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At Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Look at the Scheme That Helped Save My Family

  • The copied Paraguayan passport that enabled Norwich resident K. Heidi Fishman’s family to survive the Holocaust.



For the Valley News
Friday, January 25, 2019

A little over a year ago my mother showed me an article she happened upon that bore the headline “ ‘He should be as well known as Schindler’: Documents reveal Canadian citizen Julius Kuhl as Holocaust hero,” by a writer named Mark MacKinnon.

As I read, I was drawn to a picture of a Paraguayan passport that had an uncanny resemblance to my grandfather’s falsified Paraguayan passport from 1943. Looking at the image next to my grandfather’s passport, I didn’t need a degree in handwriting analysis to see the documents came from the same person.

Since I started research on my book, Tutti’s Promise, several years ago, I had been trying to figure out how my grandfather had obtained that life-saving document. Maybe I had found the answer.

I emailed MacKinnon and asked him about the passport forgeries. Was it possible that Juliusz Kühl had been helping Jews in the Netherlands and not only those in the Warsaw Ghetto as described in his article?

Instead of receiving an email back from MacKinnon, two days later I found this in my inbox:

… My friend Mark MacKinnon has forwarded to me the email you’d sent him, and I would like to answer you directly. Indeed, I find your information very useful, almost sensational. It means that the passports produced illegally by our noble predecessors, including Juliusz Kühl, must have reached the Netherlands too…

Best regards,

Jakub Kumoch

Ambassador

Embassy of the Republic of Poland

To say the least, I was taken aback to receive an email from an ambassador. Over the course of 2018 there were many more emails to and from Ambassador Kumoch, a trip to Switzerland, even an opportunity for me to meet Polish President Andrzej Duda. I now have a much better understanding of how my family survived the Holocaust. Sunday is Holocaust Remembrance Day, when these events take on a particular resonance.

In 1942 and 1943, Konstanty Rokicki sat in his office in Bern, Switzerland for hours upon hours forging passports. He created more than 1,000 Paraguayan passports for Jews who were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and other places across Europe. One of these passports saved my mother’s life.

Rokicki was consul to Aleksander Lados, the Polish Envoy in Bern. Rokicki, Lados, Stefan Ryniewicz, counselor of the Polish Legation, and Juliusz Kühl, attaché of the Polish Legation, worked together with Chaim Eiss, a founding member of Agudath Israel (the political movement of Orthodox Jewry), and Abraham Silberschein, activist and Zionist, on a mission to save as many Jews as possible from certain death.

These Poles and Jews, now known as the Bernese Group, worked together on a complicated, illegal and dangerous scheme. Eiss and Silberschein worked with contacts through the World Jewish Congress to obtain money to fund the rescue mission. The money was used to pay bribes to Rudolf Hügli, the Honorary Consul of Paraguay. Hügli would then turn over a certain number of blank passports.

Various contacts, some who have been identified and many who are still unknown, delivered names and thumbnail photographs to Silberschein. A recently uncovered archive contains hundreds of pages of Silberschein’s lists — names, locations, contacts and photos. These photos show the faces of religious Jews with beards as well as clean-shaven assimilated businessmen, young women and old men, mothers, fathers and children. Each picture represents a life — somebody trapped in a ghetto, a Nazi-occupied town, a transit camp or even a death camp. In turn, Silberschein delivered the lists to the Polish diplomats at Thunstrasse 22 in Bern.

Somehow these men chose who would have a chance at life. Rokicki’s handwriting is on virtually all the passports. He filled them out meticulously with names and dates and descriptions of faces. He glued the pictures in place. Some passports represented one life. Others bulged with the names and photos of a married couple and their five children.

Once a passport was ready, it was brought back to Hügli for his signature and official seal. All the passports were copied, the originals kept in the possession of Eiss or Silberschein. The copies were posted by mail or smuggled by courier to people who were desperately clinging to hope in the worst of circumstances. The originals, kept by members of the Bernese Group, were to be destroyed after the war. They were never to be used for emigration to Paraguay, only to better someone’s chances with the Germans in Europe. The Germans treated anyone who could claim citizenship from a country in South America slightly better. These people were sent to concentration camps, but not death camps. While many of these Jews still died at the hands of the Germans, a significant number of them were able to survive, either through exchanges for German POWs and citizens, or by the mere fact that they were able to endure the brutal camp life until liberation.

I am not sure of the exact route our passport took to reach my grandfather. I believe it involved Ignaz Herzfeld, a lawyer in Basel who notarized the passport copy; Marcus and Rosa Cohn, Jewish community leaders and refugee advocates; Jakob Jorysch, a metals dealer who had worked with my grandfather; Jorysch’s secretary, who may have smuggled the document out of Switzerland; and Egbert de Jong, Rijksminister of Non-Ferrous Metals of the Netherlands. According to de Jong’s family, he was the one to hand-deliver the passport to my grandfather while he was imprisoned in Westerbork, the German transit camp in eastern Holland.

My mother, her younger brother, my grandparents and all four of my maternal great-grandparents were sent from Westerbork to Terezín in 1944. Terezín was also known as Theresienstadt. While the camp was for “privileged” Jews, it was merely a stop on the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor. Of the 140,000 Jews sent there about 33,000 died from starvation and disease and approximately 90,000 were sent to death camps farther east. The survival rate was only 12 percent.

On Sept. 24, 1944, there was a general announcement that over the next few days 5,000 men ages 16 to 55 would be sent to the Reich territory to work. This included my grandfather and he knew well that being sent to a work camp meant probable death. Although my mother, at age 9, didn’t have a full understanding of what was happening, she remembers her father throwing himself on her and crying bitter tears as he said good-bye. Seeing her father so despondent became an indelible memory.

Two days later my grandfather reported to the transport. Somebody, we don’t know who, encouraged him to show the Paraguayan passport to one of the Germans. He didn’t think it would help. The transport announcement had said, “No exceptions.” My grandfather bravely stepped aside and showed his falsified passport. The Germans looked at it and gave him a slip of paper that read “Ausgescheiden 3911 412-XXIV/7 Lichtenstern Heinz 1907…” (withdrawn, prisoner number, transport number, name, birthdate) allowing him to return to the barracks.

My grandfather, grandmother, mother, uncle and my grandfather’s parents remained in Theresienstadt until liberation. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Polish diplomats, Jewish leaders, work colleagues, friends and strangers they survived against all odds.

Unfortunately, our family still had many losses. My grandmother’s parents were sent on the last transport from Terezín to Auschwitz, where they were gassed. While trying to flee the Netherlands, my grandmother’s brother and his wife were captured and sent to camps. He was murdered in Auschwitz and she died in Mauthausen. My grandmother’s aunts perished in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Sobibor and a camp in Yugoslavia. And there were others, many other extended family members, who were murdered along with the 6 million.

I wonder how some people find it in their hearts and souls put others’ lives ahead of their own. The diplomats in Switzerland risked loss of diplomatic status and deportation to war-torn Nazi-occupied Poland. The couriers of the passports could have been searched, arrested and sent to concentration camps or executed. These heroes saved my mother and I will be forever grateful for what they did.

Norwich resident K. Heidi Fishman is the author ofTutti’s Promise, a book for middle-grade readers based on her mother’s survival of the Holocaust as a young girl.