JAN ZWARTENDIJK --
his activities as Dutch consul in Lithuania, 1940
by the late Jan
Updated December 3, 2005
late 1939, the Germans occupied western Poland, the Soviets eastern Poland.
By May 1940, at least 10,000 Jews had fled from both German and Russian-occupied Poland to neutral Lithuania.
On June 15, 1940, the Soviets moved massively into all three Baltic states.
On July 21, these states “requested” to be annexed officially to the USSR.
On August 3, they were.
wide publicity surrounding Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in
1940, provides only part of the story of the escape of more than 2000 Polish
Jews trapped in Lithuania at that time.
Sugihara’s vital contribution was to issue transit visas permitting
refugees to travel through Japan to some final destination.
known is the story of how, and from whom,
the refugees got the destination visas that would require them to
travel through Japan.
account focuses on that aspect of the story.
PHANTOM VISAS TO CURAÇAO
begin in late June 1940 in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, some six weeks before
Lithuania ceased to exist as an independent country.
Polish Jewish refugees caught in Lithuania, mostly in Vilnius, sought desperately
for ways to get out, as far as possible from the looming Nazi threat. Most consulates in Lithuania’s capital,
Kaunas (Kovno in Polish and Russian) were already closed.
was running out. But the Dutch
consulate was still open.
* * * * *
Jan Zwartendijk had left Holland for Kaunas, Lithuania, in late 1938, to serve there
director of Philips, a large Dutch manufacturer of electrical equipment,
especially radios. His wife, Erna, and two children, Edith and Jan (author of
these lines), joined him there in May 1939.
A third child, Robert, was born in Kaunas in September 1939.
May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Holland.
The Dutch ambassador to the Baltic states, L.P.J. de Decker -- who resided in Riga, Latvia -- promptly
relieved the then consul-general of the Netherlands in Lithuania of his post
because of the Nazi sympathies of his German wife.
weeks later, Ambassador de Decker asked Zwartendijk to take on the position of
temporary Dutch consul for Lithuania, with presumably negligible duties. Zwartendijk was officially appointed to that
post on June 14, one day before the Soviet invaded Lithuania.
* * * * *
* * * * *
origin of the “Curaçao visas” that are at the center of this story is described
by a survivor, Isaac Lewin, in his 1994 book “Remember the Days of Old --
Historical Essays.” In late June 1940,
Pessla Lewin, Isaac’s wife, asked
both Zwartendijk and de Decker
for help in escaping Soviet-occupied Lithuania. She had been a Dutch citizen until her 1935 marriage to Isaac, a
Pole, which had made her a Polish citizen.
Having fled from Poland to Vilnius (which had been returned from Poland to Lithuania in late 1939), Pessla Lewin first inquired from Zwartendijk in Kaunas if she could have a Dutch visa for the Dutch East Indies on her Polish passport. Zwartendijk replied that was not possible. To double-check, she then wrote to Ambassador de Decker, who confirmed politely that the issuance of such visas had been terminated.
In Isaac Lewin’s words (p. 174 of his book):
“My wife wrote again to Mr. de Decker, asking whether
he could help her, since she was after all a former Dutch citizen, in some
other way. The Ambassador answered that
he did not see how he could be of any help, because to the Caribbean
possessions of Holland no visas were being issued. To enter those colonies, one had to have a permit from the local
Governor in Curaçao.
My wife wrote again to the Ambassador: Perhaps he would agree not to mention at all
the need to obtain a permit, but would merely write in her Polish passport that
visas to Curaçao and Surinam were not necessary? She did not anyway wish to go there, she wrote.
The Ambassador answered: Send me your passport. She did so, and in a few days the passport
returned with the Ambassador’s handwritten remark ...” saying in French that “... for the admission of aliens to Surinam, Curaçao
and other Dutch possessions in the Americas, an entry visa is not required.” It was dated July 11, 1940. This notation was to become known as a
Lewin continues his account: “The passport was shown to Consul Zwartendijk, and he,
after seeing what ambassador de Decker had done, copied it (into my Lithuanian
safe-conduct pass)”. The date: July 22, 1940.
of these ”Curaçao visas” appear in Isaac Lewin’s book. His son Nathan, who escaped with his parents
as a 5-year old, still has the originals.
de Decker wrote only one “Curaçao visa,” the one for Pessla Lewin on July
11. Zwartendijk’s visa issued to Isaac
Lewin on July 22 was his first according to Lewin, but many more were to
course, this notation would have been useless if it had included the part about
the required landing permit. But
without that, it could masquerade as an intended destination. That was exactly what was needed for the
next step: to give Sugihara “legal”
cover for issuing a transit visa, for traveling through Japan to the claimed
destination of Curaçao.
