.

The Rabbi died of a sudden heart attack in November 1943 and the paperwork was only discovered in the attic of his house in Zurich many years later.

Describing the discovery as “sensational”, Dr Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum, said it contained new images of 83 Jews who the Bern group tried to help as well as never seen before pictures of figures such as Rutka Laskier, a 14-year-old diarist from Będzin, who was regarded as Poland’s Anne Frank.

In 1943, the teenager chronicled three months of her life during the Holocaust over 60 horrifying pages, but her diary remained in the hands of  a surviving friend for 64 years and was not released to the public until 2005. Ms Laskier died upon arrival in Auschwitz in August 1943 but it is thought her distant relatives may have been helped by Rabbi Eiss and his co-conspirators.  

Also featured on the 'Ładoś list' is Ze’ev Dov ‘Wolf’ Biegun, father of Menachem Begin, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Anne Frank’s friend Hannela Goslar, Dutch mathematician Bob Herschberg and leaders of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, including Icchak Cukierman and Cywia Lubetkin.

Dr Jakub Kumoch, a former Polish Ambassador to Switzerland, who took part in the talks to obtain both parts of the collection said he was surprised to see the names of right-wing Zionist leaders in the archives. “This marks a new trace in the research”, he said. 

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “The Lados Group produced fake passports for Latin American countries for Polish Jews, saving the lives of many. These archives offer us vital insights into their activities and into the lives of the Jewish families who sought their help. The transfer of these archives to the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum will ensure that the memory of these ordinary people who did extraordinary things in the darkest of times will be properly preserved.”