Algoth Niska & the Black Market Passport Business
N.B. Algoth Niska's name is commonly spelled Algot in English, I have held to the more Finnish spelling - Algoth.
We now come to another key individual involved in the sale of black market passports to Berlin Jews: the Finn named Algoth Johannes Niska. During his interrogation by MI5, Josef gave an overview of the passport/naturalisation business run by Ziebell, and admitted that some Jews were able to get Finnish passports through the services of a Finn named Niska. Josef never met Niska and didn’t know a lot about him but he had this to say…
What Josef Said
According to Josef, he met Martin Israel Goldstein through Jewish lawyer, Dr. Schwarz. Josef introduced Ziebell to Goldstein for Goldstein knew of a possibility for Finnish naturalisations. Goldstein worked with a man named Emil Dochnal, who worked with a Jew called Rosenberg. With the help of these three (Goldstein, Dochnal and Rosenberg), it was possible to carry out successful naturalisations in Finland.
“Finnish agents also came to Berlin to visit Ziebell. Actually, they did not come into direct contact with Ziebell, but Dochnal and Rosenberg dealt with them. Dochnal was Aryan and Rosenberg was Jewish. [Josef] remembered particularly two people who used to come from Finland. They always flew to Berlin, and one of them was called Captain Niska, and [Josef] could not remember the name of the other man. These two men used to make the necessary arrangements in Finland as regards bribery.”
Josef had dealt with ten cases of naturalisation, and all of these people had become Finnish. Naturalisation in Finland was comparatively easy, as the Finnish Home Office could issue passports and give orders for naturalisation without residence in the country. Ziebell had negotiated with officials and offered bribes. All the Finnish people had been brought before the court in this connection in Finland, but they had not been punished.
During his interrogations, Josef was shown a photograph of Niska but denied that he had ever seen the man. Josef had only heard about Niska after he had been arrested by the Gestapo. Josef said that during the trial of the individuals connected with the passport business, he learned that Niska had provided forged Finnish passports for his Jewish clients. According to Josef, Niska was released two days after his arrest. Rosenberg, with whom Niska had worked, was released after four weeks of imprisonment. The fact that these two men were set at liberty, while the other individuals were sent to concentration camps, made Josef suspect that they were being used by the Gestapo.
What MI5 Learned from MI6
On 26 May 1941, MI5 received a report from MI6 regarding Algoth Niska. The report provided fresh material and some new names with which to question Josef. It also provides a nice summary of Algoth Niska and his little passport forgery ring:
The Captain Niska [as identified by Josef], who was engaged in selling Finnish passports to Jewish refugees, is undoubtedly identical with Algot Niska, who was reported in 1939 to be the head of a gang of passport forgers in Finland. The members of this gang were arrested in February 1939. The following is an extract from this report:
“The head of this gang was a man named Algot Niska, a former sea captain
and a prominent figure in Finland’s bootlegging prohibition days. Niska
is a Finn. Associated with Niska in his activities were Axel Stanislav
Belewicz, an insurance agent, and Mrs. Kerttu Ollikainen, a clerk at the
headquarters of the Governor-General of the Uusimaa region of Finland.
It seems that, following enquiries in several foreign countries the
Finnish police ascertained that Algot Niska, Fredrik Joffe [sic] (a
restaurant proprietor), and an international swindler named Robert
Gries, were the leading spirits in an organisation for the sale of faked
Finnish passports. Niska and Joffe [sic], according to police evidence,
had not yet been located, and were suspected of being in hiding in
The Finnish police received a report from the Dutch police stating that Niska, in company with an attractive Jewess, Sidonie Goldenberg, were detained at a boarding house in the Bethovenstraat, Amsterdam, on December 21st last year , and were charged with failing to register as aliens, but were later released. Later evidence then came into the hands of the Dutch police, showing that Niska, and a German refugee named Friedländer, had been selling forged and faked Finnish passports to Jewish refugees who had reached Holland from Germany. The charge was 3,000 Gulden each.
In January 1939, the Helsingfors police received information of a letter having been despatched from the Finnish capital to Brussels, containing a passport blank and a passport book. Enquiries led to the detention of Rafael Joffe [sic], brother of Fredrik. During interrogation Rafael Joffe [sic] confessed to having recently received an unsigned and typewritten message presumably sent by his brother, in which it was stated that “we are now safe in London”. In Rafael Joffe’s [sic] opinion such a sentence could only mean that his brother and Algot Niska were in hiding in London.
It was further ascertained by the Finnish police, during the hearing of Belewicz and Ollikainen that a notorious international adventurer and swindler named Robert Gries (alias Reginald Grandberg) was one of the gang’s most active members. Gries is a Jew of Russian extraction. In February and March  he was said to be living in Brussels and to have received many communications from towns in England, Germany, France and Italy. The letters were invariably addressed to the following names: Gries, Friedländer, Kapauner or Niska. Half the police in Europe seem to be anxious to get the cuffs on Gries.
The following people were also reported by the Finnish police to have been detained in various countries on charges in connection with traffic in illegal Finnish passports:
- Albert Amtmann, and his wife Maria Amtmann, born in Vienna on 13th July 1896.
- Arthur Braun, born at Stanislawas on 24.2.1894. Thought to have recently been selling falsified passports in Paris.
- Richard Neumann, agent, born in Vienna, 2.6.1893.
- Arthur Stern, and his wife Hedvig Stern, arrested in Prague.
- Louis Georg Hagen and his wife Victoria Gertrude Hagen.