* * * * *
have another account of the early stage of the Curaçao visa episode, from
Nathan Gutwirth. A Dutch citizen, he
was a 23-year-old student at the yeshiva of Tels, Lithuania, where he had lived
since 1935. Gutwirth actually considered
going to Curaçao because he wanted to go somewhere near the U.S. Being Dutch, he needed only his Dutch
passport to enter Dutch colonial territory.
mid-July, Gutwirth inquired about the possibility of a visa for Curaçao for
some of his Polish and Lithuanian friends at his yeshiva who wanted to leave
for religious reasons.
was told the same as the Lewins, i.e., for aliens no visa was required for
Curaçao because the local governor had sole discretionary authority to decide
who would be permitted to land, a privilege rarely granted. Gutwirth remembers Zwartendijk having a
French text from de Decker which, beyond stating that no visa was required,
mentioned also the need for a landing permit.
Zwartendijk agreed that he would be willing to leave that part out, so
that Gutwirth’s friends might use the notation for applying for a Japanese
then went for advice to Zorach Warhaftig, a leader in the Jewish community in
Vilnius (later to become Minister of Religious Affairs in Israel). Warhaftig told Gutwirth to go back to
Zwartendijk and ask if he would be willing to give the same notation to anyone
who applied for it, and to add a consular stamp to make it look like a visa. Gutwirth made that request and Zwartendijk
agreed. Warhaftig spread the word, and
an unexpected chain reaction followed.
Within hours, dozens were at Zwartendijk’s door.
their deliberations over this matter,
de Decker and Zwartendijk had intended this modified notation just for
the Lewins and for a few of Gutwirth’s friends. But then Zwartendijk took it upon himself to agree to extend it
to anyone who asked. When he agreed to
that, he could have had no inkling that he would find himself writing about
1,300 visas by hand in the next four days (July 24-27) and issuing at least
another 1,050 with the help of a stamp over the next five working days (July 29
- August 2). The highest-numbered
surviving visa known to date is No. 2,345, issued on August 2 to Eliasz
Kupinski and family.
four people were important in the preliminary stages: Mrs. Lewin for
recognizing this opportunity, Ambassador de Decker for responding imaginatively
to her idea, Nathan Gutwirth for thinking of his non-Dutch friends, and
Warhaftig for triggering the expansion of this visa bluff far beyond a handful
of individuals. Zwartendijk rose to the
challenge of that explosive expansion.
He appears to have launched into this eight-day flurry of action on his
own, in spontaneous reaction to an overwhelming need. It required an immediate decision and immediate action. He knew he was in a position to possibly
prevent great suffering. His bogus
Curaçao visas just might open up a route of escape. As Gutwirth put it in an interview with a sound of deep
satisfaction in his old voice, “It was all a scam.”
* * *
“real” work for Philips had already ground to a halt. The Soviets had installed a new government and closed the banks,
causing all commercial activity to slow to a crawl. The firm’s show windows were stripped of merchandise. In their place -- as in every show window in
town -- appeared a giant portrait of Stalin, flanked by Marx and Lenin, against
red drapery. Around August 3, the
Soviets “allowed the workers” to take over the office space that Philips
occupied. As Zwartendijk’s Philips
office doubled as his consular office, that spelled the end to his consular
On our web page dealing with tha Japanese Consul Sugihara we have a section dealing ith the The numbers Game in the Sugihara Curaçao Visas
We believe that the correct number of Visas issued was 2345 - and here is why:
The late Jan Zwartendijk Jr. wrote on Apr 17, 2009 :
You asked: Do we know how many stamps/"visas" Jan Zwartendijk issued and for how many people?
My father numbered the visas he issued, but the list he compiled was burned, together with all other consular files. Ambassador de Decker (in Riga) ordered all Dutch consulates to do so before his own departure to Stockholm on August 16, 1940; he suspected that the Soviets would rummage through those files if they were to be sent by mail to Stockholm. One of the highlights in my own memories of those August days is that I was allowed to partake in the chore of burning everything in a small stove in a Philips warehouse (I was 11 years old).
