Life & Culture

The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation review

Former protégé of leading historian Norman Davies has written a crucial addition to Holocaust bibliography


The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation
by Roger Moorhouse
The Bodley Head, £25

Roger Moorhouse, a former protégé of leading historian Norman Davies, is one of today’s academic experts on 20th-century Central Europe: on Nazism, the Holocaust and in particular Poland and its controversial role during the Second World War. Were the Poles, conquered and controlled by the Germans, passive antisemitic collaborators of their Nazi occupiers?

Or did they dream of a time when, under the inspiration of their British-based government-in-exile and the military might of their Soviet neighbours, they might oust their conquerors and reclaim their proud national independence?

It was in Poland, and the heart of its capital Warsaw, that the Nazis built the most notorious of the ghettos into which Jews were incarcerated.

And here that the Jewish population of the ghetto bravely rose up and made every attempt to resist the brutality of their captors.

I thought I knew something of Poland and its Jewish population during the Nazi occupation, not to mention the subsequent “history wars” with which many among the nation’s intellectual and political leaders came to be preoccupied. But until I read Moorhouse’s latest book I knew little of the extraordinary story he recounts.

At the height (or depth) of the war, while the Nazis were preoccupied with the ghettoization and eventual elimination of the Jews of Poland, a small group of Polish diplomats collaborated on a scheme to create forged passports supposedly emanating from various countries in Latin America.

These, it was thought, if secretly distributed to Jews in Poland and beyond, might enable the recipients to escape the clutches of the Nazis and move to Western Europe and even, perhaps, to the nations that had supposedly provided the passports such as Paraguay, Honduras or Chile.

The leader of this group, Aleksander Łados, was a diplomat based in Switzerland, a nation proud of its traditional neutrality but fearful of doing anything that might arouse the potential enmity of its expansionist German neighbours. All of which placed the semi-secret “Łados Group” in a perilous situation.

Moorhouse tells us in some detail about Łados and his colleagues, but much of his book is focused on the wider historical context within which this courageous project unfolded.

There is hardly a person of consequence we don’t hear about, a significant city or event, a document, diary or interview that Moorhouse doesn’t cite. You will doubtless know of Anne Frank — and also Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of occupied Poland. Or Reinhard Heydrich who was assassinated in Prague in 1942 a few months after chairing the notorious Wannsee conference.

Moorhouse reminds us of other conferences such as those at Évian (1938) and Bermuda (1943), convened by Western powers to consider the plight of the Jews of Europe but which, in effect, avoided taking any practical steps to help them.

At one time the Nazis apparently dealt kindly with some of the foreign Jews under their control, believing these might be used as a means of persuading their Western enemies to an exchange of prisoners: the Reich would welcome back in triumph some of its lost heroes while the West would be lumbered with thousands of non-Aryan riffraff.

Needless to say, this programme came to nothing and the great majority of the ‘“exchange Jews”, like their fellow captives, went on to die under the Nazi regime.

We read of the Polish government-in-exile and its leader Sikorski (whose statue stands in London’s Portland Place, near the BBC headquarters) and, in passing, of the poet and novelist Yitzhak Katznelson, the pianist Władyslaw Szpilman (whom you may remember from the Polanski film), the more famous pianist and former prime minister of Poland Paderewski and the American journalist Varian Fry.

Based for a while in Vichy France, Fry ran a rescue network that helped many refugees, among them Heinrich Mann and Hannah Arendt, to cross the Pyrenees and evade the Holocaust.

And what of the “Łados Group” whose plan to create and distribute forged passports lies at the heart of the book? Statistically, Łados may not have saved more than a few thousand lives.

But nor did most of the other attempts to rescue potential victims of the Holocaust by better-known figures like Fry, Schindler or Wallenberg. Łados and his colleagues, Moorhouse concludes, should be added to the list of those previously honoured as among the Righteous Among Nations.

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