- Alfred Schapiro, business man, born at Novgorod on 22.3.1894, arrested in Paris.
- Gerhard Neumann, born 12.6.1903, detained in Holland; born in Berlin.
- Hella Kapauner, born in Finland, 19.3 or 5.1909
- Hans Heinrich Friedländer, born in Berlin 2.7.1900.
- Sidonie Goldenberg, born in Berlin 5.9.1913, thought to be in hiding with Niska in England.
- Robert Gries, born at Posen 9.8.1904.
- Wilhelm Noher, doctor, born at Tarnowitz on 26.8.1892.
- Fritz Lasch, particulars unknown.”
|Over Green Borders - The Memoris|
of Algot Niska
Translated by J. Jerry Danielsson (1995)
In addition to Niska’s book, a Finn named Jussi Samuli Laitinen wrote a Master’s Thesis about Niska in 2009 which has provided excellent information based on original documents, reports, interrogations and court documents from the Finnish State Police archives and the Finnish National Archives. Laitinen’s thesis is written in Finnish but I’ve used Google Translate to generate a passable English version. It makes fascinating reading and calls into question the assertion by some that Algot Niska should stand with Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Algoth Johannes Niska was born on 5 December 1888 in Vyborg (now part of Russia). He was the youngest child of Ivar Niska (1846-1903), a sea captain, and Hilda née Schlüter (1856-1934), a musician. After his father passed away in 1903, Hilda and her five children moved to Helsinki. Niska was drawn to adventure and danger. In 1905, he participated in student protests against the Russian Cossacks. Niska excelled as an athlete and played football (soccer). He was chosen to play on the Finnish football team at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. While the Finns lost 4-0 to England in the semi-final, it still ranks as their highest finish at the Olympics. Along the way, Niska picked up the name “Aigsta” or “Agi”.
Niska joined his first ship in 1908. When the First World War broke out, he went to the Helsinki Maritime School and graduated the following year. He never got his captain’s ticket, only completing a mate’s examination. Later in life, he would assume the title of sea captain, but one that he was not entitled to use.
Niska joined the Helsinki National Guard, a right wing group of patriots, and took part in actions against the radical left in 1917. On 11 September 1917, Niska married Magda Johanna Aufrichtich and, a year later, the couple had a daughter, Magda Esther Cecilia Niska.
King of Smugglers
|Algoth Johannes Niska|
Niska had an almost mythical reputation among his clients and other smugglers. He was brave and kind, and always a gentleman, even though he was a thief. He was handsome and athletic, always dressed well and an excellent companion. He spoke well and was regaled friends and acquaintances with stories of his adventures. Niska tended to emphasize the adventure aspect of his smuggling career and noted that even though the police often shot at Niska, he never shot back.
Despite his reputation as a gentleman smuggler, it should be noted that smuggling was a criminal activity whose primary purpose was to financially benefit the smuggler.
In 1922, Niska and his family moved to Germany. In September 1924, he was found guilty in absentia of smuggling liquor and was wanted by the authorities so that he could serve a four month prison sentence. The verdict, and his absence from home, was too much for his wife who initiated divorce proceedings which were finalized in December 1924.
Three years later, on 21 July 1927 Algot Niska married Celia Imogene Andersson (20 years old). A year later, the couple had a son, Jack Algoth Niska. This marriage too failed under the weight of Niska’s absences and his criminal career. The divorce was finalized on 29 February 1932.
Niska was arrested at various points and spent time in prison both in Finland and Sweden. He was a model prisoner and was often released early for good behaviour. In 1932, Niska was banned from Sweden and spent time in Riga (Latvia), Tallinn (Estonia) and the Free City of Danzig. He spoke several languages including Finnish, Swedish, German and English.
The end of the Prohibition Act in 1932 dealt a serious blow to Niska’s financial situation. He was apparently never much of a saver, preferring to spend his ill-gotten gains on wine, women and song. After Niska's release from prison on 24 April 1933, he made several transport trips from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. In addition to regular cargo, he also transported weapons and was arrested for arms dealing on 26 January 1935. He managed to escape with a simple warning from the Finnish State Police.
Despite having made a significant amount of money from smuggling and arms dealing, Niska’s money slipped through his fingers like water, ending up in the cash registers of countless restaurants, clubs and cafes in Helsinki.
Around the World
In 1937, Niska had a grand idea - he would sail around the world. All he needed was a ship and some money. In the summer of 1937, Niska bought a decrepit sailboat called Merihaukka [Sea-Hawk] from Sven Pehrmann for the princely sum of 17,250 Finnish Markka (FIM). Niska gave a down payment of FIM 1,000 to Pehrmann and promised to make regular payments. The sailboat, however, had suffered a fire and the hull was badly damaged. Niska hired Erik Estlander to complete a full overhaul of the ship but the projected costs were beyond the reach of Niska’s wallet.
Niska came up with the idea of recruiting crew members for the voyage by having individuals pay a pre-agreed sum to him. Thus he got both a crew and repair funds. Niska also circulated through the restaurants and cafes of Helsinki seeking backers and partners. He recruited Rafael Johannes Kajander (b. 7 June 1893) as one of his first crew. Kajander paid Niska FIM 35,000 to participate in the voyage. He also helped Niska by recruiting benefactors to sponsor the trip. Another friend of Niska’s, Axel Belewicz (b. 11 November 1899), a travel agent, was also involved in soliciting donations from potential funders. Together, the three men secured FIM 60,000 and 100,000 between the autumn of 1937 and June 1938.
