Polish diplo­mats rescu­ing Jews in WWII

In reco­gni­tion of the merits of Polish diplo­mats saving Jews during World War II, on Janu­ary 21, 2021, the Sejm (Lower House of Par­lia­ment) of the Repu­blic of Poland dec­la­red 2021 the Year of the Ładoś Gro­up. The Polish diplo­ma­tic mis­sion in Bern led by Alek­san­der Ładoś, thanks to the pas­sports of Latin Ame­ri­can coun­tries issu­ed to Jews in Ger­man occu­pied Poland, could save the lives of at least 3,262 people. The enti­re ope­ra­tion, quite sen­sa­tio­nal, has only recen­tly been disco­ve­red and descri­bed by Ambas­sa­dor Jakub Kumoch.

As many as 30,000 Poles, inc­lu­ding 5,000 Jews, owed the­ir lives to Hen­ryk Sła­wik, who was acti­ve in Hun­ga­ry. Often cal­led the Polish Wal­len­berg, he was later mur­de­red in the Ger­man-Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp.
The­re were many more Polish diplo­mats invo­lved in the­se rescue mis­sions, and not only in Europe.

Poland had alre­ady star­ted saving Jews befo­re the war. On Octo­ber 26, 1938, the Ger­mans issu­ed an ordi­nan­ce to expel all Jews of Polish ori­gin from the Third Reich to Poland, regar­dless of the­ir pre­sent citi­zen­ship. Over 17,000 people were taken to the bor­der, and some were even cha­sed thro­ugh it. Poland accep­ted all of them in just a few days.


MS “Saint Louis”
The fates of the pas­sen­gers abo­ard the MS “Saint Louis” show a com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent appro­ach by some coun­tries to the issue of rescu­ing refu­ge­es. Six mon­ths after the events on the Polish bor­der, in May 1939, a ship with 937 Ger­man Jews on board leaves Ham­burg for Cuba. Howe­ver, after arri­ving in Hava­na Har­bo­ur, despi­te ear­lier dec­la­ra­tions, Cuba dec­li­ned all visi­tor visas and did not accept refu­ge­es. The ship then sailed to Flo­ri­da. The­re, a flo­til­la of Ame­ri­can ships sto­od in her way in case the Cap­ta­in attemp­ted to gro­und the ship. Pre­si­dent Roose­velt refu­ses to accept this less than a tho­usand refu­ge­es for fear of having to sup­port them. Cap­ta­in Gustav Schro­eder looks for the last chan­ce in Cana­da, but here the ship is also denied lan­ding. MS “Saint Louis” returns to Ger­ma­ny. But befo­re she gets the­re, the govern­ments of Fran­ce, Bel­gium, the Nether­lands and the Uni­ted King­dom issue per­mis­sion to accept pas­sen­gers. Only tho­se who disem­bark in the last of the­se coun­tries will survive.

The acti­vi­ties of the Japa­ne­se con­sul Chiu­ne Sugi­ha­ra in Kau­nas, Lithu­ania, are quite well known. Thanks to the visas that he issu­ed, near­ly six tho­usand Poles (most of them Polish Jews) made the­ir way to Japan. Howe­ver, lit­tle is known abo­ut the role play­ed by the Polish mili­ta­ry intel­li­gen­ce, with which the Japa­ne­se con­sul wor­ked clo­se­ly, in this ope­ra­tion. Equ­al­ly unk­nown is the con­tri­bu­tion of the Polish ambas­sa­dor to Japan, which “clo­sed” the enti­re ope­ra­tion at its other end. Ambas­sa­dor Tade­usz Romer obta­ined visas to Cana­da, Austra­lia, New Zealand, Bur­ma, the Uni­ted Sta­tes and Pale­sti­ne (under Bri­tish man­da­te) for over two tho­usand people.
In a digres­sion from the histo­ri­cal record, the con­su­la­tes gene­ral of Isra­el and Japan in Toron­to join­tly orga­ni­zed an event com­me­mo­ra­ting Con­sul Sugi­ha­ra in 2019. A Japa­ne­se featu­re film (Polish co-pro­duc­tion and cast) “Sugi­ha­ra Chiu­ne”, known in Poland as the “Ambas­sa­dor of Hope”, was shown, as well as an exhi­bi­tion pre­sen­ting diplo­mats from vario­us coun­tries invo­lved in saving Jews. The film cle­ar­ly refer­red to refu­ge­es from Poland (occu­pied by both Nazi Ger­ma­ny and the Soviet Union), and the film cle­ar­ly discus­sed the con­su­l’s coope­ra­tion with a Polish intel­li­gen­ce offi­cer. Howe­ver, in spe­eches made by the orga­ni­zers, all refe­ren­ce to Poland’s role was omit­ted nor did not con­ta­in a sin­gle bio­gra­phy of any Polish diplo­mat in the exhibition.