Decades later, my father claimed that he thought he wrote 1200-1400 visas, and that he could not remember the exact text of the "visa". As we now know from visas of survivors located mostly in the 1990's, he did write about 1300 visas by hand, but then acquired a stamp and kept going. I now have 27 visa copies, ranging from the very first one (to Isaak Lewin) of July 22 to the highest numbers of #2344 and #2345 written on August 2nd (on that day, Sugihara wrote #757 to #891). My father likely signed a few more after that, but there was little time left to him; the Soviets took over the Philips office building on August 3, which put an end to it (he had no separate consular office).
I did not know until 20 years after his death that he signed another thousand or so visas after the handwritten ones, too late to ask him about that fuzzy recollection. I do know that neither ambassador de Decker nor my father reported the Curaçao "visa" episode to the Dutch government-in-exile in London at the time. Perhaps he was just trying to play it down to the press to keep them from getting too excited. He did not enjoy being the center of attention.
I do not know how many people were covered by the 2345+ visas because I have only those 27 samples. Some of those mention wives and children by name, so the visas were obviously meant to cover entire families. I know from survivors that fakes were being manufactured by some gifted refugees probably after August 3, adding to the supply, but I have no idea how many.
So there were, as a guess, around 2600 visas available for, let's say, 3500 individuals.
The number of those that could have been saved by them would then lie somewhere between zero and 3500. In another email I will offer my explanation of why the number saved is likely to be close to 2200.
Incidentally, contrary to some imaginative reports, my father and Sugihara never met. The only contact they had was through several phone calls from Sugihara to my father at the end of July 1940 asking him to slow down with his visa-writing because Sugihara could not keep up with him and people were piling up at the Japanese consulate. An unlikely serious request in my view as it would imply that he was asking my father to let them pile up at his office instead! Given the indirect ways of the Japanese, it seems likely to me that he was just checking to make sure that those Curaçao visas were really being signed by my father and that it wasn't a scam thought up by some enterprising refugees.
DUAL RACE AGAINST TIME
of a Japanese transit visa required that the recipient already be in possession
of a visa for a destination necessitating travel via Japan. A few days after Gutwirth had initiated the
rush for “Curaçao visas”, Sugihara began to provide Japanese transit visas for
a maximum ten-day stopover to any people having Curaçao visas. Travel would have to be by train across
Siberia to Vladivostok, then by ship to Japan.
It would require also a travel and exit permit from the Soviets.
would have had no reason to suspect the legitimacy of the first “Curaçao visas”
presented to him as a basis for a request for Japanese transit visas.
July 26, 1940, the Lewin family showed up at Sugihara’s office:
* Isaac Lewin (Polish citizen, man of letters, with his young son Nathan) with a “Curaçao visa” handwritten and signed by the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk.
* Isaac’s wife Pessla (Polish citizen, formerly Dutch) who could flaunt her own “Curaçao visa” handwritten and signed by the Dutch ambassador de Decker himself.
* Rachel Sternheim (Pessla’s mother, a Dutch citizen)
* Levi Sternheim (Pessla’s brother, a Dutch citizen)
all the refugees no more convincing group could have been found to introduce
Sugihara to the “Curaçao visa”: half of
them Dutch citizens with identical handwritten Curaçao notations from both the
Dutch consul and the Dutch ambassador.
For this family the documentation must have looked impeccable to
Sugihara and established the Curaçao visas’ credibility in his mind.
was on the following day, July 27, that a crowd first gathered at the Japanese
consulate’s gates. These people, all Polish, all holding the same Curaçao visas
signed by Jan Zwartendijk, all benefited from the Lewin family having been
there the day before.
Zwartendijk and Sugihara, who had not known each other and never met, found
themselves working diligently as an unplanned, uncoordinated and certainly
unofficial team, writing visas full-time and at top speed. Sugihara phoned Zwartendijk repeatedly to
ask him to slow down. When Zwartendijk approached Curaçao visa No. 2,200 on
August 1st, Sugihara was well behind at about 700 Japanese transit visas, but
he stayed on in Kaunas during August and continued writing transit visas. August 25 was the final deadline by which
all remaining foreign consulates had to be closed by order of the Soviets.