Despite this influx of funds, Niska only paid another FIM 5,000 to Pehrmann. At the same time, Niska changed the boat name from Merihaukka to Fennia [Finland in Latin]. In the spring of 1938, Niska traveled to northern Finland, drumming up support and funds for his trip. He met an artist, Arvi Oskari Broms (b. 5 June 1910) who, with the assistance of his family, paid Niska FIM 10,000 to join the crew. Overall, in addition to the 60,000-100,000 Niska received in cash support, he also received FIM 58,000 in entry fees and a number of donations of physical goods. His financial situation had improved substantially but in the spring of 1938, his plans for an around the world trip were sidelined in favour of a more lucrative adventure.
A New Adventure
|Fazer Cafe - Helsinki - 1930s|
(from Pinterest - link leads to a 404 page on Fazer Cafe website)
Whilst chatting in the cafes of the Finnish capital, the conversation of the three men turned to the situation of the Jews in Central Europe. With the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938), Amtmann was very concerned about his father and brothers who still lived in Vienna. Amtmann was also becoming concerned about his own situation in Berlin, and that of his wife, Maria (nee Küpperer - b. 13 September 1899).
In the face of Amtmann's distress, Niska would have cut a confident figure - he spoke well, dressed well and had a knack for portraying himself as a man of influence. Niska gained Amtmann’s trust and convinced him that he could help. He told Amtmann that he was an important man in Finland and worked for the Finnish government. He suggested that he could help Amtmann and his Jewish acquaintances. Over several meetings at Niska’s apartment, Niska came up with a plan and told Amtmann that he could obtain legal Finnish citizen papers. Niska asked the men how many Jewish acquaintances would need help and if they were wealthy enough to pay Niska. The two men reassured Niska that the Berlin Jews were quite wealthy and would have no trouble paying him any fees required
At the end of May 1938, Niska took down Maria Amtmann’s contact information as Albert Amtmann had to leave Finland. With Amtmann’s departure, Niska put his plan into action. His grand scheme of sailing around the world was relegated to the back burner. He still recruited new crew members in June 1938, but his focus was on the Jews. On 21 June 1938, Niska sold Fennia to Aarne Erik Karjalainen for FIM 16,000. Niska didn’t profit from the sale since the proceeds of the sale went to pay off Niska’s original purchase price debt.
After Amtmann left, Niska recruited Axel Belewicz as an assistant in the passport scheme. The two men had known each other since childhood and Belewicz had helped Niska during Prohibition. On 12 June 1938, Niska told Belewicz that he needed some blank Finnish passports. Niska told Belewicz that he needed them for Finns who wanted to volunteer with General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Why he came up with this cover story is unknown although it might be that Belewicz and his contact in the provincial office were more amenable to helping right-wing patriots in the fight against communist forces. Niska promised to pay Belewicz for each passport he could procure. Niska knew that Belewicz was romantically involved with a woman, Kerttu Ollikainen (b. 17 March 1889), who worked as a junior clerk in the Uusimaa provincial government office (Helsinki is located within Uusimaa province). Initially Ollikainen refused Belewicz’s request but she acquiesed after hearing the story of how the passports were required for Finnish patriots. She too was promised financial compensation for each passport she could steal. Obtaining the passports was not difficult for they were stored in an unlocked desk drawer in the governor's office. Ollikainen stole the first batch of blank passports in late June/early July 1938 and the last batch in September/October of 1938. The intervening months would be exceptionally busy, and profitable, for Niska.
Niska was aware of the situation in Europe and of border formalities and legislation. He knew that smuggling Jews across borders could result in them being deported back to Germany. His plan was to move them across borders in a transparent manner, fulfilling the external framework of legality - with forged Finnish passports. After the First World War, movement across state borders had become more difficult with visas being required. In the late 1920s, several European countries entered into a mutual agreement to waive visa requirements. For Finland, these countries included: Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Japan. France had not entered into a reciprocal visa waiver agreement with Finland even though Finland had exempted all French citizens from requiring visas. Niska then, knew where Jews with Finnish passports could easily travel.
In June/July 1938, Niska received the first batch of ten blank passports as well as county government paper seals. With the passports in hand, Niska was ready to travel to Germany to market them. In late June 1938, he also recruited two brothers, Leonard (Rafael) Joffs (b. 28 September 1887) and Fredrik (Joel) Joffs (b. 13 July 1896) to aid him. Rafael was a mechanical engineer and restaurateur who, in 1938, was working at a small factory in Helsinki. He was married to Linnea (Maria) Joffs (nee Lindkvist) and the couple had a son, Sven-Ola Joffs (b. 1921). Fredrik was also a restaurateur and divorced from his wife.
Niska wanted to leave Finland via “unofficial” means and convinced the Joffs to take a summer sailing holiday with him onboard. Niska, himself had told his world-trip supporters, Broms and Kajander, two different stories about why he was traveling abroad by such covert means, none of which was the truth. His smuggling years had taught Niska to lie with fluency, to cover his tracks so that his friends and acquaintances, should they be questioned by the authorities, couldn't give anything away. On 2 July 1938, the sail boat left port and arrived in Swinemünde, Germany, on 9 July 1938. Upon arrival in Swinemünde, Niska and Rafael Joffs traveled to Berlin by train while Fredrik and Sven-Ola stayed behind to guard the sailboat. Upon arrival in Berlin, the two men traveled to Wilmersdorf by car and stayed at the Pension Rosa Stössinger (a Jewish establishment) at Lietzenburgerstrasse 47.