Wik­tor Podo­ski in Canada
The actions taken by Polish diplo­ma­cy in Cana­da are per­haps the least known.
From Novem­ber 1939, the expe­rien­ced diplo­mat and offi­cer Wik­tor Podo­ski was the con­sul gene­ral in Otta­wa. He was born on April 2, 1895 in Wołyń (Vol­hy­nia). Podoski’s fami­ly was from the lan­ded gen­try and bore the Juno­sza coat of arms. After gra­du­ating from gym­na­sium in War­saw, he went to stu­dy in Gre­at Bri­ta­in. He stu­died at the Roy­al Tech­ni­cal Col­le­ge and later at the Lon­don Scho­ol of Eco­no­mics and Poli­ti­cal Scien­ce. He mana­ged the post in Otta­wa as the Con­sul Gene­ral of the Repu­blic of Poland until March 27, 1942. It was then that the Con­su­la­te Gene­ral was trans­for­med into the Lega­tion and Wik­tor Podo­ski was appo­in­ted the first Mini­ster of the Repu­blic of Poland to Cana­da. Pri­me Mini­ster Gene­ral Wła­dy­sław Sikor­ski per­so­nal­ly par­ti­ci­pa­ted in the ceremony.

Saving refu­ge­es from Poland
Thro­ugho­ut his mis­sion in Otta­wa, Wik­tor Podo­ski had been seeking per­mis­sion from the Cana­dian autho­ri­ties to rece­ive refu­ge­es from Poland. In a let­ter dated June 24, 1940 to the Secre­ta­ry of Sta­te for Fore­ign Affa­irs (who was also the Pri­me Mini­ster of Cana­da) Wil­liam Lyon Mac­ken­zie King, it lists the num­ber of two tho­usand Poles. In doing so, he refers to the instruc­tions of the Polish govern­ment rece­ived from Lon­don. On July 11, the Polish con­sul sends ano­ther let­ter to King, in which, refer­ring to his pre­vio­us let­ter, he advi­ses that two Polish ships, MS “Lewant” and MS “Bato­ry” are car­ry­ing the fami­lies of Polish govern­ment and mili­ta­ry offi­cials to Cana­da. The pas­sen­gers have been issu­ed Cana­dian visas or spe­cial autho­ri­za­tions from the High
Com­mis­sio­ner of Cana­da in Lon­don. In this let­ter, the Polish con­sul also asked for the exemp­tion from customs cle­aran­ce of pas­sen­gers and the enti­re car­go of the “Bato­ry”, which was car­ry­ing boxes with Wawel Castle tre­asu­res and the secret archi­ves of the Polish government.

