Helga Ruby

Helga and Elly's arrival in NY in 1941

Valery Bazarov, the present-day historian at HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the international refugee agency that helped Elli, Hilda, and Helga at several points in their three year long oddessey across France and Portugal to the safety of America, offered to look in the organization's archives in New York to see what they have on their case. Valery informed me that HIAS was very active in southern France from the time of the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June 1940 until the German occupation of southern France in November 1942--helping thousands of Jews escape the Nazis including prominent people like Marc Chagall --and therefore might be able to determine whether the organization helped them there as well as in Portugal and New York.

Today. when I visited him at HIAS' office on 7th Ave in Manhattan, Valery regretfully told me that he only found two pieces of paper that seem to have been part of a larger file, but the file itself seems to have disappeared. I will describe these two documents here, and since I dont have a scanner at home, will put them up on the website in several days. The first is a hand written scrap of paper, apparently from their days in Lisbon, reading:

Ringel, Elly
Ringel, Helga
Polonaise, Kattovice, 3.7.900
Address: rua de gloria 41-28

As we know, Elli and Helga had obtained fake Polish passports that must have listed Elli's borthplace as Kattovice--perhaps the 3.7.900 refers to Elli's birthday in 1900 (the correct year of her birth. The address is clearly where they lived in Lisbon.

The second document was issued by HIAS upon their arrival in New York on Aopril 23,1941.
It gives us the important information that the ship they arrived on was the S.S. Guine, a Portuguese ship that Bazarov said was one of the main ships that carried refugees from Lisbon to New York during those years. It lists Elly as a widow 40 years of age of Polish nationality and Helga as being 15 (actually she was 16). It lists their residency as Hotel Paris in New York, which was probably where Elli and Hilda stayed during the week that they spent in New York (Helga was held on Ellis Island during that period) connecting with Judge Ringel who apparently signed on as their guarator in New York even though he had never met them before and there was no discernable family connection. All of that was arranged through the aegis of HIAS. so it is a great shame that the file has been lost. It lists the HIAS worker who dealt with their case as Neubau (the first name is indistinct), who Valery said was a well known HIAS worker during those days and had the distinction of handling the very last immigrant held on Ellis Island when that facililty closed in 1954.

Bazarov urged me to check with the office of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington (now under Homeland Security) which likely has records from Elli, Hilda and Helga's arrival, which would shed light on how they managed to get permission to come back to the U.S. as permanent residents after travelling to Cuba from New York. The HIAS form lists them as "in transit to Ecuador" and specifies that they arrived in New York on "4/23-bonds to 5/10", apparently they would have to leave by May 10. I am going to have to rewrite some of the Ruby Family History account on all of this as in our last interview, Helga spoke of travelling on visas to Costa Rica, not Ecuador, and although she had previously spoken of Ecuador as the country whose visas they had purchased in France, thus allowing them to travel to Portugal and on to the Western Hemisphere, I went with the Costa Rican story in the RFH.

After leaving HIAS I went to the National Archives Research Administration in lower Manhattan--I had to research another person for an article I am writing about claims that Pope Pius XII supposedly helped 800 Jews and 11 nuns cross the ocean from Portugal to the US--also in 1941--and unfortunately was unable to find confirmation of that claim. That story and another one I have been working on re Pius and the Jews has turned out to be a wild goose chase that has taken way too much of my time over the past several weeks. But I did use the opportunity to find confirmation of Elli and Helga's arrival on microfilm. There was also a notation that Helga was naturalized (received U.S. citizenship) on June 2, 1947, only a week or two before she and Stan got married (Dan, Jo, what was their anniversary--I seem to remember June 9 or 11)? The office closed before I could secure Helga's naturalization (citizenship) papers, which Dan and Joanne were unable to find in their treasure trove of documents they discovered in Helga and Stan's attic last year, so now at last we will get it back.


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.


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