December 10, 2019

Passports to Paraguay

In the picture Polish Ambassador H.E. Mr. dr Marcin Piotr Czepelak in discussion with Rabbi Soetendorp.

By John Dunkelgrün.

The Embassy of Poland in the Netherlands and the Liberal Jewish Community (LJG) in The Hague organised a screening on November 13th of the astonishing movie ‘Passports to Paraguay’ in the glass reception hall of the old Portuguese synagogue now the home of the LJG. The evening was attended by Mr. Markus Blechner, Honorary Consul of Poland in Berne, Dr. Mateusz Szpytma of the Institute of National Remembrance and above all Mr. Uri Strauss, one of the original recipients of a Polish organised Paraguayan passport.

The Polish ambassador H.E. Dr. Marcin Czepelak in an impassioned speech pointed out that so much has been written about the Holocaust that we tend to think that everything about it is already known, that we can put a full stop at the end of the research and close the book. However, this tragedy is so enormous, so inexplicable that each of us needs to come to terms with it, within him or her self.

The famous passport to Paraguay.

And then, every so often new facts come up, facts of evil and facts of goodness. One of the latter is the story of the Paraguayan passports. From the beginning of the war the Polish Legation in Bern was buying blank passports from a Bernese notary Rudolph Hügli, who was the honorary consul for Paraguay. The embassy staff under Ambassador Ładoś would get the necessary information and photos of people to be saved.

Consul Konstanty Rokicki would fill out the passports by hand and return them to Mr. Hügli for signing and stamping. The people involved in the Embassy were the ambassador, Juliusz Kühl, and Stefan Ryniewicz. Together with the consul, they were known as the ‘Bernese Group’. This operation was started by Mr. Kühl but soon gained more and more helpers.

Mr Strauss, Mr Blechner, the Ambassador, Ms Laura Renberg (LJG The Hague), Mr. Szpytma (INR Poland).

They received names of people to be saved through Jewish organisations and funds to purchase the blank passports through the World Jewish Congress funded by the orthodox Jewish help organisation Agudath Yisrael, whose representative in Bern was Chaim Eiss. Resources indicate that some part of this activity has also been secretly financed by the Polish government in exile. The passports were expensive, 500 to 2000 Swiss francs each depending on the number of family members they contained.

This system became so successful that other Latin American consulates came into the game, e.g. Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru. In Poland, the longing for freedom in Latin America became so strong the famous poet Władysław Szlenger wrote a poem about it, ‘Paszporty’, which was even set to music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh5c0J91DVs).

Mr Strauss holding his passport.

The Nazis became aware of the operation and pending authentication of the passports by the ‘issuing’ countries interned the holders in various places but mainly in the Palace Hotel in Vittel, France. Several organisations involved in trying to save Jews from the slaughter put pressure on President Roosevelt to ask Paraguay and the other countries involved to authenticate the passports.

As this was not a priority for him, the action came too late and early 1944 all but twelve of the hundreds of people locked up in the Palace Hotel were deported and murdered in Auschwitz. The twelve survivors were hidden in the enormous hotel oven, which was still hot from the morning’s baking!

Mr Blechner and Mr Strauss in discussion during a Q&A session.

Whereas the honorary consuls made fortunes out of this, the Polish diplomats did not touch a frank or even a few rappen. Breaking all sorts of laws and regulations with the knowledge and blessing of the Polish government in exile under General Sikorski, they acted purely on humanitarian grounds. They were all recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for the thousands of people saved, Poles, Germans, Belgians, and Dutch.

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp reminded the audience in a closing statement that not just evil is contagious, but so is bravery and goodness.

Photography by John Dunkelgrün.

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