2 strangers find ancestors' pasts intertwined during Holocaust

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Had it not been for Alexandra MacMurdo Reiter’s grandfather, K. Heidi Fishman would’ve never existed. 

Through a fortuitous chain of events, the two women discovered in January that Reiter’s paternal grandfather, Stefan Ryniewicz, used a fake foreign passport to help save Fishman’s maternal grandparents, Heinz and Margret Spier Lichtenstern; mother, Ruth “Tutti”; and uncle, Robbie, from being among the 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.  

Reiter, an assistant professor of communication at Georgia Highlands College, and Fishman, an author from Vermont, made the discovery after Fishman found a Jan. 5, 2019, article from The Daily Tribune News about Reiter’s Polish-diplomat grandfather being part of the clandestine scheme to smuggle South American passports into Europe to save Jews from being exterminated.

“After this story made front-page news, I was contacted soon thereafter by a woman named Heidi Fishman, who I received an email from, telling me that she had seen and she had read the story about my grandfather and was excited to share with me that her grandfather was saved due to one of the passports that my grandfather helped manufacture,” Reiter said. “So once I processed that, I thought, wow, this is really big. This is amazing. She’s here, and she’s alive because of this passport, and how many other people are out there that made it through the Holocaust because of this passport?”

With Fishman, who wrote the award-winning book “Tutti’s Promise” about her family’s ordeal, already traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, to speak at a middle school the first week of April, the pair decided to meet and do a public presentation on their research findings on the covert plot.

GHC’s Students Without Borders sponsored “Passports for Life: Holocaust Rescue and Survival” April 4 in the student center at the Cartersville campus as part of the Women’s History Series. 

“This story that we’re going to share with you today is a story about some very brave men who did some very amazing things,” Reiter said. “Although it’s the Women’s History Series, due to these efforts of these brave men, they have allowed their descendants to now become historians.”

Fishman said two months after her mother’s July 1935 birth, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Race Laws were enacted, and her grandfather “saw the writing on the wall.”

He decided to take his family, including all four of Tutti’s grandparents, to Amsterdam, where it would be safer for them and where his boss was moving the metals commodities trading company for which he worked.

Even though Lichtenstern had to pay an emigration tax of between 60% and 70% of what he owned “for the honor of leaving” Germany, “things were good” in their new city, Fishman said. “Amsterdam was a great place to be, and my uncle, Robbie, was born in 1938,” she said.

But in 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and Lichtenstern gave all the money he and his friends had left to his good friend, Egbert de Jong, the Dutch minister of nonferrous metals, to keep it safe from the Nazis, with instructions to spend it if he found any way to help them, Fishman said. 

The situation got worse in 1941 when the Jews were separated from Aryans and were forbidden to own radios, cars or bicycles or to go to public parks, theaters, swimming pools and schools.

“In 1943, my grandfather took the family and went into hiding,” Fishman said. “A little bit like Anne Frank, there was an attic. The family went up into the attic of a friend. They stayed there because they were supposed to report to go to Westerbork, which was the transit camp in the Netherlands.”

While they were in hiding, de Jong came to Lichtenstern and said, “Heinz, I have this passport for you. You’re now a Paraguayan citizen,” she said.

“My grandfather didn’t speak Spanish,” she said. “My grandfather had never been to Paraguay. But if you were a South American Jew – there were no countries in South America that were involved in this war so if you were a Jew from South America, you got better treatment than if you were a European Jew. The Nazis basically put you in a camp that they might use you as an exchange for a German POW or a German national that was abroad that would’ve wanted to come back to the Reich because that was going to be the most wonderful place in the world, and Germans were going to want to come back. So they were trying to hang onto these people to use for that purpose.”

Meanwhile, Reiter’s grandfather, a native of Poland, was working with the Polish legation – a diplomatic mission lower in status than an embassy – in Bern, Switzerland, to save Polish Jews.

“The head of the legation was Minister Aleksander Lados, and his employees and Jewish partner organizations forged passports from South American countries on a massive scale, which then were smuggled to the ghettos of German-occupied Poland,” Reiter said. “A noticeable number of the bearers managed to survive the Holocaust by being interred rather than being sent to German death camps so it was a way for them to stay alive.”

The Bernese Group, also called the Lados Group, consisted of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists who “created the falsified passports in Bern, Switzerland,” she said. 

“This group took secret action along with Jewish organizations in order to help hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust by providing them with legal Latin American passports, mostly from Paraguay,” she said. 

The diplomats were Reiter’s grandfather, the first secretary then counselor of the Polish legation from 1938-45 and the deputy head of the mission and close collaborator with Lados from 1940-45; Konstanty Rokicki, a Polish consul in Bern from 1939-45 who was the one who filled out the passports; and Lados. 

The activists were Juliusz Kühl, a 26-year-old graduate student who was an expert on contacts in the Jewish community in Switzerland and was a facilitator between the Lados Group and the Jews; Abraham Silberschein, founder of a rescue committee called RELICO who raised funds to finance the passports and helped obtain names of Jewish families in occupied areas who needed them; and Chaim Eiss, who helped with fundraising and delivering the passports.  

