Ruby Family History Project Blog

Correction: Stanisłow Wozniak, not Dygat, is the Polish official

Now that I have begun translating the Polish documents that I harvested last week, I find that I am in error about the Polish official. It turns out that Stanisław Dygat left his post in Toulouse on June 20 at the height of the crisis to effect his own escape, leaving the consulate in the hands of a deputy Stanisław Wozniak, whose name is also on the Ringel's Polish passport. I will post full details later but I did not want my error to stand uncorrected. It is Stanisław Wozniak, not Stanisław Dygat, who is my family's Polish savior.

Draft of "Consuls of Toulouse" paper

I have completed a comprehensive write up of my information and analysis of the Toulouse visa affair involving Emile Gissot and three other foreign consuls. The 32-page, extensively footnoted paper is titled "Implications for Righteousness in the Unknown Case of the Consuls of Toulouse."At the moment I am sharing it selectively with others I hope will validate the findings. I will post it here on the blog when I feel is the right time to make it public.

The Polish consul identified as Stanisław Dygat

I went to the Hoover Institution Archive on campus at Stanford University yesterday. Quite an experience--just finding it, getting registered, learning the procedures, and then finally being able to open these boxes of incredible original documents. Letters, telegrams, reports, budgets. These were records of the Polish consulate in Toulouse (Tuluzie) from 1940. One batch of mainly budget memos and reports, listing employee names and salaries. Another batch of letters and telegrams relating to the closure of the consulate in September of that year, including accounts of the critical events in June and July. 

Polish uses a lot of weird characters with unfamiliar diacritical marks, but it turns out to be basically a Latin language. I was able to enter unaccented characters into Google Translate on my iPad and get pretty decent results in English. So in a few hours, I was able to review four file folders of documents, pick out particular items of interest, and photograph them with the iPad. This will allow me to undertake a partial translation of key documents beginning today. 

The most exciting result is that I now know the name of the Polish consul who issued Elly Ringel a passport on July 5, 1940—and he turns out to be really interesting. His name is Stanisław Dygat. He became quite famous as a novelist and screenwriter in postwar Poland. His first novel, Bodensee (Lake Constance), published in 1946, about a German internment camp, might contain further clues for us. It was also a movie. Also, Magda Dygat wrote a memoir about her father. All in Polish of course. 

There are several lengthy letters by him from July and August, including one of seven handwritten pages, which is going to be tough to translate. One thing that is not in the file is a listing of passport recipients. I didn't see any specific reference to a Ringel family. 

I'm set up with a three-month registration at the archive and can return for a follow up visit any time. Right now, I have plenty of work I can do with the document photos but likely will want to go back in a few weeks for a deeper dive. 

Schiffres family in Lisbon and after

The Schiffres family reached Lisbon about five weeks after the Ringel family. Their experiences were similar. Lines at South American embassies, no help from the U.S. Irwin joined with many refugee children attending a makeshift school where every language was spoken. Though he would stay just six months in Lisbon, departing earlier than the Ringels who stayed nine months, he was able to pick up a fair bit of Portuguese, as did Helga.

The Schiffres family was able to ship out of Lisbon on the basis of an immigration visa from Ecuador, exactly the same as the Ringels. He adds a new bit of information about the Ecuador visa, that it required a $1000 deposit that would be refunded on arrival in Ecuador. Since neither the Schiffres or Ringels planned to go to Ecuador, the deposit would be forfeited.

Their voyage, normally a six-day trip, took 15 days, says Schiffres. They stopped several days in Bermuda waiting for the all-clear to proceed to New York. The Schiffres' accommodations were in the ship's hold about the S.S. Serpa Pinto. The Ringel trip aboard the S.S. Guine also took 15 days, so we can reasonably conclude that they also were held in Bermuda.

Schiffres quoted form a autobiographical essay he wrote in junior high school a few years later: "Finally after 15 days at sea, we saw the statue that all free loving people like to see, the Statue of Liberty."