150 chil­dren on the­ir way to Canada
The­re were 24 pas­sen­gers on board the MS “Lewant”, and on the MS “Bato­ry” 18 fami­ly mem­bers of the Polish gene­rals and a gro­up of abo­ut 150 Jewish chil­dren aged six to fourteen.
The Cana­dian govern­ment, in respon­se to appli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted by con­sul Podo­ski, agre­ed to accept 1,000 inste­ad of 2,000 refu­ge­es from Poland. The Polish govern­ment was also requ­ired to cover the costs of trans­port and pay the living costs of the­se people in Cana­da. The big chal­len­ge for our diplo­mat was the neces­si­ty to nego­tia­te with the direc­tor of the Immi­gra­tion Branch of the Mines and Reso­ur­ces Depart­ment in Kin­g’s govern­ment, who was Fre­de­rick Char­les Bla­ir, known for his anti-immi­grant atti­tu­de. Bla­ir was cen­tral in deny­ing per­mis­sion for the MS “St Louis” to land in Cana­da, for which his nephew apo­lo­gi­zed for in 2000.
At the same time, Wik­tor Podo­ski par­ti­ci­pa­ted in the imple­men­ta­tion of the agre­ement on brin­ging over 400 Polish engi­ne­ers and tech­ni­cians to Cana­da to work in the arms indu­stry. Most of them were still in occu­pied Fran­ce, some alre­ady in Gre­at Bri­ta­in. Our spe­cia­li­sts were of cour­se “loaned out” only for the dura­tion of the war becau­se that was the need of Cana­dian industry.

Polish Jews in Japan
On April 23, 1941, the Cana­dian govern­ment, at the requ­est of Podo­ski, con­si­de­red the possi­bi­li­ty of accep­ting 450 refu­ge­es from Japan and 300 from Por­tu­gal. After discus­sion, the govern­ment agre­ed to the “Por­tu­gu­ese” gro­up, but with the pro­vi­so that its arri­val would be within the alre­ady agre­ed quota of 1,000 people.
Con­sul Podo­ski informs Nor­man Robert­son from the chan­cel­le­ry of the Cana­dian Mini­stry of Fore­ign Affa­irs that Polish refu­ge­es in Japan (main­ly Jews) sho­uld urgen­tly leave Japan. The Cana­dian govern­ment agre­es to accept 75 people from Japan (still, of cour­se, within the agre­ed tho­usand). But the­re were alre­ady 2,000 waiting for such a possi­bi­li­ty. At that time, Bra­zil deci­ded to take this num­ber from Por­tu­gal, witho­ut any finan­cial con­di­tions. Podo­ski asks if Cana­da can­not afford such a gestu­re. The Cana­dian Embas­sy in Japan by mista­ke issu­es 120 inste­ad of 75 visas. Bla­ir does not hide his irri­ta­tion and asks Podo­ski not to inform Jewish orga­ni­za­tions abo­ut it, becau­se they might think that Cana­da will open the door to wider immi­gra­tion. The first 18 of this gro­up arri­ved in Van­co­uver on June 18, 1941. The costs are bor­ne by the Sikor­ski govern­ment and the Fede­ra­tion of Polish Jews. Con­sul Podo­ski inte­rve­nes with Bla­ir in the case of rab­bis and the­ir stu­dents, none of whom have obta­ined a visa. Bla­ir is oppo­sed (he does not see such a need in Cana­da), so the next offi­cial to whom the Polish con­sul goes is Hugh Keen­ley­si­de, First Secre­ta­ry at the Mini­stry of Fore­ign Affa­irs. At the same time, Podo­ski prompts the Cana­dian Jewish
Con­gress to assu­re the govern­ment that they are esta­bli­shing a spe­cial cen­ter in Mont­re­al for rab­bis and stu­dents from Japan.

Suc­cess­ful (par­tial­ly) evacuation
In ear­ly Sep­tem­ber 1941, the Cana­dian govern­ment sends instruc­tions to the embas­sy in Tokyo. The lat­ter, in turn, con­tacts the Polish ambas­sa­dor imme­dia­te­ly. Podo­ski sends a named list to Kobe and 80 stu­dents tra­vel to Shan­ghai, from whe­re they are to tra­vel to Cana­da. For reli­gio­us reasons (Yom Kip­pur), some of them stop the­ir jour­ney and deci­de to sail from Chi­na on ano­ther ship. As a result of this, only 29 people arri­ve in Van­co­uver on Novem­ber 2, 1941. The next ship never arri­ves, becau­se war bre­aks out betwe­en the Uni­ted Sta­tes and Japan. As a result, of this rema­ining gro­up, only four people arri­ve in Cana­da five years later.
Podo­ski con­ti­nu­es to inte­rve­ne in the case of the tho­usands of Polish Jews in the Far East. Bla­ir replies that brin­ging a tho­usand would be use­less, sin­ce 22 tho­usand would stay the­re any­way. Jewish orga­ni­za­tions in Cana­da were resent­ful not only toward Cana­dian autho­ri­ties, but also aga­inst the Polish con­sul, alle­ging that Podo­ski did not do eno­ugh for them. Podo­ski fla­tly rejects the­se alle­ga­tions, poin­ting out that, con­tra­ry to the expec­ta­tions of the Allies, few of the­se rescu­ed men join the armed for­ces. Never­the­less, in a report sent on June 17, 1941, Con­sul Podo­ski wro­te that Polish Jews who came from Japan repor­ted to the Polish Army in Canada.