Passports in Berlin
|Postcard - Pension Rosa Stössinger - Berlin|
Niska and Joffs left the Amtmann apartment with Niska in a jovial mood. He was once again flush with funds, for he had previously lamented his lack of money in Berlin, to the point that he had had to borrow some money from Joffs. Niska had about 800-1000 German marks in banknotes and he would receive even more once the passports were delivered. But there was a lot to be done before he could fulfill his promise.
While Niska began to forge the Finnish passports, Rafael Joffs returned to Helsinki on 13 July, returning to Berlin on 18 July. It is possible that Joffs returned to Helsinki to acquire more blank passport forms, explaining such a quick turn around trip. The meeting at the Amtmann's had convinced Niska that there was a definite demand for Finnish passports and that he needed more of them, and quickly.
While Joffs was away, Niska met up with a young businessman who had been present at the meeting at the Amtmann’s apartment. Robert Gries (b. 9 August 1904) in Posen, south of Leipzig, was a criminal who had been convicted for fraud, theft and embezzlement. He was wanted in Berlin for passport forgery and therefore had connections in the underworld, connection that Niska badly needed. In order to enhance the credibility of his Finnish passports, Niska needed entry/exit stamps and, with Gries's assistance, he acquired these from a Polish-born forger. Niska also acquired a round seal-stamp that was used by the Uusimaa provincial office to stamp the portrait photograph once it was in the passport. Where Niska got such an important device is unknown although it may have come from the Polish forger or from another Joffs brother in Helsinki (Henrik Joffs). In return for Gries's assistance, Niska sold three of his passports to Gries, each with Gries’s picture but with different names (Robert Gries, Ragnar Grandberg, Riku Göhle). Who received the other four passports from that initial meeting at the Amtmann's is a mystery.
On 18 July, Niska and Joffs connected again in Berlin before heading in separate directions. Rafael Joffs headed back to Swinemünde and the three Joffs sailed back to Finland on 20 July. As for Niska, he traveled to Prague where he met Albert Amtmann who had arrived there earlier. The three passports reserved for the Amtmann relations seem to have been destined for Alfred Abraham Schapiro (b. 22 March 1894). Schapiro was a successful Jewish businessman who owned a shop in Vienna but who had had to flew and leave everything behind after the Anschluss.
Upon leaving Prague, Niska smuggled some valuables and currency for Schapiro into Denmark, arriving in Copenhagen on 26 or 27 July. This would become a lucrative service for Niska who received anywhere from 10-20% of the valuables/cash. While Niska swore that the Jews always received their property back, we have only his word for that.
Regroup in Helsinki
From Copenhagen, Niska flew to Helsinki on 31 July. At the time, Niska had no assistant who could travel to Helsinki on his behalf and he needed to return as his own passport was due to expire. Niska also wanted to recruit either Rafael or Fredrik Joffs to play a more active role, since they could move freely through Central Europe without arousing much suspicion.
While in Helsinki, Niska met with Broms and Kajander, two of his world trip partners. Broms in particular, was getting impatient with Niska's talk and promises that never resulted in action. Broms either wanted a world trip or he wanted his money back. Niska showed Broms and Kajander the valuables (diamond and gold rings) that he had brought back from Central Europe and the three men spent the evening celebrating Niska’s success.
On 2 August, Niska met with Rafael and Fredrik Joffs, Belewicz, Broms and Kajander and regaled them with tales of how profitable it was to sell fake passports and smuggle Jewish valuables. While Rafael Joffs wasn’t interested in being Niska’s assistant, Fredrik Joffs was willing to give it a go. At that same meeting, Belewicz provided Niska with another ten blank passport forms which Niska paid for in cash. There is also some evidence to suggest that Fredrik Joffs visited Belecwicz the next day and got another ten passport forms. Thus, Niska had at least twenty blank passport forms at his disposal in early August. He also needed more credible stamps for the passports, preferably some domestic ones, and was able to purchase some from a contact in Helsinki. This may have been Henrik Joffs, who was a metal worker. Niska needed these stamps (entry and exit) to create an imaginary travel history for the passport holders who, being "Finnish", would naturally have begun and ended trips in Finland.
Thus, in this quick trip to Finland, Niska accomplished much. He had reassured his sailing partners of his financial solvency, acquired a capable and willing assistant, renewed his own passport and bought another twenty blank passport forms. He was ready for another trip to Germany.
Second Trip to Central Europe
Niska and Fredrik Joffs left Helsinki on 4 August for Prague via Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin. According to Joffs, during the layover in Berlin, Niska met a woman (possibly Maria Amtmann) and handed her an envelope which may have contained forged passports. Given the number of potential customers who had been turned away empty-handed at that first meeting at the Amtmann residence, it is possible that Niska had taken their photographs and personal information. With the new passport forms from Belewicz, Niska was then able to fulfill the orders.
After their brief layover in Berlin, the two schemers continued their flight to Prague where Niska again met with Schapiro, Amtmann and a friend of theirs, Leo Wiesen. Wiesen purchased a passport for 7000 German Marks and there is some evidence that of the three passports received by Schapiro, he sold at least one, which would ultimately cause problems for Niska. Schapiro fled to Paris where his brother lived but in mid-September, a Jewish woman notified the Finnish Embassy in Prague that Schapiro had sold a Finnish passport. Schapiro was requested to visit the Finnish Embassy in Paris where, upon examination, his passport was found to be fake. Schapiro was arrested and during questioning, told the police that he had bought the passport from Niska. Schapiro was released on bond after promising to appear before the courts later that year.
