A Georgia Highlands College professor recently discovered she was the descendant of a Polish diplomat who was directly involved in saving thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust and through her story she has been put in touch with a descendant of one of those survivors.
Alexandra MacMurdo Reiter, assistant professor of communication at GHC and K.Heidi Fishman, author of “Tutti’s Promise”, will be speaking at the Cartersville campus of Georgia Highlands College on April 4 from 2-3:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The two will share different accounts of what is ultimately one story.
Reiter’s story began in October 2017 when she received an email from Jakub Kumoch, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland, inquiring about her grandfather, Stefan Ryniewicz and his involvement in the Bernese Group. According to official records, Ryniewicz and five other men forged passports from Paraguay and several other South American countries.
The group operated in secret, providing Jews in the Netherlands, Poland and other German occupied countries a means to escape concentration camps. When the group was uncovered in 1943 by Swiss police, Ryniewicz intervened and advocated for the group so none were prosecuted. The number of Jews they saved is unknown, estimates are in the thousands, however more documents and records are being uncovered.
On Friday, over 30 new documents were uncovered in a Zurich archive linked to the group.The Lados List, named for the leader of the Bernese group Aleksander Lados, is being updated with more information constantly and Kumach said through email correspondence that a list with names will be coming soon.
“We’ve been working on the Lados List we are going to publish this year,” he said. “It contains the names of around 3,000 Jewish people to whom our predecessors, wartime Polish diplomats in Bern and their Jewish partners gave forged passports. It’s being verified. There are really famous people on it like leaders of 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or the best friend of Anne Frank. One of the survivors became in 2005 Polish minister of foreign affairs, another one served as chief rabbi of Amsterdam, several dozens are still alive.”
Reiter had no idea of his involvement when she was contacted and knew very little about her grandfather who is buried in Argentina. She said when she received an email from the Polish ambassador she was stunned.
“I almost deleted the email,” she said. “I thought it was spam.”
Kumoch supplied Reiter with photos of her grandfather and her father when they lived in Poland she said. She has also obtained original documents and has found someone to translate them for her.
“I would like to write a book about it,” she said.
Kumoch said after the war, Ryniewicz had to flee Poland due to his strong opposition to the Soviet Union who became the new ruling power in the region.
“Ryniewicz was a deep patriot, anti-Nazi and anti-Communist,” he said. “He served the Polish government in exile which fought the Nazis but he refused to serve the puppet government imposed by the Soviets to Poland after the War. He knew he could not come back to Poland without risking of being murdered. He had to live somewhere.”
After being featured in an article in The Daily Tribune News, Reiter was contacted by Fishman, a Vermont author who is the granddaughter of a Netherland Jewish man saved through a fake Paraguay passport. Her book “Tutti’s Promise” retells the story of how her family escaped the Netherlands through the first hand account from Fishman’s mother who was a young girl at the time.
Naturally there were some gaps in her mothers memory Fishman said, so she had to start doing research to fill in the blanks. She started with Google, and came across documents from the archives of Yad Vashem in Israel. The documents showed correspondence between two top Nazi officials arguing over what to about a group of Jewish metal workers. One of these metal workers was Fishman’s grandfather, Heinz Lichtenstern, and his metal working skills kept him from being sent to Auschwitz.
As the war progressed Lichtenstern and his family were eventually rounded up to be sent to the infamous concentration camp. Fishman said that acquiring the Bernese Group’s passports to Paraguay saved her families life.
“He showed them the passport as he was about to get on the train to Auschwitz,” she said. “And they let him go.”
Her book “Tutti’s Promise” was five years in the making she said. Through her research she came across Kumoch and through a Facebook group came across the article that put her in touch with Reiter.
Fishman was already scheduled to speak at an elementary school outside of Birmingham, AL and agreed to come to Cartersville to meet Reiter and together share their stories.
”I am extremely proud of having such predecessors like Ambassador Lados and his deputy Stefan Ryniewicz who in the hour of darkness, where my country was occupied and our Polish Jews were massively murdered by the Nazi Germany, showed patriotism, humanity, compassion and were willing to risk their lives to rescue others,” Kumach said.