The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust's Most Audacious Rescue Operation
by roger moorhouse
basic books, 352 pages, $32
In 2018, Poland's governing Law and Justice Party passed a bill to outlaw accusations of Polish complicity in Nazi or communist crimes. Under pressure from the United States, they eventually scrapped plans to threaten violators with criminal proceedings. Even so, Poland continues to punish inconvenient voices, recently threatening to withdraw funding from the Polish Center of Holocaust Research after its director claimed Poles could have done more to help Jews during the 1940s.
While the Nazis “had undoubtedly plumbed new depths of the oldest prejudice,” according to British historian Roger Moorhouse, “it is important to note that antisemitism was, in some form at least, almost universal.” Poland was no exception. And yet it would be unjust to minimize the vast suffering of its people, or the sacrifices they made and the heroism they demonstrated, during the Nazi’s campaign to “beat it into submission.”
Moorhouse has done Poland a service with his new book, The Forgers, which popularizes a little-known rescue operation that shielded over one thousand Jews from extermination. Polish Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś, working from his picturesque Swiss Embassy, spearheaded a network of “pious dishonesty” that forged identity papers for Latin American countries and then smuggled them into Nazi-occupied Europe.
We do not know how many souls escaped the Third Reich’s death machine by using the more than 10,000 passports forged by Ładoś’s Polish network—Moorhouse concedes that many who obtained one did not survive—but some estimates put the number between two and three thousand. Possessing a foreign passport did not usually allow one to leave Nazi jurisdictions, but it did buy time, elevating holders to the status of Austauschjuden (“Exchange Jews”). The racially-obsessed Nazi authorities, well aware of the unlikelihood of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Paraguayans springing up in war-torn Europe, were often willing to feign ignorance in hopes of exchanging passport holders for “Aryan” prisoners of war, or even for war supplies.
The status of the Austauschjuden was precarious. In 1944, almost two thousand Jews whom Nazi authorities deemed to have low-value or fake foreign papers were deported “east,” where they likely perished. Moorhouse also notes that knowledge of the scheme offered a route by which undercover Nazis could pretend to sell false papers to lure more desperate Jews from hiding.
In Bergen-Belsen, where Austauschjuden were quartered separately from the immediately condemned, conditions rapidly deteriorated. Bunk rooms would nightly transform into morgues as starvation and disease claimed life after life. One Austauschjude inmate was driven to madness after flinging her young child from a moving train, only to discover they had not been en route to a death camp. It is impossible to read Psalm 22 the same way after learning of women who, upon arriving at Belsen from Auschwitz, were heard singing, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Against this apocalyptic backdrop, unlikely heroes emerged. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a right-wing Catholic novelist who had long complained that Jews were a socioeconomic scourge Poles must encourage to emigrate, became one of their fiercest defenders, co-founding two underground organizations that helped Jews flee the Nazi genocide. For this she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz in 1943. “The world looks upon this murder, more horrible than anything else history has ever seen, and stays silent,” she lamented. “Whoever is silent witnessing murder becomes a partner to it.” There is no doubt, writes Moorhouse, that this otherwise unpleasant woman had risked her life in the name of “Christian civilisation and culture, love of fellow man and humanity.”
Why did so many officials risk their lives collaborating with Ładoś to produce forgeries? Moorhouse offers no clear answers. Given the scant material benefits it offered, we may assume it was largely a moral matter—as it certainly was for Ładoś, who had a track record of admonishing antisemitism. One of this book’s regrettable omissions is any full-bodied discussion of Ładoś’s inner life. He was certainly a baptized Catholic, and was heavily active in a centrist Christian democrat party between the wars. If his lengthy memoirs are ever published, perhaps the public will learn more about those around him.
Even in a book about his heroism, Ładoś cuts a subtle figure. This suggests much about how this unassuming bureaucrat and his team flew under the radar before the Swiss authorities began to catch on. Many who now walk the earth do so because they kept such a low profile. Sadly, their efforts did not accrue much to Poland’s benefit come the war’s end. Moorhouse recounts how, as vultures circled the Führerbunker, a deteriorating Roosevelt and a coy Churchill arrived at Yalta to serve this valiant nation up to Moscow on a silver platter, allowing it to install a puppet government. Following the war, Ładoś refused to work for the communists, retreating instead to rural France to rear chickens and grow strawberries. Financial and medical decline forced him to return to Warsaw in 1960, where he would die three years later.
Poland’s relationship with the Jewish people, past and present, continues to divide and disappoint. But despite its being the only Nazi-occupied territory where all household members were subject to execution if they were found to be sheltering Jews, over a quarter of the 27,921 “Righteous Among Nations”—Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews—recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial were Poles.
Ładoś is still not among them. In Moorhouse’s words, Ładoś and his colleagues “sought no reward and received none”—at least, that is, not in this life.
Georgia Gilholy is a Charles Krauthammer Fellow with the Tikvah Fund and a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.