German Abwehr Officer Who Saved Jews

A fascinating travel document of German passport history, related to the Third Reich, German Military Intelligence, the Holocaust, and the rescue of Jewish lives! Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews

German Nazi Abwehr Officer Who Saved JewsThis is the departmental passport (Ministerialpass) of Walter Schulze-Bernett. I reported his son’s passport issued during the German occupation in the Netherlands and his wife’s diplomatic passport issued in 1942 in Berlin. But WHO was Walter Schulze-Bernett?

Head Of The Dutch Section Of The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence)

Lastly, he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Netherlands from 1938 to 1941. Then, from 1941 to 1943, he headed the Middle East operations in Ankara. He joined the Abwehr in 1935 and had the confidence of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the chief of the Nazi Abwehr spy network.


Operation AQUILAR

Schulze-Bernett saved 176 Dutch and German Jews in operation “AQUILAR” in May 1941. Six kinds of transport were organized via Spain to Lisbon. Each of the refugees had to pay 500 Gulden (similar to 750 German RM or a four-month salary, a value of $3000 today). Schulze-Bernett was directly involved in the first three transport, as he was already military attaché in Turkey by June 1941. The Jews had left the Netherlands by trains to Spain and Portugal and emigrated from there to the USA, Cuba, and Latin America. Schulze-Bernett had not only ensured a smooth transport, but it is thanks to him that it took place at all. Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews


Schulze-Bernett was the son of a theater director and an Englishwoman. Born in 1896 in Hamburg, the medium-sized boy grew up with the dominant “Schulze-Nose” high school diploma. He studied German, modern philology, and administrative law before being drafted as a soldier in the First World War. Highly decorated, he received the Iron Cross First and Second Class. He initially joined the police before being appointed an authorized representative for several foreign banks in the Netherlands.

Perhaps at this time, the German Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris came to the banker’s attention, which acted self-confident and cosmopolitan on the floor of the Dutch business circles.

After joining the Wehrmacht in 1935, Schulze-Bernett was responsible for intelligence gathering from the Netherlands first in Abwehrstelle Cologne before becoming the German Legation attaché in The Hague and reports to the Head of Mission. At that time, the 39-year-old Major, who became in 1940 head of the “secret information service,” was to build a military intelligence focusing on Belgium and France for an eventual war.

At the same time, his office made all sorts of efforts to establish even an overseas intelligence service. “Our connections to overseas, particularly to the USA and South America, were rather thin and almost shattered,” wrote Schulze-Bernett in a letter.

Jewish Transports to Central and South America

However, in early March 1941, a staff of “Abwehrstelle Berlin” and a travel and transport company in The Hague had an ingenious idea. They proposed to infiltrate the Jewish transports to Central and South America with trained defense (Abwehr) agents to build an intelligence service. Schulze-Bernett happily agreed. After that, he could not only fulfill his duty but “during the now ongoing actions in the Netherlands against Jews by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), to have the possibility of their emigration, which should then officially take place.” Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews

In 1940, about 140,000 so-called “Full Jews” in the Netherlands, whose emigration was allowed only in individual cases. The travel and transport company Brach and Rothstein headed by Harry W. Hamacher, a Catholic and non-party member, was then a one-stop-shop for these desperate people who were subjected to persecution and discrimination by the Nazis.

“Mr. Hamacher probably also spoke with human motivation to help Jews to escape their probable fate,” writes Schulze-Bernett objectively. However, Hamacher earned a lot of money with the emigration of Jews, so there were certainly also economic motives.

Schulze-Bernett called the idea simply “very sympathetic,” i.e., believing great phrases apparently did not fit him. But the Wehrmacht officer prompted that some families he knew from banker times were included in this transportation. “Schulze-Bernett was probably a cosmopolitan man to whom the Master Race was suspicious.

Besides, he came from a middle-class background, and the brutality of the Nazis was contrary”, says the Berlin historian Winfried Meyer, who devoted in his book “Unternehmen Sieben” an entire chapter on the operation “Aquilar.” Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews

Abwehrstelle Netherlands

Consulates of neutral countries were willing to grant the Jews an entry visa. “The Abwehrstelle Netherlands had to keep completely in the background, so as not to appear as the initiator of this action in appearance and thus to reveal the intentions of the action,” writes Schulze-Bernett in his estate. Therefore, the travel and transport company under Hamacher executed the entire organization of the “Operation Aquilar,” as Schulze-Bernett called it.

Once the plan was ready, Admiral Canaris learned about the “Infiltration of agents in North, Central & South America” operation (Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Haiti/Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and the USA). He approved it. Canaris abhorred persecuting Jews and was pleased that like-minded officers took action.

“Much to our surprise, we found Mr. Pilling, the head of the security department in The Hague. We could win him over for our thoughts. Despite his responsibility, he made a decision without regard to possible consequences. He gave his consent and support for the promised implementation,” says Schulze-Bernett.

So the SS man Albin Pilling provided the necessary certificates, and a defense officer awaited each transport at the French / Spanish border station in Hendaye, so there were no incidents at the border. Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews

Personal Involvement?

Walter Schulze-Bernett personally traveled to the first transport on 11 May 1941 and the second on May 15 to Hendaye to ensure a smooth process. However, he appeared in civil clothing to avoid any suspicion that there was a military action. “Hamburger wrote that the traveler left a comfortable impression and expressed great satisfaction with the journey and the care provided. However, the police approved only two suitcases’ contents for the emigrants.” The Gestapo confiscated jewels. Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews


Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews
Issued to him as “Laborer” at the German embassy in The Hague for camouflage reasons!
Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews
Issued in Berlin. Sep 1938. His passport has twelve pages of money exchange stamps!
Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-003
Visa German embassy in The Hague and diplomatic Dutch visa issued in Berlin!
Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-004
German visa issued in The Hague plus border and money exchange stamps!
Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews
Two extensions of his Ministerialpass till Sep 1941!


The Allies interned him for approximately one year after the war due to his high rank in the Armed Forces. Other consequences of the war, it seems, however, didn’t affect the Hamburg citizen. With his wife Sophie, he lived in a beautiful house in Hamburg’s Hochkamp and operated in import and export. Until his retirement.

He continues to hold avid correspondence with his former Canaris-comrades. About the “Operation Aquilar,” he reports only on request by historians. Objectively, soberly, without emotions, he describes people’s rescue in his letters as if it were an everyday occurrence. Walter Schulze-Bernett died in 1985, but will he become posthumously honored? Unlike Oskar Schindler, Schulze-Bernett never took a personal risk in his involved actions. Nazi Abwehr Officer Jews

Yad Vashem

In June 2015, Yad Vashem (Israel) provided feedback stating that they were considering nominating him for the title of Righteous Among the Nations.


Historical Dictionary of German Intelligence

The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War
Unternehmen Sieben – Eine Rettungsaktion für vom Holocaust Bedrohte aus dem Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht

Hamburg State Archive: Staatsarchiv Hamburg, 731-8_A 769 Schulze-Bernett, Walter
Hamburger Abendblatt, May 9-2000, “Das Unternehmen Aquilar”


incl. FREE guideline!

FAQ Passport History
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The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

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"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

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Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

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A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

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During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

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Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

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A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...