An Unusual and Possibly Unique Operation | interview


Monika Maniewska, one of the co-authors of "The Ładoś List", and Professor Bob Moore talk about the activities of the Ładoś Group. Note: starting from today the English version of the publication is available for free!

Follow the link to download "The Ładoś List". 

The Pilecki Institute: Professor, for many years you have focused in your research on various actions undertaken to save Jews from the Holocaust. Did therefore the discovery of the passport falsification campaign of the Ładoś Group come as a surprise to you?

Professor Bob Moore: In order to answer this question, we must first look at the broader context. Once the War started in 1939, borders were closed and travel became very difficult. The emphasis changed to the possibility of protecting oneself inside Nazi-occupied Europe through the possession of specific papers, permits and nationality documents. And even if you look at the pre-war period, a great deal of time and effort was expended by organizations and also by individuals on trying to obtain visas to other countries, both within and without Europe. Taking all this into consideration, I must say that I am not really surprised, for we know numerous examples of similar types of activity in that particular period.

The Pilecki Institute: So what did a Ładoś passport actually ensure?

Monika Maniewska: The situation of a person who obtained such a passport or certificate confirming citizenship of a country that was not occupied by Nazi Germany could change dramatically. For the Germans, holders of these documents were foreigners, and were therefore sent to internment camps instead of extermination camps. This in turn gave them a chance of being exchanged for German citizens who had been captured by the Allies. The passports produced by the Ładoś Group were special passports issued for wartime. It was understood that their holders were never intended to leave for South or Central America, while the document itself was a lifebelt, a chance for survival.

The Pilecki Institute: As Professor Moore mentioned, many people and organizations tried to acquire documents ensuring safety for their holders. But was there anything distinctive in the way the Ładoś Group operated?

Monika Maniewska: It is doubtless a unique example of cooperation. Six people created an entire system for obtaining passports and providing them to those in need. It would be difficult to imagine that such a complicated operation could have been undertaken by a single person.

Professor Bob Moore: Most of the diplomats who undertook activities of this sort in order to save Jews – Chiune Sugihara, Jan Zwartendijk, or Aristides de Sousa Mendes – did not falsify the documents of other countries, but rather issued papers of their own states. That is the difference. I have not heard of any other diplomats producing documents which they had no right to produce. So this makes the operation unusual and possibly unique.

The Pilecki Institute: Was it difficult to get a South American passport during the War?

Professor Bob Moore: It is an unfortunate fact that these passports were bought and sold in the open market, not just during the War, but in pre-war times as well. The situation was similar with visas. South American papers were relatively easy to obtain on the black market, as were other types of documents. But their validity depended not on the guarantees given by their forgers, but on whether the Germans would recognize them. The German authorities doubtless realized that many holders of Paraguayan passports were in all probability frauds, however they did not know this for sure. And as time went on, taking any action against such persons became more and more risky for the Nazis.

Monika Maniewska: A black market for passports came into being even in Switzerland. Many people made their own efforts to organize these papers, and as a result their prices varied widely. You can imagine that in the life-threatening circumstances of the time this created numerous opportunities for acts of dishonesty. The diplomats from the Polish legation enlisted the cooperation of Abraham Silberschein, whose role was to coordinate the passport campaign. From that moment on the purchased Paraguayan, Honduran, Peruvian and Haitian passports had a single price, while the fact that they were bought in bulk served to lower costs. Everything took place through the agency and with the knowledge of the Polish diplomats.

The Pilecki Institute: Did the Germans develop any sort of official guidelines on how to proceed with the holders of South American passports, so as to secure themselves against possible falsifications?

Professor Bob Moore: The German government concluded that care should be exercised when dealing with such persons, irrespective of their credibility. At the same time, it was necessary to have regard for international considerations. In many cases decisions about these passport holders were made not in Berlin, but by local German officials working in various parts of Europe. They followed guidance, obviously, but in certain instances they had to take decisions independently. What were they to do with the holders of these passports? By late 1944, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that individual German functionaries, all the way up to Himmler himself by early 1945, were looking for appropriate people to trade for POWs, and the passport holders provided a suitable opportunity. Such exchanges were carried out very, very late in the War. Bernadotte’s “White Buses” operation, for example, was possible only because by that stage the game was effectively up for the Nazi regime. Furthermore, some German functionaries were trying to buy their way out, and saw this as an opportunity to gain some leverage. But that is all it was. Two years earlier they would have had no scruples, the Paraguayan papers would probably have been worth nothing. Although such an assessment is perhaps a bit radical …

The Pilecki Institute: So possession of a passport itself would not have guaranteed safety.

