Archives reveal the untold stories of diplomats who helped Jews escape Nazi death camps

Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT) May 2, 2019

(CNN)In 1942, two Jewish men were operating between the safety of neutral Switzerland and the danger of Nazi-occupied Europe. With coded messages they knew could be read by the Nazis, they smuggled the names and pictures of Jews hoping to escape death.

The destination of those names was the Polish Legation in Bern, where diplomats would bribe a counsel to Paraguay for blank passports and forge them under the nose of the Swiss government. The two men would then have to get those passports back to Jews in need of citizenship that would hopefully spare them from Germany's death camps.
And in the shadows was Stefan Ryniewicz, deceiving authorities and convincing diplomats and police to ignore the life-saving, but illegal, scheme that could get them all classified as "persona non grata."
It was a story Alexandra Van Ryn Reiter's grandfather, Ryniewicz, never shared with her.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't told anything at all," she told CNN. "I just knew that my father's side of the family was in Argentina and left Poland because of the war."
Then last year, Reiter, who lives in Dallas, Georgia, received an international email.
Thinking it was a scam, she nearly deleted it -- but luckily, she stopped to read it. It was from Jędrzej Uszyński, the first secretary of the Polish Embassy in Bern, Switzerland.
Uszyński asked about her grandfather and where he was buried. He wanted to know what happened to a hero.
He told her Ryniewicz was one of three Christian Polish diplomats that worked with at least three Jews in a secret organization the embassy called the Bernese group. Their plan was to forge Paraguayan passports for European Jews in hopes that they would be considered foreigners from neutral countries and avoid being sent to Nazi death camps, Uszyński said.
Photo taken during Ryniewicz's visit to one of the camps of Polish soldiers in Switzerland (between 1940-1945) in the capacity of the Head of the Political Division of the Polish Legation (Archivum Helveto-Polonicum, Fribour).
The stories of the members, and the potentially thousands of people who lived because of them, were made public in the past two years by archives documenting the actions of the Bernese group, according to the Polish Embassy. The archives are part of the ongoing efforts of historians and descendants alike to keep the stories of Holocaust survivors and the heroes of the Holocaust entrenched in the memories of those who survived them.
A newspaper in Georgia published Reiter's story. The next day she was contacted by K. Heidi Fishman in Norwich, Vermont, who said her grandfather was part of the reason Fishman's family was alive.
"It was surreal," Reiter recalls. "I was talking to a direct descendant of one of these passport survivors. Any misstep, any small mistake and I would not be here nor Heidi."

'Don't you have a Paraguayan passport? This is the time to use it.'

Fishman had grown up knowing her family had survived the Holocaust, and she knew that a Paraguayan passport had saved their lives. But she didn't know how many people worked for that passport before it got to their hands.
Her grandparents, Heinz and Margret Lichtenstern, moved their young children, Robert and Ruth, to Amsterdam from Germany as the family and the company Heinz worked for looked to evade the Nazis. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Fishman said, the family gave their money to a friend to keep it out of Nazi hands and bribe someone for lifesaving documents.
At first, the family avoided being sent to a death camp because Heinz's work in international metals trade appeared useful to the Nazis, Fishman said.
But ultimately, Heinz's name appeared on the list for the next transport to Auschwitz.
At the last minute, as Fishman's mother Ruth tells it, someone said "Hey, don't you have the Paraguayan passport? This is the time to use it."