At Ellis Island, just as with the Ringels, members of the Schiffres family were held at Ellis Island while awaiting for a relative affidavit to be produced. Schiffres does not have detailed memories of Ellis Island.

Unlike with the Ringels, after acquiring a family affidavit, the Schiffres were able to stay in the U.S. on six-month visitor visas, which they renewed several times before one day taking to train to Detroit and crossing the border to Canada to receive legal immigration visas. This trip is analogous to the Ringel family's detour to Cuba before re-entering the U.S.

The Schiffres family settled on the Upper West Side, as did the Ringels. Irwin attended Joan of Arc high school and excelled there, as Helga did at Julia Richmond. He went on to City College, where he became active in student government. Then he went to Harvard Law and moved into a legal career that culminated in his position at the time of the interview as the chief editor of the legal journal Jurisprudence.

He and his wife Mimi had two children and five grandchildren. Since regrettably I have only met Irwin Schiffres posthumously, I hope to make contact with one of his children to see if he has left more useful information.

Irwin Schiffres oral history

I introduced you to Irwin Schiffres in the last post because his story of escape from southern France in the summer of 1940 courtesy of Dutch consuls closely tracks to my mother's similar story. When I listened to his oral history, collected by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, I found many other parallels that help to illuminate Helga's experience. I'll summarize.

Schiffres was raised in Cologne of a Polish-born dentist and his German wife from an orthodox Jewish family. They were somewhat insulated from the early anti-Jewish measures and even after the Nuremberg laws the family remained fairly comfortable. In 1938, Poland changed its laws to revoke citizenship to nationals living abroad, and Germany responded by issuing pre-emptive deportations to Polish Jews in Germany, including Schiffres' father.

Learning of his imminent deportation order, the father had a physician friend order him hospitalized. As a result, he was able to obtain an extension of six months, allowing time to prepare his family to flee. They left Cologne on December 10, 1938, a week after burying the patriarch of his mother's family, Irwin's grandfather. (There are several echoes of Helga's story here. She buried her father and left Berlin in August 1938. Irwin buried his grandfather and left Cologne about three months later.)

Irwin's father was able to travel to Belgium, where he had a brother. Similarly Irwin's mother was able to travel to Holland, where she had a brother. Thus the family split up for the next five weeks. Irwin remembers being strip-searched (looking for hidden money) as they crossed the border at Kaldenkirchen. Then they stayed for a month in Rotterdam before making the more difficult crossing from Holland to Belgium.

There they had paid to be met by a smuggler who vouched for the Schiffres as family members. In Belgium, they reunited with Irwin's father in the resort town of Spa, surprisingly close to German border and just 60 miles from their departure point of Cologne. They lived in Spa for nine months, perhaps with hopes that they might be able to return home. By September, when war commenced on the Eastern front, they concluded it was time to move on.

They next went to live with the uncle in Antwerp until May 10, 1940, when the war swept into Holland and Belgium and they joined the legions of refugees on the run.

They were delayed crossing the French border at De Panne, because at first the father's Polish passport was not accepted. Then they were in Dunkirk, Calais and Paris, before proceeding with thousands of refugees to Bordeaux. They stayed there in a furnished room for a month, leaving on what Schiffres says was the last train out of Bordeaux to Hendaye before the Germans arrived on June 21.

Schiffres doesn't mention Sousa Mendes in his account, and even though his family was in the right place to possibly obtain help from the Portuguese consul they evidently did not, either in Bordeaux or Hendaye. Unable to exit France, they were bused to a possible temporary shelter among French peasants but Schiffres' mother did not trust the offer and they continued on to Toulouse. Here they spent the night in a refugee center in a converted movie theater but decamped early the next morning, again on the distrust of the mother.

In retrospect, we know that if they had hung around Toulouse for a few more days, they might have secured visas there. Instead, they departed by train for Marseilles, where the family would spend the follow two months, long enough for Irwin to be enrolled in a school there for eight days.

