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The Saga of Cecylja Derbaum

Neil Kaplan, a collector of old passports and documents has turned his passion into a mission to collect and save as many samples he can to learn about the stories behind each item. The subtle markings engraved in passports over time can reveal so much about a person, where they have travelled, the route taken to a destination and even political markings of the country passed through. An understanding of the history surrounding stamped dates can almost paint an entire picture of the person at the given moment in time. Some of the most astonishing stories of World War II relate to the survival of individuals. During the very dark and cold moments of that horrific war that spanned for 6 years people fought to stay alive, to survive and continue living. That eternal burning flame, the flame of life, drove a few to fight against all odds and not give up. Be it in the camps, ghettos or in hiding, there are those who managed to come out of the ashes in Europe and tell their story. This can be in the form of verbal recordings or in the form of preserved documents. In this article, Neil spoke with Michael Challoner, the head editor of ‘Reflections’ about 2 women caught up in occupied Poland and their subsequent journey to freedom and how their documents provide invaluable information.

 Sadly, when the passport was located, it had the first 2 pages torn out. We are not able to learn about her personal features and profession because all these important details were lost with the 2 pages. But, luckily for us, the remaining pages are intact. We are able to draw a clear route and visas that she obtained in order to arrive to British Palestine before the war and also on her whereabouts in Poland, where she returned for a brief family visit, and got caught up as war broke out on September of 1939.

By examining the pages carefully, we can learn that passport number Nr.Ser.I 482 489 was issued at Warsaw around March of 1935. Visa 38838 was obtained from the British embassy on March 11th under category of an immigrant followed by 2 additional transit visas issued by the Austrian and Yugoslavian legations in the capital as well. She exited on March 27th into Czechoslovakia via the Petrovice border crossing.

The same day she entered Austria at the Břeclav crossing and into Yugoslavia the next day. On the 28th she left via the Maribor port for Italy, and from there via boat to Haifa, arriving on March 31st. The next 4 years were spent quietly in Palestine; building a new life.

We all have that urge to visit family. After many years away, Cecylja, worried about the news of imminent war breaking out in the continent, and fearing for her family, she decided to make a trip back home. A family reunion of some sort. Romanian transit visa number 2115 was obtained from the consulate at Jerusalem on June 15th of 1939. 

The journey to Romania or from Romania was normally done by boat to or from the port city of Constantia. 5 days later she obtained the 'resident’s return visa' from the Department of Migration and left via Tel Aviv on June 25th. Arriving at the port city of Constantia on June 30th and entering into Poland on July 1st via the exit crossing at Oraseni.

Old passport cover

The next few pages tell us of her amazing position she was in, after the outbreak of war. We can clearly see that she was in Warsaw, her home. We can only imagine the horror and shock it was to remain during the onslaught and bombing, only to find herself in the clutches of the SS and Gestapo as they marched into the city and began their hunt after Political and cultural elite and Jews.

Close to 4 months after the occupation began, Cecylja applied for the exit permit from the German authorities. Such permits were nearly impossible to obtain: without the right connections, visa or funds it was not possible to leave. We can assume that her dual nationality as a British subject assisted immensely: by that time there was also talks between the two warring sides via a neutral country for a civilian exchange. But according to my research, the dates for such an exchange do not coincide with the dates of her departure (about 1,200 British Palestinian nationals were caught in Europe when the war broke out, most of them in Poland). Exit or travel permission number A-e 50/40 was given by the Warsaw police, Passport and ID department on January 18th 1940. It clearly states that she is using her former Polish passport, and the destination was Palestine. Crossing of the border must take place on January 31ST with the permit expiring after the 5th of February.

The life-saving transit visa was obtained at the Italian consulate on January 25th. Cecylja boarded the German train taking her through Lundenburg (formerly the Czech city of Břeclav) on the 31st. She entered Italy on February 2nd via the Arnoldstein border crossing. She was now free and way from the horrors of war. Her plight was not over; she still had some 'formalities' she needed to take care, such as extending her return visa back to Palestine, which was done so at the British consulate in Rome on the 8th.

On the 16th she boarded a boat from the port city of Trieste, arriving at Haifa 6 days later. What makes these documents very significant and important Holocaust related material are the exit visas: issued at a location during the formation of the Jewish Ghettos in occupied Poland.

In all my years of searching for WW2 related travel documents I have never ever come across such samples before. It is a fascinating reminder of what people had to endure in order to survive. We must not forget the brave and courageous diplomats that issued these seemingly simple transit visas. Without these documents existing today, we would not be able to tell the story of these 2 brave and courageous women.


Neil Kaplan