Jan Zwartendijk was a Dutch businessman and diplomat who helped Jews escape Lithuania during World War II.
In 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
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"
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 at least 2,345 visas
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
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.