from Points East - a publication of the Sino-Judaic Institute, California
In the summer of 1940, in the Lithuanian capital city of Kovno (Kaunas), a Dutch gentile businessman did truly amazing things to assist literally thousands of stranded Jews. What was the role of Jan Zwartendijk (1896-1976) in the Kovno rescue episode? Why has Lithuania now recognized him for courage fifty-nine years after the event?
The Kovno Episode
By late 1939, under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Germany had completed its occupation of western Poland while the Soviet Union took over eastern Poland. By May 1940 at least 10,000 Jews had fled from those occupied zones into neutral Lithuania. On June 15, 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania and five weeks later accepted its "request" to be annexed into the U.S.S.R., a procedure that was completed by August 5.
The Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania precisely to escape Soviet rule felt especially vulnerable and desperate during the annexation process. By July virtually all consulates in Kovno, the Lithuanian capital, were in the process of closing. Panic set in among the Jewish refugees. At the point Jan Zwartendijk, voluntarily and at great personal risk, took on a role which quickly evolved into the rescue of the Jews.
Since May 1939 Jan had represented Philips, the Dutch electronics manufacturer, in Lithuania. In May 1940 the Germans over-ran Holland and a Dutch Government-in-Exile, technically a resistance organization, was established in London. L.P.J. De Decker, the Dutch Ambassador to the Baltic states who was based in Riga, Latvia, suspected the then-Dutch consul in Kovno of pro-Nazi sympathies. In June 1940 he asked Zwartendijk to take over in Kovno as consul in Lithuania representing the Dutch Government-in-Exile. In spite of the fact that Zwartendijk had no diplomatic experience and a wife and three young children in Kovno, he readily accepted this potentially risky assignment.
Zwartendijk's work almost immediately entailed the even more dangerous task of rescuing Jews. In July 1940 Pessla Lewin, a former Dutch citizen who was now a Polish refugee living in Lithuania with her husband Isaac and son Nathan, took the gamble of writing to De Decker, who was still the Dutch ambassador. She requested authorization to emigrate to the Dutch West Indies. She learned that no visa was required but that she would need a landing permit from the local governor. Such permits were only rarely issued. Nevertheless the ambassador tried to help by inscribing in her Polish passport, in French, the statement that "for the admission of aliens to Surinam, Curaćao, and other Dutch possessions in the Americas, an entry visa is not required." This stipulation, dated July 11 1940, came to be known as a "Curaćao visa." It gave the impression of being as good as a visa since it omitted the key phrase that a landing permit was required. On July 22, Isaac Lewin approached Zwartendijk in Kovno. According to Lewin, Zwartendijk, "after seeing what De Decker had done, copied (the Curaćao visa) into my Lithuanian safe-conduct pass." Armed with this documentation, Pessla and Isaac Lewin, plus her mother and brother who were still Dutch citizens, went to the Soviet and Japanese consuls in Kovno and were routinely issued seven-to-fifteen-day transit visas allowing them to pass through each of those countries. The Japanese consul was Sugihara Chiune, who has been featured in movies and is far better known than Zwartendijk. Without Zwartendijk's fictitious destination visas, however, neither Sugihara nor his Soviet counterpart would have been able to issue one single transit visa through their respective territories.
Unaware of the Lewins' experience, Nathan Gutwirth, a legitimate Dutch citizen then residing in Telz (Telsiai), Lithuania, asked Zwartendijk on July 24 if several of his fellow students, non-Dutch citizens, could accompany him to Curaćao. Zwartendijk volunteered to help, providing the same notation he had given the Lewin's. Gutwirth conveyed this information to Polish Zionist leader, and later Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Zorach Warhaftig. Warhaftig made inquiry of Zwartendijk, who let it be known that he was willing to give a "Cura ćao visa" to anyone who asked.
Thus, with Zwartendijk's help, the Lewins' single-family trip rapidly became a mass exodus of beleaguered Jews. Within hours, dozens of petitioners were lined up at Zwartendijk's Philips office, which is today part of the Red Cross hospital on Kovno's main downtown thoroughfare. Zwartendijk originally had received De Decker's concurrence to issue phoney visas only for a few of Gutwirth's friends. But Zwartendijk went on to write approximately 1,300 visas by hand between July 24 and 27 and another 1,050 with the help of a rubber stamp between July 29 and August 3, when the Soviets took over Zwartendijk's office, obligating him and his family to return to Holland. The highest known visa number is 2,345, issued to Elisasz Kupinski and his family.
In reality, not a single Jew showed up in Curaćao. This is not surprising because Zwartendijk had made it clear to the recipients of his "Curaćao visas" that this notation would not allow them entry. They understood very well that the "Curaćao visas" were a ruse to get out of the U.S.S.R. and, they hoped, as far as Japan, where they could try their luck at various consulates to get visas for other countries. About half of the roughly 2,200 refugees who reached Japan with Zwartendijk's visas succeeded in moving on to the United States, Palestine, and other final destinations. Those not so fortunate were shipped by the Japanese government to Shanghai, the only place on earth just prior to the Holocaust where a Jew, or anyone else, could legally walk ashore without any documentation whatsoever. Within a year of the Kovno exodus Lithuania was over-run by the Nazis. The remaining Jews of Lithuania were almost entirely annihilated. The thousands of Jews who escaped with the help of visas from Zwartendijk would almost certainly have been murdered had they remained in Lithuania.
On June 4, 1999, on the grounds of the Jewish State Museum in Vilna (Vilnius), the present-day capital of Lithuania, three stone monuments were dedicated in his memory by Lithuania.
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