In the 1940s there was a flourishing trade in fake passports. Switzerland was part of the racket. Illustration by Marco Heer
In the 1940s there was a flourishing trade in fake passports. Switzerland was part of the racket. Illustration by Marco Heer

A passport for every eventuality

In the 1940s, Jews in Europe found themselves in increasing danger. This situation benefited a number of individuals who issued false passports for exotic countries such as Honduras and Paraguay.

Naomi Lubrich

Naomi Lubrich

Naomi Lubrich is director of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland. She studied literature and art in New York and Berlin with a focus on Jewish studies and costume history.

“Dear Herr Generalkonsul! I was pleased to note your willingness to issue a HONDURAS passport also for myself, as you did for my children living in Holland, the Wilhelm Neuburger-Gundelfinger family. [...] I know that the requested passport cannot be used in any way to travel and immigrate to America. It is solely for my use for any eventuality that may arise.” On 5 May 1943 Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm, known as Jenny, wrote these words to Alfons Bauer, the Consul General of Honduras in Bern, who was not above accepting an under-the-table payment or two. For between CHF 700 and CHF 2,000 – corresponding to two to six months’ wages for a secretary at the time – he issued Honduran passports to Jews with the necessary funds. However, the passports didn’t give holders the possibility of emigrating to Honduras. In 1943 no country in the world, including Honduras, was accepting Jews. The “eventualities” for which the passport was supposed to help referred to life-threatening situations: in 1943, millions of Jews from German-occupied areas were transported to extermination camps and murdered.
Letter from Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm to Alfons Bauer.
Letter from Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm to Alfons Bauer. © Familie Wyler, Winterthur
Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm’s Honduran passport, issued in May 1943.
Johanna Gundelfinger-Nahm’s Honduran passport, issued in May 1943. © Familie Wyler, Winterthur
When anti-Semitism became state policy in Germany in the early 1930s, Jenny Gundelfinger and her husband Benno decided to emigrate to Switzerland. They moved into an apartment at Mythenquai 22 in Zurich. Her daughter Irene and her family were less fortunate. In March 1940 Irene, together with her husband Wilhelm Neuburger and their daughters Erika and Marion, fled from Munich to Amsterdam where, just a few weeks later, in May 1940, the Germans seized power. From Zurich, Jenny Gundelfinger pulled every string she could find to save her family. In August 1942 Irene had been to the Swiss consulate in Amsterdam and tried to get her claim to British citizenship recognised – a move that could have been successful, since Irene was born in South Africa. Jenny Gundelfinger had arranged for her to enter Switzerland in November 1942, but that arrangement fell through. On 30 April 1943, Jenny finally managed to obtain Honduran passports for the family.
In 1942, Irene Neuburger-Gundelfinger, born in South Africa, attempted to regain English citizenship.
In 1942, Irene Neuburger-Gundelfinger, born in South Africa, attempted to regain English citizenship. © Familie Wyler, Winterthur
The passport helped – but only to a limited extent. It saved the Amsterdam family from deportation to the Auschwitz death camp. Instead, they were sent to the slightly less dangerous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were listed as “preferred prisoners” and had been selected for a prisoner exchange for Nazi sympathisers abroad. But because Wilhelm was already dangerously weak the family chose to stay with him in Bergen-Belsen, in hopes that he would recover. Irene died in 1943, under the dreadful conditions in the camp, and Wilhelm followed her in 1945. However, their daughters survived. Several months after the war ended, they were finally allowed to go to Zurich to live with their grandmother.
Liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.
Liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Wikimedia
The fact that Jenny Gundelfinger was able to acquire life-saving passports from Alfons Bauer was a godsend and highly secret, but not unique. Rudolf Hügli, Honorary Consul of Paraguay in Bern, Max Alfred Brunner, Consul for Haiti in Zurich, and José María Barreto, Consul General for Peru in Geneva, also cashed in on the persecution of the Jews. For a fee, they issued passports, passport copies and citizenship certificates (while El Salvador’s consulate in Geneva helped people free of charge). The consuls were acting in a legal grey area. While they were authorised to issue documents, they should have informed the governments they represented, which, as Rudolf Hügli later admitted, had “prohibited the immigration of Jews to Paraguay”.
“My heartfelt thanks go to Dina Wyler and her family (Winterthur / Zurich) for the items on loan and for the information.” Naomi Lubrich
Jenny Gundelfinger was also lucky for another reason. She received the passports just days before the people issuing these ‘bogus’ passports were discovered. In April 1943 the Federal Prosecutor’s office had stumbled upon a German spy, Heinrich Löri, who had wormed his way into the confidence of someone who was helping the passport buying agents. After he was interrogated by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, in May 1943 officials searched the homes of numerous people involved in the racket, in Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux and Zurich. In July 1943 the Swiss police reported their findings to the country’s Foreign Minister, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who, after consulting with his colleagues, put a stop to the trade in passports. In December 1943, Alfons Bauer was asked to step down from his post as Consul General. Erika and Marion Neuburger started families of their own in Switzerland. They remained close throughout their lives. As a survivor, Erika spoke in Swiss schools about the Holocaust. Marion never talked about it, even among family.
Erika and Marion Neuburger together with Jenny Gundelfinger (middle) in an old photograph, and in a photograph from 2002.
Erika and Marion Neuburger together with Jenny Gundelfinger (middle) in an old photograph, and in a photograph from 2002. © Familie Wyler, Winterthur

Anne Frank and Switzerland

09.06.2022 06.11.2022 / National Museum Zurich
The diary of Anne Frank is world famous. It’s less well known that the journey to global publication began in Switzerland. While Anne, her sister and her mother were killed in the concentration camp, Anne’s father was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. Otto Frank moved to live with his sister in Basel in the 1950s. From there, he made it his task to share his daughter’s diary with the world whilst preserving her message on humanity and tolerance for the coming generations.

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).