For the JC December 18 2020
An extraordinary story of Polish wartime rescue of Jews has emerged thanks to detective work by the country’s new ambassador in Turkey, Jakub Kumoch, and a Holocaust memoir written by a woman who benefited from the heroic work of the Polish consul at the time, Wojciech Rychlewicz.
The consul issued what appear to be thousands of documents, falsely identifying Jews who were stranded in neutral Turkey as Catholic. The fake papers enabled many Jews to go to Brazil — and many more to make it to Mandate Palestine, evading the British block on Jewish immigration. That operation was co-ordinated by the Jewish Agency leaders Chaim Barlas and Teddy Kollek, later to become the world-renowned mayor of Jerusalem.
Ambassador Kumoch, who played a central role in identifying a similar Polish rescue operation that took place in wartime Switzerland, was aided in discovering the work of Consul Rychlewicz by an American Jewish activist, Dr Bob Meth, whose mother’s memoir shows how she and other Jews were saved by the consul.
Dr Meth’s mother Ellen, born Edwarda Wang, was a 17-year-old Polish Jewish refugee whose Turkish visa was about to expire. Consul Rychlewicz gave her, her father and her uncle papers identifying them as Catholic. Ambassador Kumoch investigated and said: “Most such papers were issued to people whose names and surnames suggest they were Polish Jews. Many of them were found later on migration list to [pre-state] Palestine”.
From Ellen Meth’s memoir, researchers established that Jewish refugees in Turkey knew there was a consul eager to give them the fake certification. The ambassador said: “Thanks to such papers and other operations, Poland’s wartime government-in-exile managed to smuggle up to 5,000 Polish people, mostly Jews, through the territory of neutral Turkey.”
Wojciech Rychlewicz, who died in the UK in 1964, was a captain in the Polish Armed Forces who headed the Polish consulate in Istanbul between 1937 and 1941. His granddaughter, Anna Whitty was made MBE for her services to charity — she is chief executive of Dorset Community Transport.
She did not know the details of her grandfather’s work since he died when she was eight. But she is now aware of Ellen Meth’s testimony, in which she wrote: “Was it simply an act of goodness, an act of decency? I know for a fact that no money was exchanged… he surely deserves to be remembered and honoured for having saved hundreds of Jewish lives”.
The teenage Ellen acted as interpreter when, fake Catholic certificates in hand, she, her father and uncle went to be examined by an official Brazilian doctor. She recalled: “He questioned why my father and Uncle Fulek were circumcised, but I pretended not to understand what he was asking”. Ellen died in New Jersey in 2013, aged 91.
Ambassador Kumoch says that to the best of his knowledge, anyone who received the documents issued by Consul Rychlewicz, survived. So far the ambassador and his researchers have found 431 names in wartime archives in Warsaw, [recipients of the fake Catholic papers], but they believe there to have been thousands more.
In 1941, for reasons still unclear to his granddaughter, the consul and his wife left Turkey and made their own way to Mandate Palestine, where he served in the Polish army and his wife took a post at the Ein Kerem school in Jerusalem. The couple moved to London in 1946. According to Anna Whitty, they spent the rest of their lives looking after the expat Polish population in the UK.