The Polish Holocaust hero you've never heard of
Konstanty Rokicki and fellow diplomats in Berne forged thousands of passports to save Jewish lives. He died in obscurity, until now
May 2, 2019, 3:06 PM
Konstanty Rokicki, a Polish diplomat and intelligence operative who died in penniless obscurity, turns out to have been one of the forgotten heroes of the Holocaust. He tried to save lives of thousands of Jews with his knack for forging Paraguayan passports.
Three quarters of a century after Rokicki applied his formidable skills to tricking the Nazis, 60 years after his death from lung cancer, my diplomats, members of my team at the Polish Embassy in Switzerland were astonished to recognize the neat identical loops of his handwriting on one fabricated passport after another. The travel documents had been discovered in 2017 by Polish and Canadian journalists who asked us to confirm one of the bravest chapters in the wartime rescue of Jews from the grips of the Holocaust.
Rokicki had been vice-consul of Poland’s Legation (Embassy) in Berne, Switzerland, during World War II working with Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś and his deputy, Counselor Stefan Ryniewicz. He died in 1958 and was buried in a Swiss paupers cemetery. Now he’s being recognized by the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem with the title, “Righteous Among the Nations.’’
Allow me to share some additional facts we have learned so far:
1. The rescue operation in Berne was much larger than we had ever thought.
All of the Paraguayan passports that were issued in Berne between 1941 and 1943 were numbered consecutively in five separate number series. Based upon the highest serial numbers found in each series, we estimate that at least 1,056 passports were issued for 2,500 people. In addition documents confirming the Paraguayan citizenship were forged for 2,000 other Jews. Additionally Ładoś, Rokicki and Ryniewicz gave the Jewish organizations green light to obtain documents of Honduras, Haiti and Peru and defended their Jewish partners when the Swiss police tried to intervene. Our assessment is that between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews from Poland, Holland, Germany, Austria and a dozen of other countries, were given an chance to avoid deportation thanks to Rokicki and his colleagues. It increased the chances for their survival.
2. Rokicki did not act alone, he was a member of a team
Rokicki was known as one of the top aces of Polish Military Intelligence (“Dwójka”) working in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. In Berne, he served under Ambassador Ładoś and Ryniewicz, the latter being also his personal friend. Rokicki was also supported by his Jewish colleague Juliusz Kühl, who worked at the Legation. All of them knew about the passports and both of them supported and participated in this operation. We have located proof that in many cases Rokicki acted upon direct instructions and orders from his superiors. One of many examples: a request to “organize” a passport for the family of Herbert Kruskal, his wife and three children, was sent to Ambassador Ładoś. A passport was then created in Rokicki’s handwriting, clearly after Ładoś ordered it. The entire family survived.
When the plot was discovered Ambassador Ładoś personally intervened with the Swiss Foreign Ministry threatening Switzerland with international scandal and Ryniewicz went to calm down the Swiss Fremdenpolizei’s chief, Heinrich Rothmund. “It’s about human life”, both argued. The Swiss abstained from taking further actions.
3. Rokicki followed the Polish government’s instructions but went further.
Most European diplomats who have been declared Righteous Among The Nations acted alone and in constant fear of their own superiors. But this is a completely different case. Ładoś and his diplomats, who broke Swiss law, were supported by their superiors.
When, in April 1943, the Polish government-in-Exile learned what was going on in Berne, it immediately applauded the illegal forgery operation as it was motivated by “purely humanitarian reasons.” The government then requested that such passports be issued to dozens if not hundreds of individual Jewish activists and religious leaders. The government also partially covered the costs of the operation and secured the recognition of the passports by Paraguay and other states.
4. Rokicki did not know the people he rescued.
There is no proof that Rokicki knew any of the people for whom he issued the passports. As with many massive Holocaust rescuers, he operated a system and worked upon lists and data provided to him by two reliable Jewish partners – Abraham Silberschein from the World Jewish Congress, and Chaim Eiss, the representative of Agudath Yisrael.
None of the people who were rescued knew about Rokicki. Most of them understood that the passports were given to them by their relatives in Switzerland. Only in 2017 did some of the remaining survivors start to discover that all of the passports looked alike. Some of the people who were rescued did not even know that passports were issued for them. Some of the documents were seized by the Nazis and used in their ransom schemes. Nevertheless, the issuance of these passports prevented thousands of people from being sent to the death camps.
5. Rokicki died in poverty and obscurity.
Rokicki and Kühl acted as intermediaries at paying bribes to the Swiss lawyer who represented Paraguay. Although Rokicki is believed to have paid around half a million francs in bribes to the “Paraguayan” honorary consul, and that the money came from Jewish and in some cases Polish, Swiss and Dutch donors, he himself did not profit in the operation. After he left his consular post in 1946 and refused to serve the post-war Polish Communist government, the Swiss police believed that he was too poor to allow him to remain in Switzerland. Later on various reports showed him as a person in need. In the late 50s, Rokicki lived in paupers’ home.
You have not heard about Rokicki before because he left no memoirs.
Rokicki died of cancer on July 18, 1958 and was buried in a section for poor people at the cemetery in Luzern. His last trace is a piece correspondence dated July 1957 when he lived in the paupers’ home. Rokicki asked for 15 francs as a reimbursement for his meals. His burial place was discovered only 60 years later.