What is the link between the two Curacao cases?

Any list of heroic diplomats who saved Jews during World War II would be headed by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who rescued tens of thousands in Budapest. The next most known example would probably be Aristides de Sousa Mendes, whom we have been considering here in the recent batch of posts. And then the third famous example is the escape of thousands from Kaunas, Lithuania to Shanghai, China with help from compassionate consuls Jan Zwartendijk of the Netherlands and Chiune Sugihara of Japan.

Wallenberg's great deeds came later, in 1944, but the Sousa Mendes events and the Zwartenjijk-Sugihara actions happened one month apart in the summer of 1940. One month and 1500 miles apart. Until now, there has been no reason to link the two events other than as independent examples of humanitarian action. Now I believe we can show there was a connection, perhaps a causal connection, from the aftermath of the Sousa Mendes affair to the onset of the Zwartendijk-Sugihara affair.

We have seen in the last post how one of Sousa Mendes' vice consuls, Emile Gissot of Toulouse, resumed issuing Portugal transit visas shortly after Sousa Mendes himself had been recalled to Lisbon. These were not indiscriminate help-for-anybody visas as with Sousa Mendes, but were limited to those holding destination visas from a third country. The odd thing is that the third country in a large batch of visas that Gissot signed between July 11 and July 19 was the unlikely Caribbean destination of Curaçao. How peculiar that in the midst of a humanitarian crisis in the city, with refugees sleeping in the streets, that so many were making plans to visit the Dutch Antilles!

It now seems evident that the Curaçao ploy was a collaborative strategy by Gissot and A.J. van Dobben of the Netherlands consulate to help Jewish refugees get out of France to Portugal. (It also seems to have involved a yet-unnamed official at the Polish consulate, as I will discuss in a future post.) The Curaçao exception was clearly devised as a way to skirt the law and get suffering families on their way to Portugal. There is no indication that bribes were requested or received. We don't know yet how many people benefited from the Curaçao exception, but it was certainly dozens and possibly many more. Fleeing Berliners Elly Ringel and her 15-year-old daughter Helga, my mother, were two of them.

Currently, our last known instance of a Curaçao visa in Toulouse is July 19, but we may find that the issuances continued after that. We do know that on July 26, Curaçao visas begin appearing across the continent, in Lithuania, where an honorary Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk, manager of the local Philips office, accommodates a rush of Polish and Lithuanian Jews with visas to vacation in Curaçao. With these visas, the refugees were able to obtain Japanese transit visas that were honored for train travel across the Soviet Union. Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara was the second hero diplomat hero of Kaunas. Most of the 3000 Jews who escaped from Kaunas went from Japan to Shanghai and later points west.

Is it just a surprising coincidence that the same Curaçao exception arises in Toulouse and independently two weeks later in Kaunas? Possibly. Zwartendijk's Wikipedia entry says the idea came from "some Jewish Dutch residents in Lithuania [who] approached Zwartendijk to get a visa to the Dutch Indies." I will need to look more closely at the good deal of scholarship that is out there on Zwartendijk and Sugihara. But I think it is just as likely, maybe more, that Zwartendijk had heard about the Curaçao exception as it had been executed in Toulouse. Perhaps he modeled his program, including partnering with a diplomatic soulmate in Sugihara, on the van Dobben-Gissot collaboratiion.

The linkage between the two Curaçao cases is that van Dobben and Zwartendijk could have known each other. Both were representatives of the Philips Corp. in their respective cities. Philips was the Dutch General Electric, having begun in lighting and now dominant in radio and the emerging field of electronics. Based out of Einhoven in the Netherlands, it had operations across Europe, Asia and the Americas. To protect its assets from Nazi seizure, the company restructured as a series of foreign-held investments. On April 26, days before the German invasion, Philips transferred its registered office to Willemstad, Curaçao. That's right, Curaçao! Nor was Philips the only Dutch multinational to move its head office to Curaçao—Royal Dutch Shell did the same.

So Curaçao could have been in his thinking as A.J. van Dobben sat talking with Emile Gissot one evening at a cafe after another long day of fending off visa applicants. (Okay, I am projecting here.) Perhaps another diplomatic acquaintance, the consul of Poland, had joined them. Was this where they conceived of the Curaçao exception?

Further, after the plan has gone into effect, could van Dobben have communicated via diplomatic wire or pouch with his compatriot Jan Zwartendijk at the Dutch consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania?

We don't know, but it certainly bears looking into. Had thetwo men been posted together earlier in their careers? Were they possibly school chums? There may answers to some of these questions in the Dutch diplomatic archives. It would be of historic interest if it is shown that Zwartendijk's use of the Curaçao exception in Kaunas was influenced in part by its previous use in Toulouse.