Roger Moorhouse on The Forgers

Sarah Hughes discusses Roger Moorhouse's new book - the story of a group of Polish diplomats who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust.
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Roger, firstly, can you tell us a little bit about the origins of your latest book? Who were the forgers and how did you find out about their story?

The forgers were a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists – known as the Ładoś Group – who were illegally producing Latin American passports during the war, with the intention of using them to help Jews in occupied Poland to escape the Holocaust.  Its a fascinating story and one which until very recently was almost completely unknown.  In the scale of their operation – they produced false papers for as many as 10,000 individuals – they rank among the most prolific Holocaust rescuers.

There were a number of different people involved in the process of arranging passports and rescuing Jews. Do you think different people had different motivations?

To some extent, of course, because no two individuals are the same.  But the primary motivation for the group was humanitarian.  I should stress that none of the group made any money out of this operation – one of them even died in poverty a few years later – so there was certainly no venal motivation.  The intention for all of them, as was said in their interrogations with the Swiss police, was to save as many people as possible.  Even for those who were peripheral to the group – like Rudolf Hugli, the honorary consul who supplied most of the passports – the motivations are far from simple.  He made a lot of money from the scheme it must be said, but he too was motivated by a Christian sense of charity and a desire to do the right thing.

The Allies do not always come off well in this story. They were hesitant to act, at best, as stories of the persecution of the Jews emerged.  After one meeting in Bermuda between US and UK officials, a British diplomat described the outcome as “formal agreement about what is impossible”. How do you explain their inaction and can it be justified?

You’re absolutely right that the Allies don’t come out of this story well.  Of course we have to appreciate that the Allies were fighting a war and they saw the defeat of the Axis as their absolute priority.  However, I think this overriding ambition blinded them to the possibility that they could potentially have done more to assist the Jews then languishing in the German camps and ghettos.  It is interesting to note that at the Bermuda Conference of May 1943 – so after the point at which the Allies knew the essentials of the Holocaust – the British and Americans even refused to allow the diversion of aid packages and food to the Jews in the camps, arguing that it was a distraction from the war effort.  You can understand the logic to some extent, but the failure to get behind the passport scheme reveals something more worrying I think.

From 1943 onwards, Polish diplomats and Jewish agencies were working hard to persuade the Latin American governments to publicly acknowledge that they would recognise the passports illegally produced by the Ładoś Group, thereby potentially saving thousands of lives.  However, the US State Department was actively arguing the opposite, fearful of some supposed spying risk, and not wanting to reward illegal activity.  The memos around this are simply astonishing to read back.  So, while one can understand that there were other larger fish to fry for the Allies during the war, I think the failure to meaningfully assist the Jews is very embarrassing.  It is a failure of imagination, certainly, and I suspect also an expression of latent anti-Semitism.

In the Hotel Polski in Warsaw, Jews (perhaps numbering more than 2,000, many with forged passports) were treated well, even by sadistic SS officers like Karl Georg Brandt. Can you explain why the German authorities occasionally colluded with the forgers?

Yes, the German collusion with the passport forgery operation is a curious chapter.  Essentially, when confronted with large numbers of both genuine foreign Jews and those holding false foreign papers, the Germans had to decide what to do, and they opted to try to leverage those individuals, to exchange them for Germans held abroad, and not to ask too closely about whether the papers were genuine.  With that, the category of the “Exchange Jew” was born.  At the Hotel Polski – another astonishing story – the idea of maximising the number of Exchange Jews meshed perfectly with that of wanted to clear the remaining fugitive Jews from the city, so the Germans gathered Jews at the hotel, promising false papers and a passage out.  The Germans treated Exchange Jews better, kept them in the camps, but with better food and conditions, but it was all predicated on the possibility of exchange, which was why it was essential that the Latin American governments played along.  As soon as that recognition was withheld, those Exchange Jews were just Jews again, often with murderous consequences.

Between 8,300 and 11,400 passports were issued yet only 2,000-3,000 of those with passports survived the Holocaust. Can you explain the discrepancy? 

Yes.  For those lucky enough to receive a Ładoś passport, that was not the end of their story.  First, you had to endure perhaps 18 months as an Exchange Jew in a camp like Bergen Belsen, which – with its endemic disease and dramatically deteriorating conditions by the end of the war – was a big ask.  In addition, the wrangles around recognition of the passports in the last two years of the war meant that the status of those Exchange Jews was never satisfactorily settled and consequently large numbers of them were sent to the death camps anyway as the Germans gradually lost patience.  So, bearing all of that in mind, it shows that receipt of a Ładoś passport did not guarantee survival, but it did at least give the chance of it.  In order to take that chance, one still needed a good deal of luck.

In the conclusion to the book, you make the point that more Poles have been honoured by the State of Israel for risking their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust than people from any other nation. Do you feel that Poles are given enough credit for their resistance to the Nazi persecution of the Jews?

I don’t, no.  Of course, the reactions to the Holocaust in occupied Poland – like in every occupied country – spanned the spectrum: from the worst sorts of collaboration to genuinely heroic, selfless assistance, often at the risk of one’s own life.  But, for various reasons, the dominant Holocaust narrative regarding Poland tends to be one of collaboration, which I think is grossly unfair.  Of course, there are instances of collaboration by individuals, as everywhere under Nazi rule, but – unlike in France, or Hungary, or Holland – there is no institutional collaboration in occupied Poland, there was no puppet government set up for instance, so I think we have to try to see things a little more holistically than hitherto.  And, bearing all of that in mind, there are also more instances of Poles actively assisting Jews than among any other nation, so I think that narrative needs to be amended somewhat to reflect the complexity of the situation; the bad and the good, the villains and the heroes.  I hope this book will help with that process.

Roger Moorhouse is an acclaimed and bestselling historian and author of The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation. You can hear a chat with Roger on this subject on the Aspects of History Podcast. Interview by Sara Hughes.