In addition to Schapiro and Wiesen, Niska also met Richard Neumann (b. 2 June 1893) in Prague. Neumann bought a forged passport from Niska and also gave him currency to transport to Copenhagen. It would appear that in this instance, Fredrik Joffs worked as a courier, taking the valuables to Copenhagen while Niska remained behind in Prague. Later in August, Neumann contacted Niska and said that two of his friends, Arthur and Hedvig Stern needed passports. Niska provided the Sterns with two passports through Neumann, never actually meeting the couple face-to-face. The Sterns, however, would not escape and Arthur Stern was arrested by the Prague police on 13 February 1939.
After selling the passports to Schapiro, Wiesen, Neumann and the Sterns, Niska returned to Berlin and the Pension Rosa Stössinger. Niska met up with Robert Gries who was desperate to escape Germany as the Gestapo were hard on his heels. Niska agreed to accompany Gries across the border on 15 August 1938.
In the meantime, Niska forged fake passports for the Lasch family which included Fritz J. Lasch (b. 4.8.1892), his wife Basjo Beila Lasch (née Sudarsky - b. 25 April 1897) and their son Heinz Lasch (b. 5 May 1924). Lasch had owned a glove factory in Berlin (J. Lasch and Sons) and was very wealthy. On 10 or 11 August, Lasch met Niska and Fredrik Joffs who presented themselves as officials of the Finnish Embassy in Berlin. The two Finns told Lasch that they could arrange Finnish passports and citizenship for the whole family... as long as Fritz Lasch had enough money. The family paid at least 6000 German Marks for the passports but they, like so many others, would discover that the passports were not a ticket to salvation.
The Lasch family escaped from Germany and traveled to Amsterdam and onwards to Paris in the autumn of 1938. Because of the lack of a bilateral visa exemption between Finland and France, however, Finns were required to endorse their passports with the Finnish authorities. Given the fact that the Lasch family had no trouble entering France, it is possible that Niska had forged French entry and exit stamps which would have assisted Jews in entering France. But, although they could enter France easily, problems would arise later, as we saw with Alfred Schapiro.
In April 1939, Fritz Lasch visited the Finnish Embassy in Paris where his passport was found to be fake. Lasch, like others with forged Finnish passports, may been required to attend the embassy after the residency permit expired. Such a visit increased the risk of detection significantly, especially in September and October 1938 when the Finnish authorities became aware of fake Finnish passports circulating through Europe.
As for Robert Gries, on 15 August 1938, Niska, Gries and Gries’s girlfriend, Gretchen, drove to the Czech border. Niska and Gries snuck across the border on foot while Gretchen stayed in a Pension on the German side of the border, ready to convey Niska back to Berlin. Once safely clear of the border, the two men boarded a train for Prague and were questioned by the Czech customs authorities but Niska’s gift for gab and his Finnish-ness smoothed their passage. Niska then returned to Berlin enroute to Copenhagen, where he arrived on 17 August 1938. This trip to Copenhagen may have been another smuggling run with valuables and currency.
By 20 August, Niska was back in Berlin, ready to sell the remaining passports. One his clients this time was Gerhard Neumann (b. 12 June 1903 - no relation to the Austrian Richard Neumann). Neumann believed that Niska was a Finnish police officer and paid him 20,000 German Marks for the Finnish passport. In October 1938, Neumann traveled to southern Holland and then onwards to Amsterdam in early 1939. Neumann was lulled into a false sense of security by the Finnish passport and made the mistake of staying too long in the Netherlands. The Dutch police became aware of Neumann’s Finnish passport and after checking with the Finns, arrested Neumann.
By the end of August, Niska was running out of blank passport forms and asked Belewicz to get another batch and give them to Fredrik Joffs. It was then up to Joffs to make the dangerous trip to Copenhagen on a flight with the blank passport forms. Niska was a savvy man and knew that if he made regular trips to Helsinki, the authorities might get suspicious of his activity. Far better to have Fredrik Joffs make the trip, using a false passport.
One of Niska’s ongoing problems was how to keep the loyalty of his sailing partners. Many people had sunk a significant amount of money into Niska’s around-the-world sailing tour and had received only talk and promises. Broms in particular was getting tired of Niska’s promises. In mid-August, Niska invited both Broms and Kajander to travel to Copenhagen, all expenses paid. It seems that Niska tried to get both men involved in the Jewish passport business, paying for trips to Paris (Broms) and Berlin (Kajander). But neither man wanted to be involved in the venture and returned to Finland where their patience would eventually wear out.
Another of Niska’s partners, Robert Gries, would also cause trouble. After arriving in Prague on 15 August 1938, Gries traveled to Budapest and presented himself as a wealthy executive from a Finnish aircraft parts factory. He met the wife of a well-known Hungarian businessman and their relationship soon blossomed to the point where Niska had access to the woman's jewellery and cash. Gries left the country with a considerable amount of the lady's money and jewelery. The woman notified the authorities who determined that “Ragnar Grandberg” was using a forged Finnish passport. It was only a matter of time before the Finnish authorities would begin to get suspicious and realize that the problem went beyond one forged Finnish passport.
Gries made his way back to Berlin in September 1938 where he met up with Niska. The movements of the two men over the next few months would coincide as both ended up traveling to Amsterdam in October 1938. Gries no longer wanted to travel to Berlin so they set up a headquarters outside Germany where interestsed Jews could contact them by mail. On 12 November 1938, Gries traveled to Brussels and rented a postal box. Word spread quickly, and there was a steady flow of mail from Jews in Germany, France, Italy and England. Gries would regularly check the mailbox and notify Niska of interesting queries. All seemed to be going smoothly.
