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.