An attempt at a rescue mis­sion in France
After the roun­dups by the Vichy autho­ri­ties inten­si­fied, on Sep­tem­ber 21, 1942, Mini­ster Wik­tor Podo­ski, on behalf of the Polish Govern­ment, asked Cana­da to issue visas to Polish Jews resi­ding in Fran­ce. This would help them obta­in asy­lum in Por­tu­gal or Swit­zer­land. The­re is con­sent and pre­pa­ra­tions are under­way. The logi­stics of the plan are deve­lo­ped in Por­tu­gal. In Cana­da Jewish orga­ni­za­tions are ready to rece­ive a tho­usand chil­dren. Howe­ver, in Novem­ber 1942, the Ger­mans enter the Vichy zone, and the eva­cu­ation plan collapses.

Coor­di­na­ted actions
Using Cana­da as the exam­ple, I have indi­ca­ted that the invo­lve­ment of Polish diplo­ma­cy during the Second World War to save refu­ge­es, inc­lu­ding to a lar­ge extent Jews, is still a very lit­tle-known issue. Ample evi­den­ce exi­sts that this acti­vi­ty was car­ried out on a lar­ge sca­le. More­over, it was dri­ven and coor­di­na­ted by the Govern­ment of the Repu­blic of Poland in London.

The figu­re of Wik­tor Podo­ski requ­ires a sepa­ra­te and deta­iled exa­mi­na­tion of his acti­vi­ties. First, the Con­sul Gene­ral, then the Mini­ster of Poland to Cana­da (head of a Lega­tion), was an excep­tio­nal diplo­mat. In addi­tion to con­ti­nu­ous acti­vi­ties thro­ugho­ut the enti­re period of World War II for the bene­fit of refu­ge­es, he also play­ed a key role in the esta­bli­sh­ment of the Polish Mili­ta­ry Mis­sion in Cana­da in 1941 and the asso­cia­ted Recru­it­ment Cen­ter in Wind­sor and the Tade­usz Kościusz­ko Tra­ining Camp in Owen Sound. After the war, he retur­ned from Lon­don to Cana­da and here, after years of Polish com­mu­ni­ty acti­vi­ty, he died on August 2, 1960. He is buried in Ottawa.

Krzysz­tof Grzel­czyk, Toron­to, April 2021

Whi­le wri­ting this artic­le, I used the fol­lo­wing studies:
- I. Abel­la and H. Tro­per, None is too many: Cana­da and the Jews of Euro­pe 1933–1948, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press, Toron­to, 2013
- S. Moć­kun, The impor­tan­ce of the Polish sol­die­r’s uni­form in cul­ti­va­ting tra­di­tion and patrio­tism among the Cana­dian Polish com­mu­ni­ty, Latest Histo­ry, 2019
- S. Schwin­gha­mer, The Pier Goes To War: Hali­fa­x’s Pier 21 and the Second World War, Cana­dian Museum of Immi­gra­tion at Pier 21
- Dia­spo­ra — The Birth of Polish Emi­gra­tion to Cana­da 1940–1960, www.polishwinnipeg.com
- Rescue in the Holo­caust by Diplo­mats, www.holocaustrescue.org/diplomatic-rescue-part‑3
- Wik­tor Józef Podo­ski (1895–1960), Scien­ti­fic Insti­tu­te of Oskar Halec­ki, Ottawa