In early December 1938, the mailbox began to fill up with uncollected mail and the authorities got suspicious and opened some of the letters which were variously addressed to: Gries, Kapauner, Friedländer and Niska. As it turns out, on 5 December 1938, Gries departed Brussels in haste taking almost all of Niska’s money with him (this is based on Niska’s account). Niska claimed that he found Gries in Amsterdam and got his money back. How much of this is true is debatable.
Three Jewish Helpers
While still in Berlin in August 1938, Niska had met three young Jews who wanted to escape from Germany: Hans Heinrich Friedländer (b. 2 July 1900), Hella Kapauner-Freymann (b. 19 April 1909) and Sidonie Goldenberg (b. 5 September 1913). Hans and Hella were lovers and Sidonie was their good friend, who was also friendly with the Lasch family. According to Niska, Hella showed up at the door of his Pension and begged for his help. Niska said that he forged three passports for the young people without requiring any payment. All three wanted to travel to Holland where they had relatives and friends. The three settled in Amsterdam and tried to keep a low profile, and did not register as foreigners with the authorities.
When Niska and Gries came up with the idea of running the passport business out of Holland, Niska recruited Friedländer as his assistant. There is no evidence as to who may have purchased passports in Holland but the Dutch police estimated that Jews paid 3000 Dutch Guilden for a fake passport.
On 19 December 1938, Friedländer was arrested by the authorities and held at a concentration camp for Jewish refugees. According to Niska, he and an assistant drove to the camp and helped Friedländer to escape by deceiving the camp guards. Niska and the three young Jews quickly departed Holland for Brussels.
After the rift between Niska and Gries, the steady stream of letters stopped but resumed in January 1939 when Hella Kapauner-Freymann opened a post box in her name at the 1st Post Office in Brussels. The three refugees did not linger long in Brussels however, departing on 9 February for France. They narrowly escaped captured by the Belgian police who had issued a warrant for their arrest. Niska indicates that the three young Jews ended up in southern France in the late winter of 1939 (February/March).
After helping Friedländer, Kapauner-Freymann and Goldenberg escape Berlin in August 1938, Niska returned to Berlin to sell his remaining passports. Niska met Dr. Wilhelm Noher (b. 26 July 1892), who had been introduced to him by Fritz Lasch. Niska told Noher that he was an official of the Finnish Embassy who could obtain a Finnish passport for Noher, for a price. Noher seized the opportunity and paid Niska 6000 German Marks for a Finnish passport. Noher made his way to Amsterdam and then onwards to Paris in early 1939. After a few months, he decided to voluntarily register with the Finnish embassy but by then word of the forged Finnish passports had spread across Europe and Noher’s passport was confiscated.
Ditching the Passports
Niska’s movements in September 1938 were quite scattered with him traveling between Denmark, Holland and Belgium with occasional forays into Berlin. By late September, Niska sensed that the game was ending. On 27 September 1938, a group of Jews met in Berlin at the apartment of Alfred Joseph (b. 12 February 1891) and his wife Henny Joseph (née Zimmermann). While Alfred Joseph was not at home, Henny entertained Niska, Fredrik Joffs and a Jewish couple, Ernest Falkenburg and his wife Clotilde (née Jancourt). At this meeting, Niska admitted that the passports were forged but the Falkenburg's still purchased two passports. It would not benefit them. On 1 November 1938, the Gestapo searched the Falkenburg home and found the forged passports in the stove. Both Falkenburg’s were arrested and imprisoned for several months for interfering with the proceeds of crime.
Niska still had a bunch of blank passport forms and wanted to get rid of them as quickly as possible. He was no longer interested in direct sales and met two gentleman, Rabau and Rosenthal, in Berlin who promised to pass the forged passports onwards to their clients. Leitinen notes that the names Rabau and Rosenthal do not occur in any other contexts and suspects that Niska may have misspelled their names. It is also possible that these two men are identical with Dochnal and Rosenberg, the two accomplices of Ziebell, although this is only speculation.
As he was preparing to depart Berlin, Niska met a lawyer, Dr. Jürgen Ziebell who said that he knew several customers who would buy Finnish passports. Ziebell provided Niska with the photos and details of his clients and paid Niska the agreed price (6000-7000 German Marks). Niska apparently forged eight passports for Ziebell.
One of Ziebell’s clients was Dorothea Klara Schachtel (born 1 October 1905) who I blogged about earlier. The other seven passports were reserved for the following individuals: Alfred Gutmann, Erna Levi, Ernst Michel David, Clara David, Richard Eduard Wiener, Louis Hagen and Viktoria Hagen. According to Leitinen, none of those individuals escaped Germany which is not accurate, as we will learn in subsequent blog posts. Suffice to say that Finnish passports were not their ticket to freedom. In the fall of 1938, all seven passport holders were arrested one-by-one. Ziebell himself, according to Laitinen ended up in prison for an unknown amount of time, as did the people who assisted him. We've already discovered how Ziebell's career played out after his arrest...
From the Ziebell sales alone, it is estimated that Niska made 52,000 German Marks. After that, his passports ran out and he headed for safer turf - Holland and Belgium. In early October, he sent Fredrik Joffs to Helsinki to get another batch of blank passport forms.
