Andrzej Mańkowski, Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver, shared some reflections on his country’s history with the Jewish Independent, including about the Ładoś Group, which tried to help Jews escape the Nazis by the issuing of fake passports. (photo from Andrzej Mańkowski)
The wartime actions of Poland and its people provide a prime example of the human capacity for good and evil. Many Poles today proudly point out that there are more of their compatriots recognized in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations than there are heroes of any other nationality. By contrast, the work of Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski and a team of researchers in Poland chronicles in great detail the collaboration by Polish officials and ordinary citizens in assisting the Nazis in the goal of executing the “Final Solution” in that country.
Poland’s government prefers to focus on the more positive fact. So sensitive and contentious is the history that, in 2018, Poland passed – then, in the face of international outrage, rescinded – a law that criminalized expressions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. At the time, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that many Poles had aided Jews during the war era, but also that “Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination” of Jews during the Holocaust.
Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver spoke to the Jewish Independent last week and shared some personal reflections on his country’s history – including how his own grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.
Andrzej Mańkowski wanted readers of the Independent to know of a recently discovered story of a group of Polish diplomats in Switzerland who provided faked passports to help Jews flee Europe.
Called the Ładoś Group, after Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish envoy in Bern from 1940 to 1945, the six individuals included four Polish diplomats, one of whom was Jewish, and two representatives of Jewish organizations that conspired with the officials. The RELICO Assistance Committee for the Jewish Victims of the War, established by the World Jewish Congress, and the Agudat Yisrael worked with Ładoś and his colleagues.
In addition to Ładoś himself, three other Polish diplomats were members of the group: Stefan Ryniewicz, Konstanty Rokicki and Juliusz Kühl. The two members of Jewish organizations in Switzerland who rounded out the group were Abraham Silberschein of RELICO and Chaim Eiss of Agudath Israel.
Beginning in 1941 (or possibly earlier) until the end of 1943, the six men illegally purchased passports and citizenship certificates from Latin American countries, primarily Paraguay. The documents were sent to Jews in nations under German occupation, where possessing them increased chances of survival.
“Many of those passports came too late to save people,” Mańkowski said. “The recipients or the holders of the passports ended up in Auschwitz in spite of already having the false passports in their hands.”
As many as 10,000 forged passports may have been obtained, but most reached their intended recipients – primarily German and Dutch Jews, as well as some Polish Jews – too late. Of about 3,200 passports issued to individuals whose names are known, it is estimated that about 800 individuals – approximately 25% – survived the war.
Mańkowski’s own family history is deeply impacted by the horrors of the Nazi era. His grandfather, Emeryk Mańkowski, fled Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and settled in central Poland, where his wife’s family owned land. Part of that land was forested and, during the German occupation, Nazi officials discovered a radio communications device in the forest on the property. Unable to identify the owner of the contraband device, they arrested 10 members of the local intelligentsia – including Emeryk Mańkowski – and sent them to Auschwitz as a warning to the rest of the population.
At the time, Polish inmates were permitted 100 zlotys per month from their family. During the second month of his incarceration, Mańkowski’s family had their monthly stipend returned, with a message telling them that the prisoner was no longer present in the camp.
“The German Nazi bureaucracy was so precise and honest to send back money after killing the victim,” said his grandson, the consul-general.
While Poles suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Mańkowski acknowledges the magnitude is incomparable. Three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust and, during the same period, three million non-Jewish Poles also died, he said. This represented about 10% of the larger Polish population, but 90% of the Jewish population. After the war, he said, a Polish family of 10 would have a relative missing from their holiday table. A Polish Jew from a family of 10 would be alone.
The consul lamented that Poles and Jews have incompatible narratives.
“We have two separate histories,” he said, citing the visits by Israeli students to the memorial sites of the Shoah in Poland. “These groups of Jewish youths from Israel walk around in Warsaw and see only ghetto, only death all around. They never see us, living Poles. They are coming with bodyguards, they are insulated from Poles.”
The controversy around the now-rescinded law proscribing discussion of Polish complicity led to a major diplomatic eruption with Israel, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acknowledged that it was not any respect for civil liberties or historical veracity that led to the reversal, but international pressure.
“Those who say that Poland may be responsible for the crimes of World War II deserve jail terms,” Morawiecki said at the time. “But we operate in an international context and we take that into account.”
Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter that Canada is “concerned by the potential impact on free speech” of the Polish law and urged that country to “ensure open discussion and education about the horrors of the Nazi death camps.”
The consul emphasized that the law didn’t apply to scientific publication, research or artistic activity, as these fields were excluded from the jurisdiction of this law.
World attention has focused on Poland in recent years not only because of concerns around free expression and inquiry into Holocaust-era history. Poland has been called the worst country in the European Union for gay rights. Expressions of hate speech are leveled against LGBTQ+ Poles by individuals at the highest levels of government. There is a lack of legal protections for sexual minorities and criminal charges have been laid against individuals exhibiting Pride flags. Dozens of Polish communities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.”
Mańkowski acknowledged that Poland is a conservative country. Last month, a new abortion law was promulgated, banning abortion in almost all cases.
“It’s a question of some conservative attitudes and opinions on the part of Polish society,” he said. “We are quite conservative, that’s true…. It’s a hot discussion within Polish society and, if you follow polls and opinion research, you will see the real judgment of Polish society and maybe the political system is not following the tendencies of the changing trends.”