Ruby Family History Project Blog

Paul Freudman deciphers a signature

Pausing here in the Jan Zwartendijk story, we learned something new yesterday about the Dutch personnel in Toulouse. Until now, I have written that A.J. van Dobben is the Dutch consul who issued Toulouse Curaçao visas. But the actual signature on Elly's Dutch visa is not "van Dobben" but a name I couldn't make out. Paul Freudman, a researcher with the Sousa Mendes Foundation and a descendent of an extended family of Mendes and Gissot visa-holders, had seen the Dutch visas before and he wrote that he read the signature as "Pichal."

Olivia from the foundation was on the email thread as well, and she chimed in that Pichal did not sound very Dutch. I did some quick searching and found that there is a present-day Sven Pichal, a radio journalist from the Flemish-speaking (Dutch) region of Belgium. Conceivably part of the same family, but at least suggesting that Pichal could be a Dutch-Flemish name. And then I found a better hit at the Dutch diplomatic archives, which I had already encountered a day or two earlier. On an index page of "persons who were employed at Dutch embassies and consulates during the war," both the names of A.J. van Dobben and GPC Pichal are included.

And here are a few more sightings. An A.J. van Dobben de Bruyn was the mayor of the town of Langbroek near Utrecht from 1946-1975—quite possibly our same guy. There is also a G. Peter van Dobben de Bruyn, a board member of Hydratec Industries in Utrecht, an Olympic rower Jenny Van Dobben de Bruin, and two brother mathematicians (and heavy metal bandmates), Josse and Remy van Dobben de Bruyn. Some or all of these must be family members.

I am pretty sure van Dobben is the senior consul in the Dutch consulate. Pichal could be his deputy. He is certainly more than a clerk since he rates a listing in the diplomatic archive. Are both men in on the Curacao scheme together? Or is van Dobben the motivator with Pichal signing for cover, possibly unwittingly? Or it Pichal the conspirator working under the nose of his boss? It could be any of those.

The origin of the "Curacao visa" in Kaunas

I mentioned that there are a lot of sources on the Zwatendijk and Sugihara rescue operation in Kaunas. I still have not taken a full inventory, but I have had the chance to closely read the historiographical account of Jonathan Goldstein, "Motivation in Holocaust Rescue: The Case of Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania, 1940" (published in Lessons and Legacies VI: New Currents in Holocaust Research (Northwestern University Press, 2004)

Goldstein's account and analysis of the case adds significant information about the origin of the Curaçao visa, but is silent on the subject of an earlier similar use of Curaçao visas in Toulouse. Because Goldstein mentions other ensuing cases of Curaçao visas in Sweden and China that he says were inspired by the circumstances in Kaunas, it is clear he does not know that there was an even earlier instance of their use in Toulouse.

Here is a summary of Goldstein's account.

By the early months of 1940, thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis to the west and the Soviets to the east were accumulating in unoccupied Lithuania.

In May, after the German occupation of the Netherlands, the Dutch government in exile in England, appointed L.P.J. de Decker as its representative to the Baltic states, based in Riga.

Early in June, de Decker dismisses the previous Dutch consul in Kovno, a Lithuanian he suspected of Nazi sympathies. He appoints Jan Zwartendijk, the local Philips representative, as honorary consul.

On June 15, the Soviet Union annexes unoccupied Lithuania, including Kovno, where all foreign embassies and consulates are preparing to close.

Sometime before July 11, de Decker receives a letter from Pessla Lewin requesting authorization for her family to immigrate to the Dutch West Indies. She has already learned that no immigration visa is required but that to actually land there requires a permit from the local governor.

Wanting to be helpful, de Decker inscribed this French-language note in her passport: "For the admission of aliens to Surinam, Curaçao, and other Dutch possessions in the Americas, an entry visa is not required." Not a visa, but a half-true statement of fact. The part about the landing permit is not mentioned.

