Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963)

Ładoś was a Polish diplomat and politician. He was Polish Minister Plenipotentiary to Latvia (1923–1926), Polish Consul-General in Munich (1927–1931) and Polish Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Switzerland (1940–1945). During WWII, he was a member of the “Bern Group” – Polish diplomats and Jewish political activists who, together, obtained passports from Latin American countries in order to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Here, we present the story of Aleksander Ładoś, detailing how and whom he helped to save.

This action is about obtaining passports from friendly South American consuls […]; these docuents remain with us and photocopies are sent to the country, this saves people's lives from being ruined […]” – a May 1943 telegram which explained the actions of the Bern Group, Poles and Jews working together, within which a leading role was played by Aleksander Ładoś,  Polish de fact ambassador in Bern during World War II.  

He came from Lwów, where his father was a postal official. In 1910, he began studies in history at the University of Lwów. It wa at that time that he became active in the secret organisation Legia Niepodległości (Independence Legion) and joing Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe “Piast” (Polish People’s Party “Piast”). Following the outbreak of World War I, he co-organised the Legion Wschodni (Eastern Legion). In the autumn of 1914, he was arrested and was jailed in Nowy Targ, from where he was released and forbidden to leave Galicia. He managed to reach Switzerland. He graduated in Freiburg, at the same time working for the Polish Press Agency (PAP).

He returned to Poland in 1919 and took up a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He served as Polish Minister Plenipotentiary in Riga and was Polish Consul in Munich, where he observed with concern the expansion of the Nazi party NSDAP.

In 1931, having been dismissed from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, he became a consultant to the Swiss company Hydro Nitro. At the sae time, he took up journalism, criticising Józef Beck's foreign policy, He favoured Władysław Sikorski.

World War II – Ładoś as Emissary in Bern

In October 1939, he found himself in Paris. He joined the Polish Government-in-Exile as a minister without portfolio and, at the end of December, he was appointed as head of its mission in Bern. Stanisław Nahlik, Secretary of the mission described him as “[...] having a great and phlegmatic attitude. He has aged prematurely, being completely grey, depsite the fact that he had only turned fifty when he arrived in Bern”.

He established contacts easily and allowed his staff a great deal of freedom. In the summer of 1940, Aleksander Ładoś employed Juliusz Kűhl in the Consular Department, in order to deal with matters relating to Jews who were Polish citizens. Kűhl was born in Sanok into an orthodox Jewish family and held a doctorate in economics.

Firstly, the Issue of the Jews

Following the outbreak of war, in the first instance, the Bern office worked to settle the status of around 4,000 Jews who had come to Switzerland from Poland before September 1939. A law passed in March 1938 deprived these Jews of their Polish citizenship. Hence they were stateless and had been sent to internment camps. In October 1939, the head of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement whereby Polish institutions could extend the validity of passports held by these Jews and so their citizenship would not be removed.

Juliusz Kűhl worked together with local Jewish community councils and aid organisations. The legation joined in helping refugees in Shanghai, supported Jews remaining in France, provided funds to support those who had managed to get to Switzerland and intervened regarding those who were in Greece and Italy. 

The office also helped Jews in occupied Poland – mediating in the provision of supplies and working together with the International Red Cross. Thanks to the availability of diplomatic channels, they were able to forward  messages from Poland and from Swiss Jewish organisations to London and to the United States. 

A fragment of a telegram, which arrived in America and was dated 3rd September 1942, contained the first news of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto: “According to numerous, recently received, authentic pieces of information, the Germans have emptied the ghetto in Warsaw, brutally murdering around 100,00 Jews. Mass murders are continuing”.  

Bribing Himmler to Release Jews

The office also “relayed” negotiations regarding a bribe to Himmler in order to have Jews released. One of the messages sent by Sternbuch (a Jewish organisation activist) in November 1944, read:

“Our delegation brought from Berlin a proposal for the payment of a larger amount for the gradual evacuation of Jews from Germany. Negotiations are in progress. […] At last, they have promised to cease extermination operations in the camps.”

On the website, Dr. Danuta Drywa, a researcher from the Stutthof Museum, explains,

“Aleksander Ładoś authorised the use of secret Poloish diplomatic codes, which was important in that they enabled the sending of information to the United States, without them being able to be read by Allied and Swiss censors, who hindered the transfer of intelligence regarding the real dimension of crimes committed by Germans in occupied Poland.”

In February 1945, Swiss radio announced that Himmler had released 1,210 Jews from the Terezin concentration camp and that they had arrived in Switzerland. It announced that another group of 556 would follow. 

“The Bern Group”

In 1941, Aleksander Ładoś and other Bern legation staff began informally working together with activitists from Jewish organisations. They established the “Bern Group” (even though its members were active not only in Bern).

As part of the diplomatic legation's passport activities, the Group involved itself in obtaining free or fee-free passports from South American consulates (either blanks or completed), which were then provided to Jews.  

Apart from Polish legation staff, the Group was also comprised of Recha and Itzchak Sternbuch of Montereux (founders of the Aid for Jewish Refugees in Shanghai organisation), Abraham Silberschein (lawyer, Polish MP, founder of the Aid for Jews Affected by the War organisation, with its headquarters in Geneva), as well as representatives of Swiss Agudat Israel and, above all, Chaim Eiss of Zurich. The Group was also helped by Papal Nuncio Filippe Bernardini, with whom Kűhl was friendly (they played table-tennis together each Sunday).

