The Lifesaving Potential of Latin American Passports in the Warsaw Ghetto
Roger Moorhouse on the Story of the Desperately Sought-After Document
Given the sheer volume of requests for passports that was being received in the autumn and winter of 1942, the Jewish activists and intermediaries in Switzerland were forced to make some difficult decisions about which applicants were considered the most deserving. A committee was therefore established by Abraham Silberschein and Chaim Eiss to ensure that there was no duplication or that “unauthorized persons” did not receive papers. In this, differing criteria could be applied. For the devoutly Orthodox Eiss and Agudath Israel, rabbis and religious scholars were often prioritized; Silberschein, meanwhile, tended to apply more secular criteria, as well as favoring those within his already extensive circle of acquaintances.
To assist in those decisions, a committee was also established within the Warsaw ghetto, which drew up a list of those notables— rabbis, writers, artists, and other prominent individuals—who should be put at the head of the queue. This list was then sent to, among others, the Jewish aid agencies in Switzerland. In addition to such notables, Silberschein, who was keen to expand the operation to include members of Jewish youth organizations in occupied Poland, added some four hundred further names. In a struggle for their very existence, Warsaw’s Jews sought to save the brightest and the best in the hope that something of Jewish life and culture could be preserved.
One of those who applied for a passport was Nathan Eck, a prominent Zionist activist who had fled from Łódź to Warsaw in the autumn of 1939 to escape the attentions of the Gestapo. By the late summer of 1942, with the deportations already underway and Warsaw Jews in a state of panic, he escaped again, this time to Będzin in Upper Silesia. The Będzin ghetto was unusual in that it was not enclosed, but prior to Eck’s arrival it had been subject to two deportations, with some eight thousand Jews having been sent to Auschwitz. In the aftermath, discussions raged among its residents about rival strategies for survival—whether to comply, resist, or attempt to escape. The community’s elders broadly advocated compliance, while the young, especially the members of the Zionist organizations, tended toward resistance.
Those advocating escape were also growing in number that summer. Previously, the use of forged passports had not been taken seriously. As one survivor of the Będzin ghetto recalled, Jews wrote letters to the outside world begging for assistance and foreign papers, but they “did not believe that there was any possibility to leave occupied Poland.” However, Eck’s arrival galvanized the advocates of false passports as to the benefits that they promised and gave them a focus that they had previously lacked. Soon, thousands of letters were being sent to Abraham Silberschein and others in Switzerland containing photographs and coded requests for passports. Indeed, the demand was so great that Silberschein asked Eck to establish a committee in Będzin that, as in Warsaw, would draw up a list of those citizens who should be prioritized. The arguments for and against that escape route would rumble on for a few more months, but Będzin had woken up to the potential that false papers offered. Eck himself would be the first in the ghetto to receive a foreign passport.In a struggle for their very existence, Warsaw’s Jews sought to save the brightest and the best in the hope that something of Jewish life and culture could be preserved.
Other requests came from beyond Poland. When Clara Duschnitz was sent to Westerbork with her family that summer, she realized that the SS guards were not especially concerned with who was being deported, just that their lists, and their wagons, should be filled. She also noted that the possession of foreign passports seemed to preserve people from the threat of deportation. Through family contacts in Switzerland, therefore, she procured a Paraguayan passport for herself, her husband, Felix, and her daughter Marietta. Thereafter categorized by the Germans as “foreign Jews” eligible for Rückstellungskategorie 1—“reserve category 1”—all three were exempt from deportation.
Despite such successes, for many of those desperately requesting help, the result was often the same: silence. As Hillel Seidman noted, it could be difficult to get a response, especially when one was writing on behalf of others: “Dr. Silverstein [sic] does not reply… Rabbi Eiss also sends some passports to a select few religious Jews, but he seems to work extremely slowly and without warmth.” “Meanwhile,” he added bitterly, “the ground literally burns beneath one’s feet.”
Rather than tardiness or an excessively selective attitude, the reality was that Silberschein and Eiss were simply overwhelmed with requests, which could not be processed quickly enough to meet the demand. To address the problem, Silberschein now approached other Latin American honorary consuls in Switzerland, seeking to speed up the procedure by requesting promesas—letters confirming citizenship, which did not require the time-consuming and costly production of photographs—rather than passports. He found a ready ally in Alfonso Bauer, the honorary consul of Honduras in Bern, who had been dismissed from his post in the spring of 1941 for illegally issuing Honduran passports but—having stolen the official consular seal—had continued to issue identity documents illicitly. In addition, Silberschein engaged other honorary consuls—including Max Brunner, consul for Haiti in Zürich, and José María Barreto, consul general for Peru in Geneva—to produce promesas in return for payment.
Though the promesas were cheaper and quicker to produce, a Latin American passport remained the most sought-after document. It became something almost intangible, something to be longed for, more in hope than in expectation. That desire was expressed in a ditty composed by the poet Władysław Szlengel in the summer of 1942, which would have been recited in the Café Sztuka on Leszno Street, a renowned center of literary life in the Warsaw ghetto. Szlengel was better known for his serious poetry, which captured the desperation of life in the ghetto and provided a chronicle of the hopes and fears of its inhabitants. “The Passports,” however, was shorter and lighter in tone, almost doggerel in its frivolity, but it spoke of some of the profoundest hopes in the ghetto:
I would like to have a Uruguayan passport
Oh, what a beautiful land it is
How nice it must feel to be the subject
Of the land called: Uruguay.
I would like to have a Paraguayan passport
Of gold and freedom is this land
Oh, how nice it must feel to be the subject
Of the land called: Paraguay.
I would like to have a Costa Rican passport
Celadon sky—eternal May
Oh, how nice it must feel to tell
That Costa Rica is my land.
I would like to have a Bolivian passport
Like a couple of friends of mine
Bolivian air—resin fragrant
Oh, what a beautiful land.
I would like to have a Honduran passport,
Honduras sounds like eastern paradise
It’s nice to remark from time to time
Honduras, actually, is my land.
I would like to have a Uruguayan passport
Or Costa Rica, or Paraguay
Just so one can live peacefully in Warsaw
After all, it is the most beautiful of lands.
Excerpted from The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation by Roger Moorhouse. Copyright © 2023. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.