In a few weeks I am going to a state ceremony honoring Konstanty Rokicki in Lucerne. I will be attending through an invitation from Ambassador Jakub Kumoch, who is the Polish Ambassador to Switzerland.
Who is Konstanty Rokicki? And how did I receive an invitation from an ambassador?
This is a long story and deserves much more than I will tell here today. If you have followed this blog or read Tutti’s Promise, then you know that the Lichtenstern family survived partly due to a false Paraguayan passport. It turns out that there were many of these false Latin American passports issued through embassies in Switzerland during the Holocaust.
The Nazis treated Jews with Latin American status differently than European Jews. If someone was lucky enough to be from Paraguay, Honduras, or Haiti the Nazis sent them to an internment camp instead of an extermination camp. They used these Jews as exchange prisoners for German POWs. Therefore, a Latin American passport meant a better chance for survival.
Konstanty Rokicki is the man behind the distinctive handwriting on my grandparents’ passport. He is the man who filled in the names, birth dates, color of eyes, shape of nose, and other descriptors of my grandparents. He didn’t do this just once or twice, or even a dozen times. Konstanty Rokicki filled out over 1,000 false Paraguayan passports that represented over 2,000 Jews (many passports were issued to married couples or families with children).
There was a group of men — heroes, who are now being referred to as the Bernese Group — who raised money, bought blank passports from Latin American embassies, filled out the personal information, had the documents signed by the various consulates (most of whom were happy to put money in their own pockets at the expense of desperate Jews), and then sent the passports to the Jews imprisoned in Polish ghettos and other places through occupied Europe. The members of the Bernese Group are as follows:
- Aleksander Ładoś (1891-1963), Polish Envoy in Bern in the years 1940-1945
- Abraham Silberschein (1881-1951), advocate, Zionist activist, pre-war deputy to the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, founder of the rescue committee RELICO
- Konstanty Rokicki (1899-1958), Polish consul in Bern in 1939-1945
- Chaim Yisroel Eiss (1876-1943), a merchant born in Ustrzyki, leading figure of Agudat Israel residing in Zurich.
- Stefan Ryniewicz (1903-1987), counselor of the Polish Legation in the years 1938-1945, Aleksander Ładoś’ deputy
- Juliusz Kühl (1913-1985), attaché of the Polish Legation, expert on contacts with Jewish diaspora in Switzerland.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernese_Group, accessed Sept 22, 2018)
Konstanty Rokicki died, virtually unknown, in Lucerne in 1958. The history of his part of this operation to save hundreds and maybe even thousands has never been fully recognized. The current Polish Ambassador to Switzerland is heading the state ceremony to acknowledge Rokicki and has invited known survivors of the passports and their descendants to attend.
I am looking forward to meeting other “passport descendants” and the Polish officials who have been tirelessly researching the “passport affair.”
I bought my ticket to Switzerland on line. It was very easy. All I had to do was plug in dates of travel and my desired airports for departure and arrival. I was given many choices as to airlines, flight times, layovers, etc. I typed in my credit card information, personal information, and my passport number. I will be printing my boarding pass at home before heading to the airport. So easy! Travel and identification was more complicated in the 1940s, especially if you were a Jew living in Europe.
(Sept 24, 2018) I feel I need to add an addendum to this blog post:
My original ending neglected to take into account and mention the millions of people who still today have trouble with identification, travel, and immigration. There are still so many issues with racial profiling, prejudice, and discrimination at far too many borders, especially in my own country.
For more detailed information about Konstanty Rokicki and the “passport affair” please read the following article: Lecture by Polish Ambassador to Switzerland, Jakub Kumoch, delivered on 4 February 2018, at the Shoah Museum in Paris