The Game is Up
On 12 September, Albert Amtmann traveled to Helsinki from Prague on business. His arrival was noted by the State Police who had been tipped by one of Amtmann’s former business partners in Austria. This was also around the same time that the authorities began to be aware of the forged Finnish passports circulating through Europe. On 27 September, Niska asked Belewicz to meet Amtmann in Helsinki and see about securing him a residency permit. When Belewicz and Kajander (who could speak passable German while Belewicz spoke virtually none) met Amtmann in a cafe, they found an angry and nervous man. He had been questioned by the State Police the previous day and was incensed that he, an innocent man, had been involved in this passport business with Niska. Amtmann left for Prague on 7 October 1938.
Belewicz and Kajander informed Niska by telephone of the Amtmann's interrogation by the State Police but this didn’t faze Niska at all. He simply moved quickly to rid himself of the remaining passports. It therefore seems logical that the passports sold to Ziebell were in part, a reaction to the changed situation. Niska would no longer do business in Germany but Holland was still an open market.
In early October, Niska and Joffs traveled to Copenhagen at which point they split up. Joffs went back to Helsinki to pick up more blank passport forms while Niska traveled onwards to Amsterdam. On 13 October 1938, Joffs flew back to Denmark and met Niska in Copenhagen. From Copenhagen, Niska flew to Amsterdam to meet Robert Gries and Hans Friedländer. Joffs, for some reason continued on to Berlin on behalf of Niska only to phone him a few days later quite upset. The Gestapo had searched his Pension prior to his arrived and the friendly Pension owner advised Joffs that the Gestapo had asked questions regarding Joffs, Niska and passport forgery. Joffs said he was returning to Finland and Niska agreed that was probably the best course of action. It would appear that Niska knew the game was up but he still had ten blank passport forms that he was going to sell before giving up the operation.
Fredrik Joffs arrived in Helsinki on 24 October 1938 and was met by Belewicz. Their meeting was observed by Broms who had returned to Helsinki on 19 October from Paris and Copenhagen. Broms, disillusioned with Niska and his empty promises had, upon his arrival, reported to the State Police what he knew about Niska’s passport activities. After observing Belewicz and Joffs together, Broms reported to the State Police who started to hunt for Joffs. But Joffs would get word of their search and escaped to Estonia, only returning to Finland in the autumn of 1939. The Finnish authorities would not become aware of his return until October 1940.
Niska sold his last ten passports in October 1938, likely in Holland and Belgium with the assistance of Friedländer and Gries. He may have mailed some of the passports to Germany. At some point in October, Niska learned that Belewicz had been arrested in Helsinki and that the steady supply of passports had dried up.
Broms’s information to the State Police in mid-October, allowed the Finnish authorities to identify the mastermind behind the forged Finnish passports circulating in Central Europe. The State Police and the Gestapo had already become aware of the situation in September and had agreed to cooperate, althought that cooperation never extended as far as extraditing citizens to foreign courts.
In February 1939, Belewicz, Ollikainen and Rafael Joffs were tried by the Helsinki district court. Their trial was much delayed due to additional information that kept coming to light during the proceedings and the final verdict was not announced until 23 August 1939. All three were found guilty of various offences and their punishment was:
- Ollikainen - 4 months imprisonment and a fine of FIM 2500
- Belewicz - 7 months imprisonment and a fine of FIM 9780
- Joffe - all charges were dropped
Number of Passports
|Yli Vihreän Raian - Algot Niska (1953)|
(Finnish book cover)
Altogether, the value of Niska's passport transactions was approximately FIM 2,490,000. While Niska, and some others, have claimed that he was a helper of Jews, the fact that he derived significant financial benefit doesn't jive with pure altruism. In his book, Over Green Borders, Niska constantly emphasised his honest reputation, however, the archival Finnish documents suggest otherwise. In his book, Niska repeatedly states that he does not mean to brag, that he is not the hero and yet... that is exactly how he comes across - the heroic adventurer who selflessly puts himself in danger to save the persecuted Jews. He does admit in a few places that his motives were not entirely philanthropic but that he was also not motivated out of pure greed. Niska was ready for an adventure... one that compensated him. Niska did note on p. 143 of his book (English translation), after he had run out of passports in October 1938 - "if only I had five passports, I would very soon become a wealthy man".
From his first meeting with Amtmann and Gartenberg in May 1938, it was clear that helping the Jews would generate income for Niska. He formed a team of assistants who took most of the risks while he reaped most of the rewards. The people Niska helped included: doctor, lawyer, factory owner, business owners, wholesaler, deputy director and attorney. The German authorities estimated that Niska received an average of 6000-7000 German Marks per passport.
Amtmann and Goldenberg had told Niska that the Berlin Jews had lots of money and he focused almost exclusively on the wealthiest Jews. At the same time, the success of Niska’s “assistance” is questionable. According to Laitinen, of the 48 Jews Niska “assisted":
- Ten were caught before reaching the German border
- Ten managed to flee Germany but were caught elsewhere and at least three died in concentration camps.
- Twenty-five unnamed Jews - fate unknown
- Only three of the Jews are known to have survived the Holocaust.
Winter War & Beyond
With the declaration of the Winter War, Niska enlisted and fought in Laatokka until 13 March 1940. He also served in an intelligence role during the Continuation War.