Professor Bob Moore: Whether or not a passport saved someone's life was a matter of coincidence, trust, and hope. Because in some cases the South American states, at a very late stage of the conflict, declared for the Allies, at which point those Paraguayan passport holders become enemy aliens – whom there was no point of keeping (Paraguay declared war on Germany in February 1945; editor’s note). The Paraguayan case is interesting for other reasons, too: Paraguay (similarly to Argentina) had played host to many German colonists and a certain number of escapees from Germany after World War I. Amongst the latter were persons who might have been considered war criminals after the Great War ended in 1918, and they fled to South America to evade possible international justice. Nothing much came of that, however. Others ended up there for various reasons. Ernst Röhm, who became the head of the SA, had spent some time in South America and was brought back by Hitler at a later stage to become an integral part of the party. So there was a fairly substantial German colony in South America, and this created problems, because – quite obviously – the Nazi regime was practically honor-bound to look after its former nationals in those countries. Thus, the Germans had to be careful in their dealings with representatives of these [South and Central American; translator’s note] nations in Europe in order to maintain a sui generis balance.

Monika Maniewska: In the course of our research we met people who had survived due to such an exchange. One of the examples is the family of Alfred Wiener, which was exchanged in January 1945. We do not know what would have become of them if they had not received one of the Paraguayan passports and been sent to an internment camp. There were of course instances of people whom the passports did not save, either not reaching them on time or not being used. Passports increased one’s chances of survival. Source accounts inform us that these documents were often kept “for the last moment”, being used only at the time of a selection or when faced with a deportation decision. We encountered a few stories in which families that were in hiding, in occupied Poland or in the Netherlands, acquired passports and held them as their last chance of survival. It should be stressed that these documents were of immense psychological importance for their recipients, who used them as the basis for elaborating their individual survival strategies.

The Pilecki Institute: When we think of Switzerland in the context of World War II, one word immediately comes to mind – neutrality. But the Ładoś Group operated right there, on Swiss territory …

Professor Bob Moore: Circumstances changed over time. The watershed was probably after 1942, when the international situation changed and it became apparent that Germany may not win the War as easily as appeared to be the case in the first two years of the conflict. The Germans then had a possibility of reappraising their external relations, with neutral states for example, which concomitantly also reviewed their perception of their own position. At that very stage, Switzerland started to alter its diplomatic stance. Thus, in 1941 it was willing to maintain its relations with Germany and work towards ensuring that these did not cause excessive problems. By 1942, however, the Swiss had realized that the Nazis may not be as successful as they once were, and they therefore had to adopt a slightly more balanced approach towards the Axis on one side, and the Western Powers on the other. This became steadily more pertinent as the War progressed, because until June of 1944 the only likely military movement in Europe had been the advance of the Soviet Army from the east. The Swiss would have had severe reservations, for they had no guarantees that the Soviet forces would go around Switzerland – for all they knew, they could have passed straight through the country. As I see it, these kinds of calculations featured quite prominently in both the Swiss foreign ministry and amongst its diplomats. The situation would have been similar in Sweden, which was the other major neutral state to make such a diplomatic shift in mid-to-late 1942, just as the deportations from the ghettos in Poland and Western Europe began. All these developments occurred almost at once. But there were perceptions which in a sense allowed this to happen. The Swiss were probably aware of what the Polish diplomats were doing. And having a knowledge of the whole operation, they could have easily arrested them, or had them deported or interned.

Monika Maniewska: The information which we gathered while working on The Ładoś List shows that the Swiss certainly knew about the activities of the Ładoś Group. In October 1943, once the passport affair was uncovered by the Swiss police, Aleksander Ładoś intervened with Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who was the Minister of the Political Department (the then-name of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs; editor’s note). But the Swiss government did not bring the passport operation to light, and in all probability tried to cover it up. This can be surmised from the course of the investigation conducted by the police against the Honorary Consul of Paraguay, during which some members of the Group were temporarily arrested.

The Pilecki Institute: The operation conducted by the Ładoś Group was maintained in secrecy. Obviously, the diplomats had to erase all traces of their activities in order to ensure that everything remained secret. Do you therefore think that we may uncover additional details that will allow us to learn more about the campaign?