It was there in the latter part of August where the family was able to secure a destination visa from the consulate of the Netherlands to travel to the Dutch East Indies. Not Curacao but Indonesia, but similar in many respects to the Dutch visas in Toulouse. With the Dutch stamp, the Schiffres family was now able to get transit visas from Portugal and Spain, though not a French exit visa. They ended hiking across the Spanish border to circumvent that final requirement.

I'll pick up with more of the Schiffres story, and its parallels to the Ringel story, in the next post.

More humanitarian Dutch consuls

Yesterday I decided to post a call for other Toulouse visa holders to come forward on the JewishGen.org discussion board. I've used the board a few times before to seek information with some success. Before posting, I ran some queries to make sure the topic or something similar had not be covered previously. I searched a variety of terms including "Toulouse," "Gissot," "van Dobben," etc. When I tried "Dutch consul," I found a highly interesting 2001 posting by Irwin Schiffres.

He was posting the results of his investigation into the circumstances of his family's exit from Marseilles to Lisbon in August 1940, courtesy of visas issued by the Dutch consulate in that city. Schiffres was 10 years old at the time, having been born in Cologne in 1931 and having escaped with his family to Belgium in 1938.

Here are excerpts from his account:

After managing to get out of Germany in 1938, escaping Belgium when the Germans invaded in May 1940, and leaving Bordeaux on the last train before the Nazis arrived, my parents and I finally made it to Marseilles in August 1940. The pressing need at the time seemed to be to get out of Vichy France and at least to get to neutral Portugal. But a Portuguese transit visa, as well as a Spanish one, could be obtained only if one had a visa to an overseas destination. My recollection was (I was only 10 at the time) and for years I have told the story that my parents obtained a visa to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) so as to enable them to get the Spanish and Portuguese visas. (We still did not have a visa de sortie -- but that's another story.) We arrived in Lisbon in October 1940.

He then writes that he learned many years later that various experts about refugees in Marseilles—an author, a documentary film maker—knew nothing about Dutch diplomats playing a role in refugee rescue. This is in the mid-1990s. The one Dutch connection that is known and which he Schiffres now learns about is the case of Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania, but he doesn't see the connection. But he now takes the inquiry a step further.

Having exhausted my library search, I wrote to the Dutch consulate in New York inquiring whether they knew of the issuance of such visas to Jewish refugees. I received a reply from Stef Buytendijk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, stating that the Dutch consul-general in Marseille in 1940 was Mr. C.J. van der Waarden, the consul was Mr. J. ten Hagen, and that it was likely that either granted our visa. He further stated that a third person who could have granted the visa was a Mr. D.F.W. van Lennep, "a member of Dutch lower nobility" who [later became a representative for refugees] in Vichy France.

Schiffres followed up with Buytendijk to inquire why any of these gentleman would issue visas to a non-Dutch family. Schriffres and his mother were German; his father, Polish.

I received a further reply from Mr. Buytendijk which stated that the summer of 1940 was a very disturbing and confusing time and that due to bad communication, Dutch consulates in Vichy-France did not know if they could grant visas for the Dutch East Indies to people with [foreign] passports. Mr. Buytendijk further stated that he found some correspondence in the Dutch archives showing that visas could only be granted to people with [foreign] passports upon a bank guarantee and after the consul-general in Vichy, van Sevenster, was consulted. Thus, it was possible for Polish citizens to apply for visas altough the Dutch consulates knew that that it was very difficult for Polish citizens to obtain a 'visa de sortie' from the French authorities.

For further insight, Schiffres next wrote to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, then very new, to ask "(1) Did the Dutch consuls issue visas that helped refugees escape the Holocaust and (2) If so, have they gotten proper credit for this Mitzvah?" He was answered by museum historian Severin Hochberg, who noted the Zwartendijk case but otherwise had no further information about rescues and Dutch diplomats.