Eleven days later, the son of Pessia Lewin approaches Zwartendijk in Kovno. He shows her de Decker's inscription in his mother's passport and asks for the same in his own. Zwartendijk copies the same note for Nathan Lewin.

Next, the Lewin family go to the Japanese consulate in Kovno, where they are issued transit visas to travel through Japan on the way to Curaçao. The Japanese official is Chiune Sugihara. With the Japanese visa, they get permission from Soviet authorities to travel across Russia and Siberia by train.

So far, this is the Lewin family only. But shortly after, Zwartendijk is approached again, this time by a true Dutch citizen, Nathan Gutwirth, who inquires whether a group of his friends, non citizens, could accompany him to Curaçao.

Zwartendijk replies that he can write that same helpful notation. Next Gutwirth tells his friend Zorach Warhaftig, later an Israeli cabinet minister. Warhaftig confirms that Zwartendijk will now issue these "Curaçao visas" to anyone who asked, and that Sugihara would honor them for Japanese transit.

Beginning on July 24 and until August 3, when the Soviets closed his office, Zwartendijk issues a total of 2345 Curaçao visas. Of those, about 2200 individuals reached Japan, half of whom were able to move on to Western destinations and the other half spent the war interned in Shanghai. None went to Curaçao.

Decades later, Warhaftig met the new Dutch ambassador to Israel and discovered that he had been the governor of Curaçao and Suriname during the war. Warhaftig asked him what he would have done if a ship had arrived in Willemstad with hundreds of Jewish refugees aboard.

Without hesitation he replied that he would have forced the ship back out to sea, as the Americans had done in the case of the St. Louis.

I'll pause there and come back with the aftermath of the Zwartendijk story, and then what it means for our Toulouse hypothesis.

Involvement of the Polish consul

Till now, we have the Portuguese consul Gissot and the Dutch consul van Dobben as the active players in the Toulouse Curaçao case. Elly received visas from those two officials on July 11, 1940. But what about the Polish consulate, where her chain of documents began with the issuance of a passport from the Republic of Poland on July 5?

Elly had been preparing to apply for Polish papers for some time, perhaps since Berlin, since she took care to bring her husband Hermann's 1906 Polish domicile document with her on the journey. It is somewhat of a mystery why she had not already procured Polish papers by the time of their flight from Nice, but it is only in her last week or so there that she takes the trouble to have a notarized French translation made of the domicile document. Then, five weeks later, she has the opportunity to present that credential at the Polish consulate in Toulouse, at 72 rue de Strasbourg, just up the street from the Dutch consulate.

Based on Elly's case alone, we don't know if the Polish consul had any involvement with the Curaçao business. But then I found this testimonial from Zbigniew Kowalski, at the time a Free Polish fighter trying to make his way to England after the fall of France. Kowalski tells of managing to reach Marseilles, where there is a Polish legation, but finding a sign reading "Closed Until Victory." The next nearest Polish consulate is in Toulouse, where Kowalski travels next.

"At Toulouse the Polish legation was still open and its personnel found a place for us to stay. Soon we were supplied with passports and visa for Dutch Curaçao. It was cover of course, for as soon as we were out of Vichy waters we were to head for the United Kingdom," Kowalski says.

After several more detours and detainments, Kowalski finally makes it to Britain and returns to help liberate France, but that's not the point of our story. The point is that the Polish consulate in Toulouse was involved with Curaçao visas in a second instance. It is beginning to look like there is a third player in the Toulouse Curaçao operation.

So far, I don't know the identity of the Pole. Elly's passport has a scribble for a signature over a stamp that may indicate a last name Wozniak. As with the Dutch consulate, there are physical archives of the Polish diplomatic files that could yield answers about who he was and the extent of his involvement.

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.

