Elly Ringel

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.

Involvement of the Polish consul

Till now, we have the Portuguese consul Gissot and the Dutch consul van Dobben as the active players in the Toulouse Curaçao case. Elly received visas from those two officials on July 11, 1940. But what about the Polish consulate, where her chain of documents began with the issuance of a passport from the Republic of Poland on July 5?

Elly had been preparing to apply for Polish papers for some time, perhaps since Berlin, since she took care to bring her husband Hermann's 1906 Polish domicile document with her on the journey. It is somewhat of a mystery why she had not already procured Polish papers by the time of their flight from Nice, but it is only in her last week or so there that she takes the trouble to have a notarized French translation made of the domicile document. Then, five weeks later, she has the opportunity to present that credential at the Polish consulate in Toulouse, at 72 rue de Strasbourg, just up the street from the Dutch consulate.

Based on Elly's case alone, we don't know if the Polish consul had any involvement with the Curaçao business. But then I found this testimonial from Zbigniew Kowalski, at the time a Free Polish fighter trying to make his way to England after the fall of France. Kowalski tells of managing to reach Marseilles, where there is a Polish legation, but finding a sign reading "Closed Until Victory." The next nearest Polish consulate is in Toulouse, where Kowalski travels next.

"At Toulouse the Polish legation was still open and its personnel found a place for us to stay. Soon we were supplied with passports and visa for Dutch Curaçao. It was cover of course, for as soon as we were out of Vichy waters we were to head for the United Kingdom," Kowalski says.

After several more detours and detainments, Kowalski finally makes it to Britain and returns to help liberate France, but that's not the point of our story. The point is that the Polish consulate in Toulouse was involved with Curaçao visas in a second instance. It is beginning to look like there is a third player in the Toulouse Curaçao operation.

So far, I don't know the identity of the Pole. Elly's passport has a scribble for a signature over a stamp that may indicate a last name Wozniak. As with the Dutch consulate, there are physical archives of the Polish diplomatic files that could yield answers about who he was and the extent of his involvement.

What is the link between the two Curacao cases?

Any list of heroic diplomats who saved Jews during World War II would be headed by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who rescued tens of thousands in Budapest. The next most known example would probably be Aristides de Sousa Mendes, whom we have been considering here in the recent batch of posts. And then the third famous example is the escape of thousands from Kaunas, Lithuania to Shanghai, China with help from compassionate consuls Jan Zwartendijk of the Netherlands and Chiune Sugihara of Japan.

Wallenberg's great deeds came later, in 1944, but the Sousa Mendes events and the Zwartenjijk-Sugihara actions happened one month apart in the summer of 1940. One month and 1500 miles apart. Until now, there has been no reason to link the two events other than as independent examples of humanitarian action. Now I believe we can show there was a connection, perhaps a causal connection, from the aftermath of the Sousa Mendes affair to the onset of the Zwartendijk-Sugihara affair.

We have seen in the last post how one of Sousa Mendes' vice consuls, Emile Gissot of Toulouse, resumed issuing Portugal transit visas shortly after Sousa Mendes himself had been recalled to Lisbon. These were not indiscriminate help-for-anybody visas as with Sousa Mendes, but were limited to those holding destination visas from a third country. The odd thing is that the third country in a large batch of visas that Gissot signed between July 11 and July 19 was the unlikely Caribbean destination of Curaçao. How peculiar that in the midst of a humanitarian crisis in the city, with refugees sleeping in the streets, that so many were making plans to visit the Dutch Antilles!

It now seems evident that the Curaçao ploy was a collaborative strategy by Gissot and A.J. van Dobben of the Netherlands consulate to help Jewish refugees get out of France to Portugal. (It also seems to have involved a yet-unnamed official at the Polish consulate, as I will discuss in a future post.) The Curaçao exception was clearly devised as a way to skirt the law and get suffering families on their way to Portugal. There is no indication that bribes were requested or received. We don't know yet how many people benefited from the Curaçao exception, but it was certainly dozens and possibly many more. Fleeing Berliners Elly Ringel and her 15-year-old daughter Helga, my mother, were two of them.

Currently, our last known instance of a Curaçao visa in Toulouse is July 19, but we may find that the issuances continued after that. We do know that on July 26, Curaçao visas begin appearing across the continent, in Lithuania, where an honorary Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk, manager of the local Philips office, accommodates a rush of Polish and Lithuanian Jews with visas to vacation in Curaçao. With these visas, the refugees were able to obtain Japanese transit visas that were honored for train travel across the Soviet Union. Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara was the second hero diplomat hero of Kaunas. Most of the 3000 Jews who escaped from Kaunas went from Japan to Shanghai and later points west.

Is it just a surprising coincidence that the same Curaçao exception arises in Toulouse and independently two weeks later in Kaunas? Possibly. Zwartendijk's Wikipedia entry says the idea came from "some Jewish Dutch residents in Lithuania [who] approached Zwartendijk to get a visa to the Dutch Indies." I will need to look more closely at the good deal of scholarship that is out there on Zwartendijk and Sugihara. But I think it is just as likely, maybe more, that Zwartendijk had heard about the Curaçao exception as it had been executed in Toulouse. Perhaps he modeled his program, including partnering with a diplomatic soulmate in Sugihara, on the van Dobben-Gissot collaboratiion.