Professor Bob Moore: I think nothing can ever be totally secret. Elements of the truth always come to light – for example in some post-war documents discovered in an attic following the death of their possessor. We are still finding new information about what was going on at the time. Most countries maintain the secrecy of their government documentation, and in Britain this period can be as long as 200 years, in extreme cases. Whether for good or for ill, the Swiss government likewise would have had restrictions on documents that would not be allowed into the public domain. So if this possible material still exists – and continues in existence – there will come a day when it will eventually become public. Then, we will learn more.

Monika Maniewska: We have combed through numerous archives and are studying the familial histories of people who held Ładoś passports, thereby uncovering the truth about how the operation of the Ładoś Group was conducted, step by step. In 2018, we were granted access to the first part of the Chaim Eiss Archive, which had until then been kept by his family. For us, this was an immense discovery and a valuable source of information. We are very interested in seeing what can be gleaned from its second part, which we have recently acquired from Chaim Eiss’ family, and which according to my insight contains correspondence pertaining to the passport campaign. I hope that once we acquaint ourselves with these documents, we will have another part of the puzzle, and learn how exactly the passports were sent to Europe and how it was possible to obtain such a great number of photographs of persons for whom these documents were to be produced (these photographs are extant in the Eiss Archive).

The Pilecki Institute: Does the research and methodology utilized in your work on The Ładoś List have any limitations?

Professor Bob Moore: It is an excellent piece of research. The authors have done a wonderful job in extracting the information from a whole range of sources, finding out a great deal about the people who acquired these documents. In a sense, it is social scientific in nature, for it is based on numerical data from which specific conclusions have been drawn. I think where I would have taken it if I had had the resources and opportunity to do so, is to answer some other questions about the motivation of the Group’s members. Why they were doing this? I am concerned here with their exact motivation. How did they decide who the recipients of the passports were going to be? How did they get to these particular groups of people? And why?

Monika Maniewska: Both Ładoś as well as his subordinates and collaborators issued passports, and endeavored to bring about the inaction of the Swiss police and secure the goodwill of the diplomatic corps, while at the same time involving themselves in actions aimed at ensuring that these documents were officially recognized. They did not, however, have any influence on the further fates of their holders, for these depended on factors completely outside their control. Our publication is only the beginning, a list of persons for whom such documents were issued.

The Pilecki Institute: I am not surprised, Professor, that you stress the question “why”. A great deal of your scholarly work is devoted to attempts at understanding the motivations of persons who engaged themselves in rescue activities. In one of your lectures you even divided people into different categories depending on their motivation for helping Jews. Having that in mind, how would you describe the motivation of the Ładoś Group?

Professor Bob Moore: The Group is not an obvious category in that regard. But its members were to some extent what you may call “bureaucratic rescuers”, i.e. in their actions they made use of bureaucratic process, over which they exercised at least partial control. They fall into the same category as local civil servants, people who kept population registries, and local government officials. But to try to equate what they were doing with the activities of the people whom I have mentioned earlier is difficult, for the Polish diplomats functioned within a slightly different structure. Again, however, we should stress that of significance for the whole issue is the question of how people who were normally governed by legal codes and norms of behavior took a decision to act illegally. In order to attain their objective, they simply had no choice, but herein lies the big question – how and why did they get involved in the first place. Was is it a more common phenomenon? Because most diplomats would not admit undertaking anything of the sort – their careers would be on the line.

The Pilecki Institute: So The Ładoś List is just the beginning?

Professor Bob Moore: We should not stop asking sensible questions about the course of these events and the associated processes. I think the members of the Group were acting from a sense of duty. In all probability, they were driven by a sense of values. On the other hand, they were selling the passports. And that leads to the question – since they were in Switzerland, who was paying them? What was their official status? How could they possibly function in Switzerland if they received no money? This would have been practically impossible. Could they travel outside the country? The Ładoś List is a remarkable piece of research. By the same token, like all remarkable pieces of research, it prompts even more questions than it ends up answering.

Monika Maniewska: Doubtless there are many threads of the story still to be uncovered. While working on The Ładoś List, we did not find any information indicating that the members of the Ładoś Group derived material benefit from the operation. This fact finds confirmation, to some extent, in their subsequent fates (holding particularly true for the Polish diplomats): Aleksander Ładoś died in 1963 in Warsaw; after the War he lived with his sister, and did not receive a retirement pension. Konstanty Rokicki, the Vice-Consul in Bern (who made out the majority of the Paraguayan passports; editor’s note), died in poverty, forgotten, in Switzerland. We sincerely hope that our study will bring about a resurgence of interest in the topic amongst historians and scholars, resulting in the publication of new books devoted to the activities of the Ładoś Group.


See also