As to Marseilles, Hochberg thought that the information sent to me by the Dutch authorities was interesting, and was the first that he had heard about this. Hochberg also consulted some other books on the Netherlands, France, Marseilles, etc and was not able to come up with anything. He emphasized that much of the diplomatic history of the Holocaust is only now beginning to be researched and relatively little is known even as regards the activities of the U.S. consuls!

Finally, Hochberg also noted the Marseilles consuls were extensions of the Netherlands government in exile, established by now in London, and that the officials' leniency toward refugees reflected the government's policies. Recall that Holland had accepted tens of thousands of escaping German Jews prior to the 1940 invasion.

This is interesting to me because the factors that led the Dutch consuls of Marseilles to issue Indonesia visas to the Schiffres family in August 1940 would equally apply to the Dutch consuls in Toulouse who issued Curacao issues in July 1940. Dutch East Indies, Dutch West Indies. Otherwise, much the same story.

With some excitement, I fired off an email to Irwin Schiffres. There had been no discussion board response to his posting from October 2001. Of course, I realized he would now be in his 80s and possibly not still be around to receive it. That's when I did a search on his name in Ancestry. Alas, his 2010 death certificate popped up right away. Under that, however, was a link to something that could prove to be almost as valuable as a direct dialog with him, an hour-long audio oral history about his refugee experience that he recorded for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1996.

I'll report on that in the next post. Oh, I did get around to making my post to the Jewish Gen main discussion board as well as the French special interest group board. We'll see if that turns up anything.

Are the Curacao cases linked?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Is there a connection between the use of Curacao visas in Toulouse and a similar instance two weeks later in Kovno, which is 1500 miles distant? I will tell you up front that we don't know the answer definitively, at least not for now. But a number of signs suggest the possibility of a causal relationship between the two events.

First there is the surprising coincidence that both vice-consuls in question, A.J. van Dobben in Toulouse and Jan Zwartendijk in Kovno, are the local representatives of the Philips company in their regions. It is plausible that the Dutch foreign ministry had a practice of tapping the network of businessmen from one of the country's leading international firms for honorary diplomatic roles, especially in this period of upheaval and increased demand for consular services.

Another Philips connection is that its top executive in Europe, family member Frits Philips, is recognized as a "righteous among the nations" for having saved hundreds of Jewish employees of his company. Also, Philips relocated its head office operations from Holland to Curacao in the Dutch West Indies late in April 1940, intended to protect its corporate assets on the eve on the German invasion of the Netherlands. Philips seems to have had a corporate culture that enabled humanitarian action.

Is it possible van Dobben and Zwartendijk knew each other through a business connection? Or that their respective colleagues, G.P. Pichal in Toulouse and L.P.J. de Decker in Riga, knew one of the opposite group? Or that the two consulates were in communication during July 1940 about events in their localities? There is a good chance to try out any of these possibilities by mining the foreign ministry collection at the Dutch National Archives, whose online indexes indicate that files from the Toulouse consulate are available.

Next, let's look at the timeline. When you consider the full sequence of events in Kovno, you recall that the first mention of Curacao visas in Kovno was not July 26, when Jan Zwartendijk began issuing multiple Curacao visas. That was preceded by Pessia Lewin's first contact with Ambassador de Decker on July 11. That in fact is the very same day, a Thursday, that our Ringel family and two Freudmann family members got Curacao visas in Toulouse. In the Goldstein retelling of the Zwartendijk story, the Curacao idea originates with Lewin, gets approved in limited form by de Decker, and then expands in the numbers and type of people covered by Nathan Lewin and Zwartendijk.

In this narrative, there is no room for a rumor or diplomatic cable to carry the idea from the south of France to Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

Returning to Toulouse, the earliest known use of Curacao visas came on Monday, July 8, when another Freudmann family member acquired her Dutch diplomatic stamp. There could be earlier Curacao visas in Toulouse, but we don't know of any yet. If we take July 8 as the first date that A.J. van Dobben and G.P. Pichal issued such visas, is it plausible that the idea could have been transmitted to Kovno in the intervening three days?