Reiter showed a flow chart on how the passport scheme worked: Lados and Ryniewicz provided diplomatic cover-up, basically asking the Swiss government to look the other way; Rokicki obtained funding from Silberschein and Eiss then paid Rudolf Hugli, honorary consul of Paraguay living in Switzerland, to provide blank passports; Rokicki would handwrite information on passports and attach photographs then Hugli would sign and stamp them so they’d be an official document of Paraguay; the finished passports were given to Silberschein and Eiss, who copied them and had them notarized; and, facilitated by Kühl, the copies were taken to Jews – one passport per family – in occupied areas of Europe.

“My grandfather got the passport, and he thought, well, we’re good now. Things are going to be all right. We’re South Americans. So let’s go turn ourselves in like we were supposed to,” Fishman said. 

But Lichtenstern and his family turned themselves in in October 1943 and were immediately sent to Westerbork “so it did not work the way they thought it would,” she said. 

The family was there about nine months then headed east to Theresienstadt in fall 1944.

“If you had to be in a concentration camp, this was a ‘good’ concentration camp,” Fishman said. “It was considered a privileged camp.”

It was better than other camps because there was “no extermination, no gas chambers,” she said.

“There was not ‘active’ killing,” she said. “What they had was ‘passive’ killing – 33,000 people are known to have died simply from malnutrition and disease.”

After being there one month, the family learned all men ages 16-55 would be on the next transport east to Germany, and it turned out the next transport was to Auschwitz. 

“My grandfather was in this age range so he was supposed to be on this transport,” Fishman said, noting 11 transports with 18,402 people were sent to Auschwitz over the next month. 

Her mother told how he “threw himself on her bunk next to her and cried bitter tears and said goodbye.”

“It was the most heartbreaking moment,” she said.

Lichtenstern had the passport and letter of notarization, and while waiting to get on the train, he made a last-ditch effort and showed them to one of the Nazis.

He was given a piece of onion-skin paper – that Fishman has – that said “Ausgescheiden,” German for “withdrawn,” along with his prisoner number, transport number, name and  birthdate. He was saved from Auschwitz.

Fishman said her family remained at Theresienstadt for nine months and survived to see the Russian soldiers liberate the camp on her uncle’s seventh birthday, May 8, 1945. 

It took them a couple of months to get back to Amsterdam, as they were considered stateless, and the Netherlands didn’t want refugees, she said.

But her grandparents used the passport to show they were Paraguayan citizens to get back to Amsterdam.

Fishman said 9 million Jews lived in Europe before the war, and 6 million were killed – 1.5 million being children – including her mother’s maternal grandparents, an uncle and his wife, who all died at Auschwitz. 

While the Polish Embassy is still working on the numbers, it estimates 8,300 to 8,700 families received passports through the Bernese Group, and so far, 3,145 names of people with passports have been identified, Fishman said. 

Dr. Jakub Kumoch, ambassador to the Polish Embassy in Bern, praised Ryniewicz and the Bernese Group for their heroic actions. 
“It was one of the biggest organized Holocaust rescue operations in the world, which saved thousands of lives,” he said in an email. “I cannot explain why it has remained largely unknown.”

Besides Jews, the Nazis also targeted alcoholics, gays, blacks, Slavics, gypsies, mentally and physically disabled people and others, Fishman said. 

“So why are we talking about it?” she said. “Because we are still doing things in the world to target different groups. They get treated badly. It’s important to remember that the Holocaust didn’t start with the gas chambers. It started with words. It started with prejudice. It started with people separating other people. We have to stop doing that.”

Fishman said she grew up knowing there was a passport that saved her family from the Holocaust but never thought of asking from where passport came.

“It was like a ‘wow’ moment,” she said about first making the connection between her and Reiter’s grandfathers. “Just like there’s descendants of people who survived with the passport, there are descendants of people who made the passports. I hadn’t really put that together yet.”  

Reiter, who also plans to write a book, said she had “absolutely no idea” her grandfather was involved in the scheme until a year and a half ago when Jedrzej Uszynski, first secretary to the Polish Embassy in Bern, contacted her.

Reiter called meeting Fishman “unbelievable” and “incredible.”

“I have basically been communicating with Heidi for the last three months, four months, and it was like picking up with an old friend,” she said. “It was amazing. We get along really well, and it’s just incredible to meet someone and know that she is here in this world today because of something my grandfather did. We have a special bond.”

“To meet in person, it’s always nice to meet the real person behind the electronic image,” Fishman said. “That’s been really interesting and exciting.”

Reiter said she was “very pleased” with how the presentation turned out. 

“I hope the students really took something away from it and learned something from it,” she said. “The lessons on the Holocaust should not be repeated. Everyone has the ability to be kind and loving to others. And I think we all can be a hero. We all have the capability to be a hero.”