During the Second World War, Polish diplomats in the Swiss capital of Bern cooperated with the Jewish community to carry out the so-called passport campaign aimed at saving Jews from the Holocaust. Aleksander Ładoś, Konstanty Rokicki, Abraham Silberschein, Chaim Eiss, Stefan Ryniewicz and Juliusz Kühl, also known as the Ładoś Group, issued false passports and citizenship certificates of Latin American countries to Jews threatened with extermination. These documents allowed their bearers to be interned and then exchanged for German prisoners of war and saved them by giving them a chance to avoid transport to death camps.
Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963), a Polish diplomat, publicist and politician. He was a member of the “Piast” Polish People’s Party from 1913 and joined the People’s Party following the unification of the agrarian people’s movement in 1931. He began his service as a diplomat in 1919. He was a secretary for the Polish delegation during peace talks with the Soviet Union in 1920–21. He then became the Polish envoy in Latvia (1923–26) and the general consul in Munich (1927–31). He was released from service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1931 shortly after Józef Beck became Deputy Minister. He dedicated most of his time during the 1930s to writing political columns. Following the outbreak of the war, he was a minister without portfolio for the People’s Party in Władysław Sikorski’s government-in-exile between 3 October and 7 December 1939. He then became the Polish envoy to Switzerland as a chargé d’affaires ad interim from 1940–45. He aided refugees from Poland and the interned soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. He was the leader of the group that issued illegal passports of Latin American countries to Jews being persecuted by the Germans. As the head of the Polish Legation in Bern, Ładoś provided diplomatic protection to the group. In 1943, after the Swiss authorities discovered the passport campaign, he intervened with the local foreign minister and helped to quieten the case. He also enabled Jewish organizations in Switzerland to use Polish diplomatic ciphers so that they could stay in contact with the United States. He remained in Switzerland after the war and moved to France in 1946. He returned to Poland in 1960. He died in Warsaw three years later.
The Ładoś Group, also known as the Bernese Group, was composed of Polish diplomats, employees of the Polish Legation in Bern, and representatives of Jewish organizations cooperating with them. It was headed by Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish Legation’s chargé d’affaires. Three other Polish diplomats were also members of the group: Stefan Ryniewicz, Konstanty Rokicki and Juliusz Kühl, as well as two activists of Jewish organizations in Switzerland: Abraham Silberschein and Chaim Eiss. At least from the beginning of 1941 to the end of 1943, members of the group handled the illegal purchase and preparation of passports and citizenship certificates of Latin American countries (primarily Paraguay). These documents were then sent to Jews residing in nations under German occupation where possessing them increased survival chances. Instead of going to extermination camps, the Jews who had the falsified passports would be taken to internment camps.
The legation in Switzerland was one of the few Polish diplomatic missions operating continuously throughout the war. In addition to Bern, only two embassies (in London and the Vatican) and three legations (in Lisbon, Madrid and Stockholm) operated in Europe at that time. The role of the Swiss legation was unique, because unlike the other diplomatic institutions, it was the only one in the central part of Europe that was also in a neutral state. As a result, extremely significant ciphertexts emerged from Bern containing intelligence about the current situation in occupied Poland and the Holocaust. It was also an important transit point for couriers to and from the Polish government-in-exile. The location of the legation turned out to be crucial for the group carrying out the passport campaign. There were many other diplomatic missions in neutral Switzerland, including those of Latin American countries, which, unlike their counterparts from countries collaborating with the Third Reich, did not experience direct pressure from the Germans. Switzerland was also home to the headquarters or representative offices of numerous international organizations—including Jewish ones—which facilitated the collection of personal data and the creation of a network.
From at least from the beginning of 1941 to the end of 1943, the Ładoś Group handled the illegal purchase and preparation of passports and citizenship certificates of four Southern and Central American countries: Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti and Peru. The documents were a false confirmation of citizenship and were used to help save Jewish lives during the war.
The effectiveness of the campaign depended primarily on the acquisition of original passport forms which required a vast amount of funds. Stefan Ryniewicz was primarily responsible for establishing initial contact with the relevant diplomats. Chaim Eiss and Abraham Silberschein were involved in collecting funds, mainly from Jewish groups, and Juliusz Kühl also assisted them. After purchasing the documents (i.e. usually by bribing the relevant diplomats), Kühl transported them to the Polish Legation. There, Konstanty Rokicki, and perhaps also Ryniewicz, filled in the personal data on the blank documents and attached photographs of the people to whom documents were to be sent. This information was provided through Silberschein and Eiss thanks to their respected position and extensive contacts in the Jewish diaspora. Completed and certified by Latin American diplomats, photocopies of the documents (the originals were to remain in Switzerland) were sent to the countries under German occupation thanks to far-reaching smuggling network organized mainly by Eiss. The most difficult task was to convince the countries which “issued” the passports to officially recognize their holders as rightful citizens. This task belonged to a large extent to Alexander Ładoś. Thanks to his diplomatic efforts, the Paraguayan authorities temporarily recognized forged passports in 1943.
I’d like to have Uruguayan passport
oh, what a beautiful land it is
how nice it must feel to be the subject
of land called: Uruguay
I’d like to have Paraguayan passport,
of gold and freedom is this land,
oh, how nice it must feel to be the subject
of land called: Paraguay