A Matter of Passports 

Their activities began in the spring of 1941, working together Rudolf Hugli,Paraguayan Consul. He was an important but controversial figure and treated the matter as a commercial transaction.

In an article published in “Zagłady Żydów” in 2015, Agnieszka Haska wrote, “Initially, efforts to obtain documents were very difficult and were individual in nature – individual families bought passports for their relatives and sent them to Poland”.

In a message dated 19th May, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to Ładoś about these activities:

“The Ministry was recently informed by Jewish organisations that there was the possibility rescuing individual Jews, before being killed by the Germans, on the basis of passports issued by South American countries. These passports are issued by representatives of these countries who are based in Switzerland. […] The Ministry has been supplied with a certain amount of personal data together with photographs of individuals in Poland for the purpose of obtaining, for them, passports from South American countries. Holder of these passports […] are apparently transported from Poland and placed, mainly, in a health resort in Vittel in France. The Ministry wishes to pass on this personal data and these photographs to someone whom you consider to be trustworthy […]. These urgent humanitarian issues require us to do as much as we can in these matters.” 

According to legation documents, the making of one passport cost 500–1,000 Swiss francs (when the average salary was 2 Swiss francs per hour). Funds to finance the staff of the South American consulates, "honoraria” for the consuls and the cost of sending the documents to their recipients came from American Jewish communities, via the Polish Consulates in New York and London.  

Acording to the Sternbuch couple and Adolf Silberschein, the documents were completed by hand by honorary consuls, Deputy Consul Konstanty Rokicki and also probably by Juliusz Kűhl. The original of the passport would remain in the Consulate. Notorised copies or passport confirmations would be sent to recipients.

In October 1943, Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Swiss police who, from the autumn of 1943, investigated the case, wrote,

“The Consulate sent a photocopy to the appropriate German office in the General Government – in Warsaw or Kraków. On the basis of that document, the person  was not sent to an extermination camp, but to an internment camp.”

Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, who received documents after the liquidation in July of 1942, were interned in Pawiak prison and then in camps in Vittel in France and in Bergen-Belsen. In a telegram, dated 12th May 1943, to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to the World Jewish Congress in the United  States, Silberschein wrote.

“The operation consists of obtaining South American passports from friendly consul – especially Paraguay and Honduras. These documents remain with us and photocopies are sent to Poland. They save their recipients because, as ‘foreigners’, they are placed into reasonable conditions in pecial camps where they are to remain until the end of the War. Consuls are provided with written confirmation that these passports are used to save people and will not be used for any othe purpose.”

As a result, passports were successfully obtained from Paraguay, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The Swiss Police on the trail

The “procedure” lasted until the Swiss police opened an investigation. In the autumn of 1943, a series of questionings took place. The Polish legation was pressured to dimiss Juliusz Kűhl. Also, Ładoś submitted clarifications to the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He explained that the purpose of this illegal activity was to save human lives. He also threatened to reveal how the Swiss supply passports to Jews crossing their border on their way to neutral Portugal and Spain. 

In connection with the Swiss proceedings, the Germans demanded that South American countries determine whether these passport holders were, indeed, their citizens. The Latin American authorities refused to recognise the passports. At that time, the Germans sent a commission to the Vittel camp in order to verify the passports. As Haska wrote, 

“When each holder of a passport, issued as part of the operation, was subjected to verification by officials of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ładoś sent many telegrams to London asking for intervention. Unfortunately, in the meantime, serious complications had arisen in the matter […] which caused not only the issuing of South American passports to stop being issued, but also challenged the validity of the previously issued documents […]. These difficulties resulted in, among other things, the withdrawal of official recognition of several South Americn consuls in Switzerland.”

In January 1944, in a telegram to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affaitrs, Ładoś wrote:

“Under these conditions, the obtaining of more passports […] has become totally impossible – right now, it is all about saving those people who, thanks to previously obtained documents, found themselves in internments camps and are currently being threatened with deportation.”

Formal and informal channels were used to try to influence the Latin American countries to recognise the “unofficial” passports. Before that could happen, most of the passport holders had been sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

They Survived Thanks to “Unofficial” Documents

Of the around 4,000 passports issued, several hundred of their holders were saved. A dozen or so people survived in the Vittel camp, many more in Bergen-Belsen (some died during the typhoid epidemic) and in other camps.

Juliusz Kűhl was forced to leave Switzerland, even though he had a Swiss wife and two Swiss-born children. The family settled in Toronto. In his wartime experiences, shared only with those closest to him. In an interview with the “Globe” newspaper, his son-inlaw Israel Singer said,

“He said that he wasn't interested in fame […] People asked him why he didn't tell his story widely. He said that he was a little too busy. He simply tried to rebuild his life, just like all those who survived.”

He died in Miami in 1985. 

Aleksander Ładoś resigned from his post when, in July 1945, the government of the Swiss Federation recognised the Provisional Government of National Unity. He  settled in Lausanne and then near Paris. He was not politically activee. Three years before his death in 1963, he moved to Warsaw. 

In the 1990’s, Ładoś’s family made efforts to have him honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. Agnieszka Haska wrote, “Unfortunately, at that time, award criteria excluded the award without the testimony of rescued Jews. Most of them probably did not even know that they owe their survival to the Polish legation in Bern andits head”.

Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Klara Jackl, English translation: Andrew Rajcher, February 2019 

“In front of the consulate, I see crowds of refugees from Poland”

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