Yes, but it would be cleaner if the origin of the idea in Kovno was from one of the Dutch diplomats and not from the refugee Pessia Lewin. We will continue to investigate this question, but we must acknowledge that it is certainly possible that the same idea arose independently in the two locations.

Zwartendijk keeps mum

We pick up Jonathan Goldstein's version of the Jan Zwartendijk story after his visa-writing campaign ends on August 3, 1940. Within days, he returns home to Nazi-occupied Holland with his wife and children.

For the next several years, Zwartendijk lived in fear that his actions in Kovno would be discovered by the Nazis. At one point he was interrogated by the Gestapo about an unrelated matter, but his actions in Lithuania escaped notice. Needless to say, he did not talk of the incident to anyone.

Goldstein writes that Zwartenkijk didn't learn that many of his beneficiaries actually made it out until 1963, when he was informed of survivors he had helped living in California. In 1976, Ernest Heppner and other survivors succeeded in locating the man most knew only as "Mr. Philips Radio" or literally as "Philip Radio."

That year, he was honored by the Montreal Rabbinical Court and communicated with historian David Kranzler, whose soon to be published history of the Shanghai Jews documented their connection to Zwartendijk. Shortly after, Zwartendijk passed away at age 80.

In 1997, through the efforts of Kranzler, Heppner, Goldstein and others, Zwartendijk achieved recognition as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.

Goldstein examines Zwartendijk's motivations and concludes that it was simple humanitarian instinct. He also looks at the motivations of the other players in the affair, Chiune Sugihara and the Soviet authority, which he finds more complex.

As for the Dutch government, Goldstein says they knew nothing about the incident until 1963, when Zwartendijk was called in for a discreet interview. Finally, Goldstein tells us that two other Dutch diplomats, A.M. de Jong in Stockholm and N.A.G. de Voogt in Kobe, Japan, subsequently issued their own Curacao visas. The suggestion, though not directly asserted, is that those later cases were inspired by Zwartendijk's example.

More to come on how this connects with our knowledge of the Toulouse Curacao visas.

A new clue about the Ringel journey

We knew from Helga's interview with Walter that the family was first in Lyon, with the idea of getting through to Switzerland. (This is after leaving Nice sometime around June 20.) In Lyon, they saw Gestapo presence and thought they recognized the very agent that had tracked them in Berlin. They gave up on the Switzerland plan and returned to the Mediterranean.

This document shows that they then stored eight pieces of luggage in the town of Gallargues-le-Montueux before proceeding on their journey. This could be some time in the range of June 23-25. We think they next went to Marseilles but quickly reversed course to Bordeaux, probably on rumors of Sousa Mendes. They were almost certainly in Bordeaux and may also have been in Hendaye, but after Sousa Mendes had already gone. Then they are definitely in Toulouse, where on July 5 they obtain a Polish passport, followed by Pichal and Gissot visas on July 11.

A few days later, they are in Perpinan with documents and preparing to depart for Lisbon. This receipt, which I have had for years but had not been able to interpret before, itemizes their eight pieces of luggage being forwarded by rail from the Gallargues PLM station to Perpinan.

Spain's two consulates

Among the files sent by Paul Freudman are several with stamps from the Spanish consulate in Toulouse. This surprised me because we know that Elly made a separate round trip from Toulouse to Perpinan to obtain a Spanish transit visa. This she did on July 12, the day after she had secured the prerequisite Dutch and Portuguese visas. But why did she go to Perpinan to do it, when Spain had a consulate in Toulouse? The same question applies to Rosalia Freudmann and her husband, who also went to Perpinan for their Spanish visas. The inevitable conclusion is that the Spanish consulate in Toulouse was not honoring Gissot visas while the Spanish consulate in Perpinan had a different policy.

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