The Forg­ers: The For­got­ten Sto­ry of the Holo­caust’s Most Auda­cious Res­cue Operation

  • Review
By – February 12, 2024

When most peo­ple think of Poland and the Holo­caust, they think of the death camps there, where mil­lions of Jews were gassed, starved, and beat­en. Few think of the efforts by Poles to save Jews, even though there are more Poles in the Gar­den of the Right­eous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any oth­er nation­al­i­ty. In The Forg­ers, Roger Moor­house writes about one of these efforts, which was car­ried out by mem­bers of the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment-in-exile dur­ing the war.

At the cen­ter of this sto­ry is Alek­sander Ładoś, who was appoint­ed Min­is­ter With­out Port­fo­lio by the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment-in-exile. Sta­tioned in Switzer­land, he was hor­ri­fied by the sto­ries of what was hap­pen­ing to Jews in Nazi-occu­pied Poland. Along with oth­er employ­ees of the Pol­ish con­sulate in Bern, as well as Jew­ish activists, Ładoś worked to find ways to pro­tect Jews from the Nazis. Togeth­er, they man­aged a huge forgery oper­a­tion that pro­duced pass­ports and visas, which were then smug­gled into the cities and ghet­tos of Poland and oth­er coun­tries under Ger­man con­trol. This group refused to stand by. Work­ing togeth­er to save who they could, they even defied orders from their governments.

The Ger­mans were reluc­tant to kill Jews who held pass­ports from coun­tries out­side of their realm; they hoped to trade them for Ger­mans held abroad. Get­ting such a pass­port or a visa to anoth­er coun­try was a life­line. When oth­er, free Euro­pean coun­tries refused to help, Ładoś turned to South and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries. Hon­duras was espe­cial­ly active in sup­ply­ing pass­port and visa forms.

Tens of thou­sands of doc­u­ments were pro­duced this way, and they found their way to the des­per­ate. The Ger­mans left these peo­ple alone for most of 1942 and 1943. They built sep­a­rate camps for them in France, the Nether­lands, and in Ger­many (Bergen-Belsen began as a camp for for­eign pass­port hold­ers). They were not liv­ing in lux­u­ry, but they weren’t gassed or beat­en, either. 

As the war dragged on, how­ev­er, the like­li­hood of these peo­ple being trad­ed for Ger­mans dete­ri­o­rat­ed, and most of them were sent to the death camps in Poland. About one thou­sand hold­ers of these pass­ports and tran­sit visas were able to make it to ports of embarka­tion, such as Lis­bon, and estab­lish new lives in Latin America. 

Moor­house relates this sto­ry in great detail and a straight­for­ward style. Those inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of the Holo­caust will find The Forg­ers useful.

Jill S. Beer­man grew up in New Jer­sey and attend­ed Mont­clair State Uni­ver­si­ty. She has a doc­tor­ate in Amer­i­can Stud­ies from New York Uni­ver­si­ty. She taught high school and col­lege for twen­ty-five years. 

Discussion Questions