“Curaçao visas,” together with the Japanese transit visas, turned out to be
lifesaving even though, of all the 2,200 Jewish refugees who reached Japan, no
one actually ended up in Curaçao. About
one half of this number found access to the U.S., Palestine and other
destinations from Japan in 1941. The
remainder were shipped to Shanghai by the Japanese government in the fall of
1941, to be interned in its Jewish ghetto made up of some 18,000-20,000 souls
for the duration of the war.
is uncertainty about the total numbers of Curaçao visas and Japanese transit
visas issued by Zwartendijk and Sugihara, respectively. Available documentation currently suggests
that both issued at least 2,200 visas.
That is roughly the same number of Jews reported to have actually
reached Japan with these visas. (Knowledgeable sources for this number are
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan for many years;
Tadeusz Romer, Polish ambassador in Japan in 1941; and historian David
Kranzler). That is somewhat coincidental, because several factors muddy the
single visa could serve a whole family.
Also, we know that visas were copied and forged in large numbers by some
talented refugees. Some were mailed
back from Japan for re-use by others still stranded in Lithuania. In early 1941, some Curaçao visas were
provided by mail from the Dutch consulate-general in Stockholm to people
requesting them from Lithuania. And the
Dutch consul in Kobe, Japan, N.A.J. de
Voogd, provided 74 Curaçao visas to a boatload of refugees from Kaunas who had
somehow reached Japan with forged Japanese transit visas but no Curaçao
visas. The whole ship was turned back
to Vladivostok and the situation was saved only by de Voogd’s promise to
provide the required Curaçao visas.
many refugees who had acquired Curaçao and Japanese visas in Kaunas did not
dare ask the Soviets for an exit visa for fear of ending up in Siberia; most of
these no doubt perished at the hands of the Nazis.
these factors confuse the connection between visas issued and actual
escapees. On balance, however, it
happens that the number of Jews reaching Japan roughly corresponds to the
number of visas issued by the consuls: about 2,200.
all those who made it to Japan were Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania. Baltic Jews were not allowed to leave as new
citizens of the USSR since August 3, 1940.
who reached Japan included an “Orthodox group consisting of over 400 Talmudic
students, faculty members and two groups of rabbis. Among these was the only complete yeshiva saved from the Nazi
destruction, the Mirrer Yeshiva, with its 250 students and faculty, one of the
oldest of Europe’s yeshivot... These refugees from Poland’s cultural centers
truly comprised an elite of East European Jewry, in all its partisan divisions”
(Kranzler, “Japanese, Nazis and Jews,” Yeshiva University Press, New York,
1976, p.348). They were among the group
sent to Shanghai in late 1941, to be stranded there until the end of World War
mid-1941, the Nazis overran Lithuania
and started mass killings of Jews there.
FEARS OF ZWARTENDIJK IN KAUNAS
mid-July, 1940, Kaunas had become a chaotic and dangerous city. Zwartendijk had already decided that he and
his family should leave and return to Holland, but ironically the Soviets were
not forthcoming in giving him an exit visa.
He had no diplomatic immunity as Dutch consul, inasmuch as Holland and
the USSR had no diplomatic relations at the time.
landlord, a Lithuanian professor of history, came to say farewell, with his
tearful wife and 5-year-old daughter, as they were leaving on very short notice
for Siberia with one small valise. His
crime was being an intellectual and therefore unreliable. The same fate awaited many of the
started to worry seriously about being sent to Siberia as well by the
ever-unpredictable Soviets, for possibly causing them irritating trouble by
issuing all those sham visas to Polish Jews.
He sent his family to the country, some 60 miles away, along the Memel
River, for greater safety, and came to join them on weekends only. By mid-August, the Soviets set up a huge
army encampment across the river from where we stayed, so he took us back again
to Kaunas. We had to bivouac in an empty house, as the furniture had been
shipped to Holland, while an exit visa for the whole family was still being
mid-August the Dutch ambassador decided that all ambassadorial and consular
files be destroyed. I recall vividly
that, at age 11, I was allowed to help with burning all the papers and
documents regarding my father's consular actions in a small potbellied stove in
the heat of summer. Whatever de Decker had in his files about the episode was
destroyed as well. Neither de Decker nor Zwartendijk wrote a word about it to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry in
exile in London, so that its files contain nothing on it.
