Passports, Profiteers, Police – A Swiss war secret

Not often we find books with solid content on passport history—the following book displaying such documents in crisp and large format. The topic is most fascinating as it brings us back to a time were passports made a difference in life and death. Passports Profiteers Police War

Passports Profiteers Police War

The year is 1938. Germany has been under National Socialist rule for five years. Nuremberg laws were passed three years before protecting the «purity» of «German blood.» The majority of Jews in Germany were searching for ways to flee. However, their chances were dwindling. Rudolf Hügli, a Berne notary and Honorary Consul of Paraguay, was “literally stormed” with visa and passport applications. German Jews who were being persecuted approached him, finding refuge for themselves and their families. Hundreds of thousands sought to emigrate to the United States and different European countries, some to Palestine and others to Argentina, which already had a quarter-million Jewish residents. Passports Profiteers Police War

Few people decided to move to Paraguay because of its weak infrastructure. An international visa from a neutral third-party country like Paraguay, on the other hand, aided refugees attempting to enter France, Spain, or Portugal. Hügli gave those seeking to escape Paraguayan passports. He behaved in the midst of a legal quagmire. He should have told the Paraguayan government, which, as Hügli admits, “had prohibited the immigration of Jews to Paraguay since around the beginning of the war.”

Hügli wasn’t the only one. Honduran Consul General Alfons Bauer, Haitian Consul General Max Alfred Brunner, and Peruvian Consul General José Mara Barreto all distributed passports, copies of passports, and citizenship certificates to Jews in Berne, Zurich, and Geneva. They were also notarized in some cases. The consuls requested large sums of money. Hügli, who handled most of the passports, asked 500 francs per passport, which was around a month’s salary for a secretary.

Others had taken more: The cost of citizenship documents in Honduras, Haiti, and Peru ranged from 700 to 2000 francs. However, in Geneva, György Mandl, El Salvador’s Jewish Consul, and Consul General José Arturo Castellanos Contreras volunteered their services without charge. Passports Profiteers Police War

Passports Profiteers Police War
Passport of the Cats family. The Polish consul, Konstanty Rokicki, issued this passport for Meyer and Eva Cats and their three children. Rudolf Hügli, the Honorary Consul for Paraguay in Switzerland, signed it. The Cats family was deported to Bergen-Belsen and liberated in 1945. (Archives of Contemporary History of ETH Zurich / NL Marcus Cohn / 15.)

Huegli claims he charges 500 Swiss Francs for passports, visas, and citizenship but claims he does so out of sympathy for “poor emigrants.” His enrichment at their cost is inversely proportional to his wealth. In mid-1943, Alfons Bauer, the Consul General of Honduras and the Dominican Republic asked for 700 Francs and a pledge not to inform anyone. A Zurich lawyer asked up to 600.000Fr. For documents to help families in sudden danger. However, several of these live-saving passports did not arrive in time – with grave consequences. Passports Profiteers Police War

Basel rescuer and attorney Dr. Marcus Cohn saved 44 passports (including copies) which went into The Archive of Zeitgeschichte in Zurich and built the basis for the exhibition and the book.

This rescue operation became so famous that Wladyslaw Szlengel from Warsaw even wrote a poem about these papers. Here an extract…

Paszporty, 1942
I’d like to have an Uruguayan passport
Oh, what a beautiful country
Oh, how nice it must feel to be a citizen
Of Uruguay
I’d like to have a Paraguayan passport
The land of gold and freedom
Oh, how nice it must feel to be a citizen
Of Paraguay
I’d like to have a Costa Rican passport
The sky aquamarine… eternally May…
Oh, how nice it must be to say
That Costa Rica is my land…
I’d like to have a Bolivian passport
Like a number of my friends…

Szlengel died in the Warsaw Ghetto upspring of 1943 at age 29. Passports Profiteers Police War

Help also came from four members of the Polish legation in Berne. The book displays some fascinating documents, including a Polish diplomatic passport 1940 belonging to a Councillor of the government in exile or a passport issued by the Polish exile government in Berne. Significant documents of Polish passport history.

Diplomatic passport 1940 of councilor Stefan Ryniewicz from the Polish government in exile in Berne.

Dr. Abraham Silberschein was a Polish lawyer and parliamentarian, took part in the 21st Zionist Congress in 1939 in Geneva. He will play 1943 a significant role in providing passports for Jews in danger. He said, “It was a real black market for passports, and the gentlemen of the legation expressed their wish that I should take responsibility for this matter, and I agreed.” Passports Profiteers Police War

25 pages showing the location on Swiss maps of people involved and named in the book. I guess these pages were somehow a book filler and unnecessary to this extent—my only critique of the book.

«The passport is the noblest part of a man. It’s not so easy to create as a man is, and a man can come into being in the most reckless way and without good reason; a passport never can. A passport is recognized when it’s good, while a man can be so good, and yet not recognized.»
-Bertolt Brecht, Refugee Talks,1940s-

Brechts’ statement was never more valid than during these times. Passports Profiteers Police War

In 1941, the rescue mission was betrayed. Walter Meyer, Paraguay’s General Consul, and Huegli’s supervisor informed that his employee was charging irregular fees. But his letter to the Chief of Police, Dr. Heinrich Rothemund, went missing…

Why such passports were still issued and saved thousands of Jewish lives until 1943, you have to read in the book yourself. Plus you will learn many more facts and background information on this Swiss war secret. The book shows their testimony as well.

On the technical/issuing aspect of such passports, it is astonishing that such documents were not somehow suspicious to authorities. These documents were issued only abroad (in Switzerland) for complete families and relatives of up to six people, many even without a passport photo. Remember, we were in the midst of the Holocaust in 1942 when such documents were heavily restricted and controlled. A miracle that saved so many souls.

The number of survivors, as well as the number of visas, passports, and citizenship confirmations issued in Switzerland, was unknown. Silberschein reported that 10,000 people had obtained documents in 1944. Dr. Jakub Kumoch, the Polish Ambassador to Berne until 2020, and his Councillor, Jdrzej Uszynski, have listed 834 Latin American survivors, including Poles (347), Dutch (232), German (197), Austria (22), Czech Republic, and Slovakia (12), France (7), Switzerland (3), and Italians (3). The fate of 1457 additional people is unclear. 962 people were killed, some of whom were killed because they did not obtain reports in a timely manner.

The book is a must-have for anyone interested in the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany, which was a life-saving matter back then. As well for everyone interested in passport history & collecting. The book gives you a most interesting insight into a “black market mechanism” for passports in those dangerous times during WWII and the Holocaust. Passports Profiteers Police War

The Jewish Museum of Switzerland, with its exhibition and the book by its director, Dr. Naomi Lubrich, contributed significantly to the collective memory of the Holocaust and the role Switzerland had to rescue Jewish lives, even if not always only out of sympathy as we learn from the book’s content.

Passports, Profiteers, Police – A Swiss War Secret, Jewish Museum of Switzerland, Naomi Lubrich, ISBN 978-3-907262-09-2, bi-lingual DE/EN
Carl Lutz Society



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FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

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...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"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...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

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.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

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.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

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.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

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.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

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...

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