In the mid 1940s, Niska tried to fund the building of a new boat by giving interviews about his life. I did find a ship's manifest for the Swedish vessel Trykon which sailed from Aruba, arriving at Providence, Rhode Island (USA) on 8 April 1951. According to the manifest, Algoth Johannes Niska (62 years old) had shipped with the vessel on 27 January 1951 from Antwerp. He was listed as Third Officer. There is also a rumous that Niska underwent ulcer surgery in Antwerp in 1951, but did not pay the bill as he was in serious debt. At some point in 1952/53 Niska wrote and published his memoir - Over Green Borders (in Finnish - Yli vihreän rajan). In October 1953 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and lost his speech and power of movement. Algoth Niska died on 28 May 1954 in Helsinki at the age of 65.
|Schlüter Family plot in Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki (From Find-a-Grave)|
Left panel - Bror Ivar Niska (1887-1952 - brother of Algoth)
Centre panel - Algot Bernhard Schlüter (1864-1919 - uncle of Algoth)
Centre panel - Algoth Johannes Niska (1888-1954)
Right panel - Hilda Niska (nee Schlüter) (1854-1934 - mother of Algoth)
Right panel - Aina Maria Smeds (nee Niska) (1886-1952 - sister of Algoth
Niska is buried in his mother's family grave in Hietaniemi Cemetery. The English translation of Niska's book states that he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Helsinki but this seems unlikely. At Niska's funeral, an elder from the Helsinki Jewish congregation gave an emotional thank you. This gentleman had apparently read Niska's book - Over Green Borders and been impressed. The Jewish elder's speech is presented the website of Niska's grandson (Ilkka "Danny" Lipsanen). The elder stated that he had not been sent by the local congregation and did not represent the congregation. He wanted to express deep gratitude to Niska for rescuing over 150 Jews from the Gestapo. The elder referred to Niska’s book, Over Green Borders, stating that it was a historical document that would be presereved in the records of the Jewish people. The elder said the book would be sent to Israel, to the University Library of Jerusalem, where it would find a place of honour among other similar historical works.
|Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem|
(From Wikipedia - used under Creative Commons
Attribution Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher
צילום:ד"ר אבישי טייכר)
The YadVashem website documents all those who have been honoured with the title Righteous Among the Nations. A person can be considered for the title of Righteous Among the Nations when the data on hand based on survivor testimony or other documentation, clearly demonstrates that a non-Jewish person risked his or her life, freedom, and safety, in order to rescue one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation without exacting monetary compensation or other rewards. This applies equally to rescuers who have since passed away.
It should be noted that the Yad Vashem site does not list Niska in its database of the Righteous Among the Nations. Danny’s site states that Niska was the “Schindler of Finland” but this would seem to be a bit of a stretch. I completely understand the desire to view one's grandfather through a heroic lens, for Algoth Niska and Josef Jakobs share a similar criminal history, but the truth must be faced. Algoth Niska was no Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg or Chiune Sugihara.
- Oskar Schindler (German) saved 1200 Jews by employing them in his own factory and by using his own money to bribe Nazi officials.
- Raoul Wallenberg (Swedish) saved 10,000s of Jews by issuing protective passports in his role as Swedish Envoy to Hungary and sheltering the Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory. He died in Soviet detention.
- Chiune Sugihara (Japanese) saved 6000 Jews by issuing transit visas to Jews in his role s Japan's vice consol in Lithuania, despite orders to the contrary.
Algoth Niska does not strike me as belonging in the same class as the aforementioned men.
What of the Jews?
The real question is... what became of the Jews who bought forged Finnish passports from Algoth Niska? What became of these 27 people? I'll be updating this list with blog post links as I research them...
- ? Emmanuel Gartenberg - unknown
- * Albert & Maria (Kipperer) Amtmann - survived
- ? Robert Gries - unknown
- ? Alfred Abraham Schapiro - unknown
- ? Leo Wiesen - unknown (possibly survived)
- * Richard Neumann - survived
- ? Arthur & Hedvig Stern - unknown
- + Fritz J. Lasch - perished in the Shoah
- * Gerhard Neumann - survived
- + Hans Heinrich Friedländer - perished in the Shoah
- * Hella Kapauner-Freymann - survived
- + Sidonie Goldenberg - perished in the Shoah
- ? Wilhelm Noher - unknown
- * Ernest & Clotilde (Jancourt) Falkenburg - survived
- * Dorothea Klara Schachtel - survived
- * Alfred Gutmann - survived
- ? Erna Levi - unknown - no birth data
- * Ernst Michel & Clara David - survived
- * Richard Eduard Wiener - survived
- * Louis & Viktoria Hagen - survived
Jussi Samuli Laitinen; Huijari vai pyhimys? Algoth Niskan osallisuus juutalaisten salakuljettamiseen Keski-Euroopassa vuoden 1938 aikana; Joensuun yliopisto; 2009 [Jussi Samuli Laitinen; Crook or saint? Participation of Algoth Niska in smuggling Jews in Central Europe during 1938; University of Joensuu; 2009]
Algoth Niska & J. Jerry Danielsson - Over Green Borders (1995) - English translation of Yli vihreän rajan published in 1953.
National Archives, Kew - Security Service files on Josef Jakobs - KV 2/24, 2/25, 2/26, 2/27
Kustannus HD website (Finnish) - has information on Niska provided by his grandson Danny.
Danny's website (Finnish) - has information on Niska, Danny's grandfather
Päivänlehti website (Finnish) - article about Niska by Kari Kallonen
Yle website (Finnish) - has a 27 minute video on Niska... in Finnish. Video seems to focus primarily on Niska's liquor smuggling days.
Wikipedia - overview information on Niska
Ancestry - tree on Niska and Schlüter family, ship manifests