the Soviet exit visa came through, and the Zwartendijk family left by train to Holland in early September
1940. We spent the night in Berlin,
hearing our first air-raid siren; allied bombers had recently started to make
spent the entire war, from September 1940 on, in Holland, working for Philips.
the war, he spoke to no one in Holland about his consular activities in Kaunas
for fear that the Gestapo might find out what he had done. After all, in German eyes, Zwartendijk had
had no legitimate basis for taking on a Dutch consular post in June 1940,
answering to the Dutch government-in-exile in London and carrying out consular
activities of any kind, let alone writing sham visas to help Polish Jews escape
from Europe, especially Polish
Torah-scholars that the Nazis were determined to prevent from escaping and
rejuvenating Judaism elsewhere.
most frightening experience was when two Gestapo officers came to see him one
time in Holland at home. He feared the
worst--that they had found out about the Kaunas affair. But it turned out that the Germans had
killed an old friend of his from Prague “trying to escape” in Romania (“auf der
Flucht erschossen”--a common German euphemism then for, e.g., tortured to death
during interrogation). This man had
Zwartendijk’s name and address in his pocket.
There was no connection with Kaunas and there were no further
consequences of this visit. It was
nerve-wracking because drawing attention for any reason meant scrutiny of Gestapo
files. Miraculously, the Gestapo file
on his Kaunas activities was not at hand in Holland. Zwartendijk did not feel safe until the Allied liberators
arrived in southern Holland in September 1944.
Amazingly, Jan Zwartendijk was reprimanded and punished by the Dutch for his actions which saved so many lives. He was never recognized by the Dutch Royal household, and was justifiably hurt by this injustice. He carried this in silence for the rest of his life. See The Times of Israel article of 10 Oct 2018.
World War II, Philips sent Zwartendijk to Athens in 1946 as its director for
Greece. He retired and returned to
Holland in 1956. During all this time
his silence about his Kaunas activities continued.
fact, he never mentioned the episode until he was asked by the Dutch Ministry
of Foreign Affairs about it in 1963.
The Ministry had been in the dark until alerted by an article in the
B’nai B’rith Messenger of Los Angeles calling him the “Angel of Curaçao.” No one could remember his name. Some refugees thought his name might be “Philips
reaction was twofold: 1) he was
delighted to learn that some people had actually escaped, and 2) he winced at
being called “Angel of Curaçao.”
interest focused on hearing how many Jews actually escaped and where they ended
up. In 1963, when he received no
replies at all to his inquiries, he was surprised and disappointed, but
disinclined to pursue it further. He
discouraged me from pursuing it as well, preferring to leave it alone. He did not wish to be honored or even praised
for simply acting as a decent human being.
continued to make inquiries anyway, hoping to save the story from total
oblivion. Finally, through the
mediation of Ernest Heppner of Indianapolis in January 1976, contact was made
with historian David Kranzler of New York, who knew that at least 2,000 were
saved with the help of the Curaçao visas.
Zwartendijk, by then afflicted with terminal cancer, received this news
with pleased astonishment. It was not
until this point that his youngest son Robert, at age 36 and born in Kaunas,
first heard of the Curaçao visa affair, even though he had always had a close
relationship with his father.
Finally, in September 1976, a letter came from Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in Kobe, Japan, showing breakdowns according to age, gender, profession and further destination of the 2,178 Jews he said had reached Japan from Lithuania. That was the information Zwartendijk had asked for in 1963, but it came too late. It arrived on the very day he was buried.
Gutwirth, living in Antwerp, had found Zwartendijk’s phone number in nearby
Rotterdam and called him once in 1971.
None of the other survivors who had escaped with the aid of his Curaçao
visa contacted Zwartendijk.
was not until 1996, twenty years after his death, that his consular role was
first publicly commemorated. Rabbi Ronald Gray of Boys Town Jerusalem, many of
whose staff were taught by survivors with Curaçao visas, organized a
tribute to Zwartendijk in Jerusalem and New York, and the school founded
an Institute for Humanitarian Ethics and Values as a memorial to him.
October 20, 1997, Yad Vashem bestowed on Jan Zwartendijk the title of
“Righteous Among the Nations” for his rescue activities in Lithuania in 1940.
* * * * *