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Passport forger publishes his memoirs

'The Passport Forger' by Cioma Schönhaus describes how he forged ID documents to save the lives of Jews in wartime Berlin swissinfo.ch

Cioma Schönhaus helped hundreds of Jews in Germany escape certain death during the Holocaust, by faking their identity papers.

This content was published on December 23, 2004 - 15:34

In 1943, he found refuge in Switzerland. Now, more than 60 years later, he has published his story in a gripping autobiography “The Passport Forger”.

Cioma was raised in Germany, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants. After leaving art college, he was forced into work as a tailor, sewing machine mechanic, gardener, and metalworker.

In June 1942, Cioma received his deportation papers, and was due to be sent with his parents to a death camp in Poland. Luckily for him, the police accepted an appeal from his employers asking for a deferment due to his war-related work in a munitions factory.

Cioma said goodbye to his family in a synagogue, which had been turned into a deportation centre.

“I’d heard that Jews were being burnt. My mother refused to believe it, but I did,” he told swissinfo. He was never to see his parents again.

Despite the reprieve, Cioma expected to be deported at any time. He decided to quit work and was one of 50,000 Jews who went underground in Berlin.

Sailing and forging

For most people, this meant a life with no fixed address, no food tokens and no identity documents. Most Jews dared not show their faces in daylight for fear of being asked by soldiers to present their papers. Only 1,500 of those who went underground survived the war.

Cioma, in contrast, had a taste of the high life. He was able to fake his own ID papers, and found a way of making money.

After his family members were deported, Cioma sold all their furniture, household utensils and jewels, netting himself a small fortune, with which he bought a sailing dinghy. Sundays were set aside for pleasure trips on the lake.

The rest of the week was dedicated to saving other people’s lives. Members of a church provided Cioma with identity papers. It was his job to remove the old passport photographs and create a counterfeit official stamp. In payment for the forgeries, he received food tokens.

Finally, the Gestapo caught wind of his activities and put up wanted posters. On two occasions, in a restaurant and on a bus, he was intercepted by the police, but managed to sneak away. It was clearly time to quit Berlin.

Escape

Cioma forged a passport for himself and, in September 1943, set off for the Swiss border, with a map of Switzerland and SFr100 in his pocket. His friends in Berlin were convinced he would never make it.

He had originally planned to cross into Switzerland by leaping onto a freight train, but the locomotives proved to be too fast. His only option was to go by bicycle.

Cioma arrived at the Swiss border as the sun was setting, crossing a stream to freedom. Then he was spotted by a police officer.

Cioma explained that he was a political fugitive, but soon changed his story, deciding that he no longer wanted to lie. "I'm not a political fugitive,” he confessed. “I’m a Jew”.

"Still, I don't think anybody is going to send you back," replied the kindly officer. And he was right.

Cioma spent a few months in a Swiss internment camp. After his release he went to study at the Basel art school, and then set up a successful graphics company. He’s saving details of his Swiss adventures for his second book, The Passport Forger in Paradise.

The 82-year-old is as sharp as ever. When he makes trips abroad these days and has to show his passport, he tells the border police, "It's a real one".

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Biel-Benken near Basel

Key facts

Half of Germany’s 500,000 Jews escaped persecution by fleeing abroad.
On October 23, 1941, Jews were forbidden to leave the country.
An estimated 100,000 went underground, half of them in Berlin.
Only 1,500 Jews were alive in Berlin in 1945.

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In brief

After his parents were sent to extermination camps, Cioma Schönhaus went underground, and forged passports, helping hundreds of fellow Jews to escape certain death.

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