The linkage between the two Curaçao cases is that van Dobben and Zwartendijk could have known each other. Both were representatives of the Philips Corp. in their respective cities. Philips was the Dutch General Electric, having begun in lighting and now dominant in radio and the emerging field of electronics. Based out of Einhoven in the Netherlands, it had operations across Europe, Asia and the Americas. To protect its assets from Nazi seizure, the company restructured as a series of foreign-held investments. On April 26, days before the German invasion, Philips transferred its registered office to Willemstad, Curaçao. That's right, Curaçao! Nor was Philips the only Dutch multinational to move its head office to Curaçao—Royal Dutch Shell did the same.

So Curaçao could have been in his thinking as A.J. van Dobben sat talking with Emile Gissot one evening at a cafe after another long day of fending off visa applicants. (Okay, I am projecting here.) Perhaps another diplomatic acquaintance, the consul of Poland, had joined them. Was this where they conceived of the Curaçao exception?

Further, after the plan has gone into effect, could van Dobben have communicated via diplomatic wire or pouch with his compatriot Jan Zwartendijk at the Dutch consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania?

We don't know, but it certainly bears looking into. Had thetwo men been posted together earlier in their careers? Were they possibly school chums? There may answers to some of these questions in the Dutch diplomatic archives. It would be of historic interest if it is shown that Zwartendijk's use of the Curaçao exception in Kaunas was influenced in part by its previous use in Toulouse.

Gissot's role in the Sousa Mendes affair

In 1940, Emile Gissot was 58 years old, probably retired from government foreign service and living again in his home city of Toulouse. To supplement his income and keep his hand in the game, he takes a position as honorary vice-consul in Toulouse for the government of Portugal. It is not unusual for foreign governments to staff consulate offices with non-national local citizens. That is why his title was "honorary." The reason it was "vice-consul" was because he did not have full consular responsibilities but reported to a regional chief consul stationed 130 miles away in Bordeaux.

That consul was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a distinguished Portuguese diplomat who was charged with representing Portugal in Bordeaux and southwest France and who would soon change history. By late May of 1940, following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries several weeks earlier, the urban centers of southwest France were overflowing with the waves of refugees coming from the north. Many of them were trying to get to Portugal, seen as one of the few viable escape routes from the insanity in Europe.

Sousa Mendes and Gissot in their respective Portuguese consulates were under siege by poor unfortunates with no place to go. Sousa Mendes instructs Gissot by telephone to keep referring supplicants to Bordeaux. For now, the vice-consul has no signing authority. Then, on June 17, after spending time with a Rabbi Kruger and his family, Sousa Mendes has his moment of conscience and commences his campaign to issue visas to any and all who need one. He gives new instructions to Gissot, giving him authority to issue visas in Toulouse, but only for those who already having destination visas from a third country. The Sousa Mendes Foundation has in its files a number of these Gissot visas signed in June while Sousa Mendes remained active.

This isn't the place to recount his heroic actions, but to summarize in the next 10 days Sousa Mendes issued as many as 30,000 visas to refugees of all types, including 10,000 Jews, before being shut down by the Salazar government. He was recalled to Lisbon to be harshly disciplined for his actions.

Now it was July and Sousa Mendes' spree had ended, yet the surge of visa supplicants continued unabated at Gissot's office. He must now have been given new instructions from Lisbon, probably to issue no more visas for any reason. Here I am going to move into speculation a little. I imagine that Gissot knows and socializes with consular officials from other countries in Toulouse. It is natural they would talk about the refugees and some of them might sympathize with their plight.

The Dutch consulate is manned by a local representative of the Philips company, an A.J. van Dobben, who has also seen an influx of Dutch Jewish refugees at his door at the Chanchellerie du Consulate des Pays-Bas. We actually have an address for his office, 8 Rue Strassbourg, courtesy of the memoir of escaping ex-Nazi Otto Strasser, who also benefited from the actions of Gissot and van Dobben. See our earlier article for more on Strasser's account. Keep in mind, too, that van Dobben's office remains open even though Germany has occupied the Dutch capital for the last six weeks.

I speculate that Gissot and van Dobben devise a cooperative plan to help some of the refugees. Gissot says that he can still issue Portuguese transit visas to holders of third-nation destination visas. Van Dobben says that he can issue tourist visas to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. Beginning probably on July 11, they put the plan into effect. The Dutch consulate begins issuing Curacao visas and Gissot just as quickly signs off on those for transit through Portugal. Our family gets both visas on July 11, then based on these gets a Spanish transit visa the next day. They leave France by train from Perpignan on July 23.

We don't know how many beneficiaries there are of what I am calling the Curacao exception. We know that it operated at least a week, from July 11 to July 19, when Strasser got his visas and observed dozens of Jewish refugees doing the same. I believe it will be possible to look more closely at already collected stories at the Sousa Mendes foundation and elsewhere to see if those dates can be extended in either direction, and to get a sense of the volume of cases.

I will leave off there for the moment but will return with a further dimension to the story.

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