The Swastika Passport
Remembering one family's incredible story of survival in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/04/Ruth_Tirbauer_1938-12-Klein-r100.jpg)The story of Yaakov Frommer, his Swastika Passport, and the personal intervention by Winston Churchill is told in the weekly magazine “Matzav Ruach,” which is one of the pamphlets distributed in Israel through synagogues on the sabbath. It is not available online. I am about to summarize the story in my words, although nothing is original here and I am simply paraphrasing the story as it appears in the pamphlet.
In the 1930s the Frommer family lived in Haifa. The father was Dov Frommer, who - with his wife - had made aliyah to Eretz Israel in 1935 from Olkusz, a small town in southern Poland. He lived with his wife Leah Rosa and their two small sons.
In 1939, Leah Rosa felt an irresistible yearning to return for a visit to her home town in Poland to see her family there. She decided to take her two sons with her. She was in the early stages of pregnancy. They sailed from Mandatory Palestine, that is, the British-ruled colony in Eretz Israel, arriving in Danzig, the German port city on Poland’s Baltic coast. It was after the Munich accord, and after the German aggression against Czechoslovakia. It was also smack in the middle of the days of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, when Hitler and Stalin were plotting to conquer and divide Poland between themselves. Leah Rosa felt safe, since she was traveling on British papers. As residents of Mandatory Palestine, they were citizens of the British Empire, and Great Britain was not yet at war.
It was only four days after the mother and children reached Olkusz when the Nazis invaded Poland. Hours later Britain declared war and the family was marooned in the heart of the territory in which the Holocaust would reach its most horrific dimensions. There were no ways in or out.
The father of the family, Dov, began a feverish campaign of letter writing with the British authorities to try to win the release of his family in what was now German-annexed Polish territory, in essence part of the Third Reich. The months dragged on. Leah Rosa gave birth there to her third son, naming him Yaakov. But the situation was deteriorating and getting more desperate. The Jews of Olkusz were ordered to wear yellow stars and move into a part of the town that would serve as a ghetto.
In 1940 a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. There were numerous civilians from the British Empire that were stranded in the territories conquered by Germany, but there were also German civilians in the British Empire. In particular, “Palestine” held a large population of German “Templers.“ These were German Protestant pietists who had migrated to “Palestine” in the 19th century and set up several colonies, including in Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. In the 1930s many of these became devoted Nazis and, bizarre as it sounds, there were pro-Nazi marches complete with swastikas and Heil Hitlers on the streets of Israeli cities, organized by these Germans.
Negotiations began for exchanges of the stranded civilians of the two sides. The US, still a neutral power, aided the efforts. In particular, a deal was in the offing for an exchange of German Templer civilians, mainly women and children, for civilians from Mandatory Palestine in Poland.
There was a snag, however. While Leah Rosa and her two older sons were citizens of the British Empire, having been born in “Palestine,” the youngest child, Yaakov, was not. He had been born in German-annexed Poland and the Germans were unwilling to acknowledge him as a British national. He was also not a Polish national, since Poland had ceased to exist.
The father back in Haifa was conducting frantic correspondence with the authorities in London. Somewhat incredibly, Winston Churchill himself took a personal interest in the family’s plight and wrote to the father in his own handwriting. (A photo of the letter appears in the _Matzav Ruach_ pamphlet upon which I am relying.) Fearing the barbarism that was clearly approaching, relatives in Poland urged Leah Rosa to take the two older boys and escape for freedom, leaving the baby in their care, but the mother would hear nothing of it.
Eventually a deal was reached under which the baby Yaakov, officially a citizen of German-ruled Poland, would be allowed to leave with the rest of his family. Relatives in the Olkusz ghetto still felt relatively safe in those days, as the mass exterminations had not yet begun, and suggested to Leah Rosa that perhaps she might be better off staying there with them rather than going off to the backwaters of “Palestine” with its many dangers and acts of barbarism about which they had heard.
It was shortly after Pearl Harbor when the family was allowed to escape as part of the exchange of the stranded populations. They reached Vienna, and from there took a ship down the Danube to the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea, and from there reached home. Baby Yaakov Frommer had been equipped with a special Nazi passport, issued by the Reich authorities in control of Poland. It featured the Nazi eagle emblem and swastikas. From its serial number, it was the very first passport issued by the Nazi authorities in Poland. Yaakov made aliyah on a Nazi passport, complete with swastikas.
Once reunited in Haifa, the family resumed life as normal. Yaakov grew up to be an electronics technician. His oldest brother became a scientist at the Weizmann Institute, specializing in water treatment. The middle brother became an air force navigator, headed an air force training school, and was captured during the Yom Kippur war when his plane fell in Lebanon. A fourth younger son was born later and became a well-known psychologist. The father of the family was one of the founders of the religious neighborhood Kiryat Shmuel near Haifa and was a principal at its religious high school. Four years ago, Leah Rosa passed away at the age of 98.
Baby Yaakov, today 74 years old, allowed the magazine to photograph his swastika passport.
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