University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Importance of Documents

Every Dutch resident was required to carry their ID card at all times. This forged ID card was made by the Dutch resistance. The absence of a "J" on the card indicates that the holder is not Jewish. German issued passport stamped with a "J" to signify the Austrian bearer, Hans Kraus, as a Jew. Schutz-Pass, or protective passport, issued by Raoul Wallenberg to Erika Fleischer (Vilscek) in Budapest, 1944.

For Jews during the Holocaust, the ability to cross a border, avoid deportation or assume a different identity could mean the difference between life and death. A variety of documents, ranging from visas to 11 protective letters," made these avenues of escape from the Nazis possible. The importance of documents in the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust was critical.

Well before Nazi policy turned genocidal in 1941, antiSemitic hatred and violence prompted thousands of Jews to flee Germany and, from 1938 on, Germanoccupied territories. Flight was not easy. Jews seeking to emigrate needed government permission from the country they were trying to enter. Obtaining this permission meant getting a visa, an endorsement  often in the form of a stamp and signature on a passport from a consular official. Even if an applicant only wished to pass through a country, a signed transit visa was required. A transit visa, which did not allow a person to stay in the particular country, offered an escape route. Jews with transit visas were usually allowed to leave German territory, despite the fact that they had not yet secured permanent residence elsewhere.

Before processing a request for a visa, many countries' consulates required documentation that proved the applicant was of good moral character and would not be a financial burden. Jews had to provide written testimonies from previous employers or respected members of the community, attesting to their good conduct over the years, as well as papers listing personal assets.

The number of visas available to Jews was reduced by the anti immigration policies of most countries, including Canada and the United States. Quotas, which specified the maximum number of immigrants and refugees to be admitted, were low and in some years not even filled. One of the most blatant examples of this antiimmigrant sentiment, motivated by a combination of xenophobia, indifference and antiSemitism, was the request made by Swiss officials in the fall of 1938 that all German and Austrian Jews' passports be stamped with the letter "J". Switzerland's request, which was granted by the Germans, sought to identify potential immigrants as Jews and thereby restrict their entry.

If a Jew was fortunate enough to receive a visa from a foreign country, the next step would be to get permission from German authorities to leave. The procedure of getting out could be as difficult as getting into another countryPhotographs, marriage and birth certificates, proof of residence and local citizenship forms, receipts showing all taxes had been paid, lists of all property and a recently issued to emigration officials.

The outbreak of World War 11 in September of 1939 severely decreased the chances for escape and rescue. As diplomatic relations between warring nations broke off, consulates closed down or reduced staff, and already restrictive immigration policies became even tighter. After German occupation, many Jews found themselves stateless, having lost their citizenship, and by extension, their passports. A stateless Jew had almost no chance of obtaining a visa, as most countries required a valid passport from the applicant's country of origin.

Chances for emigration became practically nonexistent in 1941, the year that Germany officially banned all Jewish emigration and launched the Final Solution. It was from this point that other documents and forms of identification became essential.

Perhaps the most well known example are the Jews of Budapest holding Schutzpasse, issued by Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg. Bearers of these papers lived in protected houses as quasicitizens of Sweden, thousands of whom avoided death at the hands of the Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross. These protective papers served a similar purpose, placing the holder under the official protection of a particular country or organization, such as Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, the Vatican and the Red Cross. Forged or faked documents were yet another way to stay alive, especially for Jews assuming false identities. Baptismal, birth and marriage certificates masked the religion of Jews and offered them a chance to pass as Christians.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, approximately 800, 000 Jews escaped or found refuge during the Holocaust, less than one seventh the number of Jews murdered. However, for those who did survive, documents played a key role. Not surprisingly, many survivors have kept their old passports, letters and forged certificates as a testament to the means by which they eluded Hitler's Final Solution.

- Dan Fromowitz