HWe’ve helped save more Jewish lives than Oskar Schindler, but while the brave deeds of the German industrialist were known around the world thanks to an Oscar-winning film, few know the name of Jan Zwartendijk, a salesman of Dutch radio station which helped thousands of Jews to flee Nazism – Occupied Europe.
Today, a book by famous Dutch writer Jan Brokken seeks to save Zwartendijk from obscurity, along with other courageous officials who circumvented the rules to help several thousand Jews trapped between Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union.
the just, published this year in English, tells how up to 10,000 men, women and children fled the Holocaust. At the heart of the story are Zwartendijk and Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who improvised an unlikely escape route from Lithuania to the Japanese port of Tsuruga and beyond. For 10 frantic days in the summer of 1940, the two men issued “visas” to 2,139 people. Researchers estimate that 6,000 to 10,000 may have escaped, as women and children often traveled with documents from male relatives.
Yet as Sugihara became a national hero, featured in the Japanese school curriculum and with three museums dedicated to his life, Zwartendijk was forgotten. Her youngest son, a baby in Lithuanian years, knew nothing about his father’s actions until he was in his thirties. “He never spoke of this period,” said Rob Zwartendijk, 81, addressing the Observer from the town of Blaricum in North Holland.
“And every time that would happen, he would say, ‘Ah, it doesn’t really matter, everyone would have done these things if he had been in that position.’ What you and I know is not true. .
Jan Zwartendijk was an accidental diplomat. When war broke out in 1939, he ran the local Philips branch in Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania, which sold radios, gramophones and light bulbs. Life was good. He was married with three children and a used Buick in the driveway.
As a reliable businessman, the Dutch government-in-exile asked Zwartendijk to take the unpaid post of consul in Kaunas, with the previous occupier suspected of Nazi sympathies. Expecting to help only a few Dutch citizens, Zwartendijk was soon faced with a dangerous choice. He was not a born hero, writes Brokken, but he made a quick decision to help the Jewish refugees who came knocking on his door: they had fled to Lithuania after the Nazi invasion of neighboring Poland in September. 1939.
During World War II, Lithuania was double-occupied by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but for almost 10 months Kaunas was a free city. Nicknamed the “Casablanca of the North”, it was a nest of spies and a refuge for refugees fleeing both the Nazis and the Soviets.
This changed when the Red Army invaded Lithuania on June 15, 1940. Jewish refugees began to desperately seek a way out. Approached by a refugee couple with a plan, Zwartendijk agreed to write in their passports that no travel documents were required to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. This was technically true, but hid the detail that permission from the island’s governor was required. Zwartendijk relied on no one to check the entry requirements for a small island on the other side of the world. And no one did. This pseudo visa opened the door at the start. Armed with the “Curacao visa”, the Jewish refugees could ask Sugihara – and the Soviet authorities hungry for foreign currency – for transit papers. Word of “Mister Radio Philips” began to spread.
Although they lived within 300 meters of each other, Zwartendijk and Sugihara never met. But sometimes they did talk to each other on the phone. Sugihara urged his Dutch colleague to slow down visa issuance. While Zwartendijk wrote his visa with a fountain pen and a stamp in green ink, Sugihara composed his with a more laborious ink and brush. Both were at enormous risk. Sugihara challenged his bosses in Tokyo, while Zwartendijk would have been in mortal danger had the Nazis discovered him on his return to his occupied home country.
They also risked the attention of Soviet police, who noticed long queues outside the Philips office that served as the Dutch consulate. One evening, Zwartendijk was visited by a Russian officer, who ordered the soldiers to block the sidewalk to the office. Accusing Zwartendijk of endangering public safety, he threatened to immediately close the consulate. The Dutchman gifted him with a Philishave, the brand new electric razor the company introduced in 1939. After a quick demonstration of the gadget, the officer said it was a miracle and let Zwartendijk continue.
When Zwartendijk returned to the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in September 1940, the reasons for the secrecy were obvious. Yet long after the war, when the scale of the Holocaust was well known, Zwartendijk was never celebrated. In 1964, he was even reprimanded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the publication of a press article on the mysterious “Angel of Curaçao”. Brokken suggests that Zwartendijk’s heroism may have shamed his contemporaries.
Zwartendijk was furious at the reprimand, but he was tormented not knowing how many had escaped with his Curacao visas. Years later, his health declining, he never stopped asking what had happened to the people who stood before him in that light brown paneled office in Kaunas. His son thinks his father was worried that no one had passed Siberia. “He must have thought that most of these people perished. He must have been afraid of sending them to their deaths.
In 1976, researchers estimated that 95% of Jewish refugees with Zwartendijk papers survived the war. The news reached Zwartendijk’s house the day after Jan’s funeral.
Certainly, for Jewish refugees, the Curacao visa was not an easy passport to freedom, but the start of a new painful odyssey. A beneficiary Jewish family, the Liwer, endured years of hardship, including, for mother, Chawa, and daughter, Jadzia, forced labor making coffins in a Soviet camp and internment in the United States for the father, Abraham.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, the three fled their hometown of Będzin, where Abraham owned a bicycle parts factory. After months of flight and a lost toe from frostbite, Abraham finally reached Kaunas. But his wife and daughter, who had remained in Lvov, were arrested by Soviet secret police and sent to a camp in the Urals. When Abraham Liwer finally arrived in Vladivostok, he went to the NKVD (secret police) office every day for two months to demand their release. Abraham’s granddaughter Arlette Liwer-Stuip believes the local NKVD officer had a crush on him: “She liked talking to him instead of having him arrested. Incredibly, his efforts paid off: Chawa and Jadzia were released and the family arrived in Japan. After several years of other hardships, they eventually settled in New York.
For Liwer-Stuip, who wrote a 1,200-page family history, Zwartendijk and Sugihara played a huge role in saving his grandparents and aunt. “It was easy to find information about Sugihara, but I found it difficult to know a lot about Zwartendijk. The injustice made it touching for me, as I kept wondering why one was so famous and the other practically unknown? “
“There is room for two heroes,” she told the Observer. “Honoring one and ignoring the other to me doesn’t sound like the real story. “
Sugihara died in 1986, two years after being recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” – the highest honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked everything to save Jewish lives. Zwartendijk did not receive the same honor until 1997, a gap that grieved his family.
Recognition is finally coming. In the Netherlands in 2018, Brokken’s book elicited an official apology from the Zwartendijk family, describing the 1964 reprimand as “completely inappropriate.” Last year, then Foreign Minister Stef Blok praised the “extraordinary partnership” of Zwartendijk and Sugihara, who “devoted themselves to humanity at the risk of their lives.” Brokken’s book has been translated into English and Italian and will be published in seven other languages, including French, Czech, Slovak and Russian. The author hopes to see an edition in Lithuanian. A previous publisher dropped the book over objections to its account of mass killings by anti-Semitic Lithuanian paramilitaries.
The city of Kaunas honored Zwartendijk with a memorial in front of the Philips office. Suspended between the trees, a spiral of 2,139 passports. When evening falls, the ever-changing colors – ocean blue, pink rose and forest green – light up the darkness.