I n September 1939, Hitler conquered the western part of Poland, while Stalin, his ally, occupied the eastern part. As a result, over 10,000 Polish refugees fled to Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — which was neutral at the time. The refugees were overwhelmingly young men of draft age. They represented the cream of Poland's Jewish intellectual elite and ran the full gamut of the Jewish ideological spectrum. There were leaders of various labor (Bund and Zionist) parties; writers; actors; and some of the world's outstanding rabbis, talmudic scholars and almost 3,000 Talmudic graduate students.
When the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in late July 1940, fear seized the Orthodox Jewish community-which realized they would not be permitted to observe their religion and would be actively persecuted for it under Communism. During this transition period, they sought whatever means they could to escape to the free world. Sweden, the only accessible neutral in country in region, refused to accept refugees.
Two Dutch students (Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum) from the Telshe Yeshiva, which was located in Lithuania, asked the acting Dutch consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Jan Zwartendijk (the Philips Corp. director in Lithuania) if he could help them get to Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. The Netherlands had been occupied by the Nazis in May 1940. Zwartendijk had been asked by the Dutch ambassador to replace the Dutch consul in Kaunas, a Nazi sympathizer.
From his experience in Hamburg in the 1930s, Zwartendijk understood how grim the situation was for the Jews. He contacted L.P.J. Decker, the Dutch Ambassador in Riga, for advice and received a note saying that: "No visas were necessary for Curacao. The governor has exclusive authority to issue landing permits to foreigners, a power he rarely exercises."
The two students asked Zwartendijk to write only the first sentence in their passports. Zwartendijk agreed and entered the shortened statement in them. These now became "Curacao End-Visas."
Gutwirth and Nussbaum then took their "visa'ed" passports to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, who issued them transit visas valid for ten days in Japan. With the Dutch and Japanese "visas," the students-being foreign nationals-were able to obtain Soviet exit visas. This allowed them to travel to Vladivostock via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and from there, by boat to Japan.
The young men realized that they were on to something that might work for other Orthodox refugees caught in Lithuania. They went back to Zwartendijk, who had a rubber stamp made that said "No Visa to Curacao Necessary."
Word spread among the refugees in Vilna and hundreds rushed the Dutch consulate in Kaunas. Zwartendijk stamped the by-now invalid Polish and Lithuanian passports at breakneck speed, all day, every day. Other people created forgeries of the already "questionable" visas.
From there they went to see Sugihara, the Japanese consul, who knew the visas weren't "real," but issued transit visas to the Jews anyway. People who arrived in Japan sent their visas back to relatives still in Vilnius. Zwartendijk churned out 1,200-1,400 visas in two weeks (some passports covered whole families) and Sugihara issued close to 2,000 (because of accepted forgeries). Fully aware of the spuriousness of the documents, Japan allowed every Jew who used them to land. All of them were sponsored by the Jewish community in Kobe, Japan.
Neither Zwartendijk or Sugihara were professional diplomats. Zwartendijk was businessman who was asked by Decker to replace a Nazi sympathizer. Sugihara was an intelligence officer. The combined efforts of these two quasi-diplomats lasted less than three weeks.
The importance of this rescue was highlighted in October 1940, when Himmler issued an order prohibiting emigration of Jews from the Nazi-occupied part of Poland. He did so on the grounds that Jewish immigration to neutral countries such as the USA was already restricted, and that if Polish Jews ("Ostjuden") were toobtain immigration visas, there would be fewer visas available to German Jews. In addition, Eastern European Jews, because of their Orthodoxy, were a source of Talmud teachers and rabbis sought by American Jewish religious institutions who were "eager" to sponsor them.
The religious institutions in America, Himmler wrote, saw in the "Ostjuden" a valuable element in their struggle for a spiritual Renaissance of Judaism — which would also lead to American Jewish efforts against Germany. (The USA was neutral until Germany declared war against the USA on December 11, 1941.)
When the Soviets closed the consulates in Kaunas on August 3, Zwartendijk went back with his family to Nazi-occupied Holland, where he continued as a Phillips executive. There is a possibility that he became a British contact for the Dutch underground. Decker, as a professional diplomat, was admitted to Sweden.
Sugihara was able to stay a few more weeks, and continued to hand out transit visas even after he was forbidden to do so by his superiors. From Kaunas, where he was sent to see if the Germans would invade Russia, he was sent to Prague, then Koeningsberg and was finally recalled to Berlin.
By the end of winter 1940-1941, between 2,100 and 2,200 Jewish refugees entered Japan, where they remained for three to eight months. Before December 7, 1941, more than half of them were able to travel on to free countries in the western hemisphere.
The remaining 1,000 were transferred to Hong Kew, in the Japanese section of Shanghai, where they survived the war. They included the entire Yeshiva of Mir, the only yeshiva to survive the Holocaust intact, and a number of pre-eminent Talmudic scholars from Telshe Yeshiva, two legendary institutions of Jewish learning. This entire group eventually had a profound effect on the rejuvenation of Judaism in the post-war world.