A masterpiece of a passport forger

It was a young passport forger who, at the end of 1942, made the “Aryan” masterpiece document in the name of Heinz Gützlaff for the Jewish doctor Kurt Hirschfeld. Cioma Schönhaus, who had once attended an arts and crafts school, knew how to do it. Was this a matter of criminal energy? On the contrary, it was a matter of removing as many people as possible who were persecuted as Jews from the crimes of a criminal regime. masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus

As many as 7,000 Berlin Jews went into hiding between 1942 and 1945, it became increasingly clear that the deportations led to their deaths. One of them was Samson Schönhaus, Cioma, only son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. In the last days of September 1942 – at just twenty years of age – he fled into illegality after his parents Fanja and Boris Schönhaus and his grandmother were deported “to the East” in June. As an armaments worker, Cioma had been spared deportation at that time and remained alone in Berlin.

masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus
Fake Identity document in the name of Heinz Gützlaff for the Jewish doctor Kurt Hirschfeld

Through a friend, he came into contact with Franz Kaufmann, a member of the Confessing Church in Berlin-Dahlem. This former government councilor of Jewish origin, who lived in a “privileged mixed marriage,” built up an entire network of helpers for Jews in hiding. He commissioned the much-needed false papers, which he then distributed to those seeking help so that they would have a chance to survive in hiding. Often believers of the Confessing Church donated their identity cards in the offertory box, which could be “reworked.” masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus

In the fall of 1942, Schönhaus delivered his “journeyman’s piece” – the first forged identification card. It had to convince Kaufmann and, above all, police officers who would control the new holder in the future. Schönhaus himself remained utterly unknown to those who came to enjoy his forgeries. Punctually and conscientiously, as if it were an ordinary job, the talented graphic artist after that delivered his products at regular intervals to Kaufmann, who enthusiastically called him “Escape King.” Schönhaus, who preferred to work in a white coat, refined his technique more and more. Many years later, he recounted how he had gone about this challenging work: using pliers, he had to remove the eyelets with which the passport photo of the original owner was attached and carefully insert the picture of the future owner. He managed to do this with the help of an eyelet punching machine that the resourceful young man had obtained from a shoemaker. He described his increasingly professional stamps as small technical drawings. There was a tremendous demand for postcards and identification cards, especially among Jewish men, who had to reckon with controls whenever they moved in public spaces.

Schönhaus had obtained a Russian identity card for himself in the name of Peter Petrov. When he lost his wallet with this document and other papers one day, he was wanted as a “passport forger” throughout the Reich and had to go into hiding. masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus

Helene Jacobs, also a member of the Dahlem confessional congregation and closely connected to Kaufmann’s network of helpers, became his savior. She took in the passport forger. This inconspicuous little woman – an ideal “cloak of invisibility,” as Schönhaus said in retrospect – dared risky actions to save people. In doing so, she did not shy away from “illegal” means, as she felt she was on the side of the law. Her small apartment in Wilmersdorf now became Cioma’s graphic workshop, and they both became conspiratorial friends who succeeded in contributing to the rescue of many people in hiding.

This situation came to an abrupt end in August 1943, when the Gestapo got on the trail of the network of helpers. Kaufmann, Helene Jacobs, and many others were arrested. Schönhaus was able to escape from Jacobs’s apartment in time after being warned, and after a few days, he fled to Stuttgart on a bicycle. He then managed to escape across the Swiss border. Franz Kaufmann was shot in Gestapo custody, Helene Jacobs was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

About 1700 of the 7000 people in hiding in Berlin survived the period of persecution in hiding. Among them was Kurt Hirschfeld, holder of the identity card forged by Cioma Schönhaus, who was supported mainly by the resistance group “Gemeinschaft für Frieden und Auoau.” But this is another story again. masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus

Today, the identification card can be seen at the Silent Heroes Memorial, at Rosenthaler Strasse 39 in Berlin-Mitte – incidentally not far from Sophienstrasse, where the Schönhaus family had run a mineral water company until it was confiscated in 1938 and where Cioma had grown up.

masterpiece passport forger schoenhaus