Gissot's role in the Sousa Mendes affair

In 1940, Emile Gissot was 58 years old, probably retired from government foreign service and living again in his home city of Toulouse. To supplement his income and keep his hand in the game, he takes a position as honorary vice-consul in Toulouse for the government of Portugal. It is not unusual for foreign governments to staff consulate offices with non-national local citizens. That is why his title was "honorary." The reason it was "vice-consul" was because he did not have full consular responsibilities but reported to a regional chief consul stationed 130 miles away in Bordeaux.

That consul was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a distinguished Portuguese diplomat who was charged with representing Portugal in Bordeaux and southwest France and who would soon change history. By late May of 1940, following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries several weeks earlier, the urban centers of southwest France were overflowing with the waves of refugees coming from the north. Many of them were trying to get to Portugal, seen as one of the few viable escape routes from the insanity in Europe.

Sousa Mendes and Gissot in their respective Portuguese consulates were under siege by poor unfortunates with no place to go. Sousa Mendes instructs Gissot by telephone to keep referring supplicants to Bordeaux. For now, the vice-consul has no signing authority. Then, on June 17, after spending time with a Rabbi Kruger and his family, Sousa Mendes has his moment of conscience and commences his campaign to issue visas to any and all who need one. He gives new instructions to Gissot, giving him authority to issue visas in Toulouse, but only for those who already having destination visas from a third country. The Sousa Mendes Foundation has in its files a number of these Gissot visas signed in June while Sousa Mendes remained active.

This isn't the place to recount his heroic actions, but to summarize in the next 10 days Sousa Mendes issued as many as 30,000 visas to refugees of all types, including 10,000 Jews, before being shut down by the Salazar government. He was recalled to Lisbon to be harshly disciplined for his actions.

Now it was July and Sousa Mendes' spree had ended, yet the surge of visa supplicants continued unabated at Gissot's office. He must now have been given new instructions from Lisbon, probably to issue no more visas for any reason. Here I am going to move into speculation a little. I imagine that Gissot knows and socializes with consular officials from other countries in Toulouse. It is natural they would talk about the refugees and some of them might sympathize with their plight.

The Dutch consulate is manned by a local representative of the Philips company, an A.J. van Dobben, who has also seen an influx of Dutch Jewish refugees at his door at the Chanchellerie du Consulate des Pays-Bas. We actually have an address for his office, 8 Rue Strassbourg, courtesy of the memoir of escaping ex-Nazi Otto Strasser, who also benefited from the actions of Gissot and van Dobben. See our earlier article for more on Strasser's account. Keep in mind, too, that van Dobben's office remains open even though Germany has occupied the Dutch capital for the last six weeks.

I speculate that Gissot and van Dobben devise a cooperative plan to help some of the refugees. Gissot says that he can still issue Portuguese transit visas to holders of third-nation destination visas. Van Dobben says that he can issue tourist visas to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. Beginning probably on July 11, they put the plan into effect. The Dutch consulate begins issuing Curacao visas and Gissot just as quickly signs off on those for transit through Portugal. Our family gets both visas on July 11, then based on these gets a Spanish transit visa the next day. They leave France by train from Perpignan on July 23.

We don't know how many beneficiaries there are of what I am calling the Curacao exception. We know that it operated at least a week, from July 11 to July 19, when Strasser got his visas and observed dozens of Jewish refugees doing the same. I believe it will be possible to look more closely at already collected stories at the Sousa Mendes foundation and elsewhere to see if those dates can be extended in either direction, and to get a sense of the volume of cases.

I will leave off there for the moment but will return with a further dimension to the story.

More on Emile Gissot

Usually, when you google a historical name of someone who was not particularly famous, you don't expect to find much. With Emile Gissot, we hit a veritable gold mine of information. First, there is this biographical sketch of him on a city web site for the Toulouse region. There he is a portrait in full French military regalia. We learn from the article that he was born in 1882 in the village of Fleurance. He was a brilliant student and was well educated in Parisian schools. After graduation, he accepted a foreign service position in Chile, and distinguished himself during the 1906 Valparaiso earthquake. The following year, he authored an report on the economy of Chile, which is still available on the Internet today.

After returning to France, he was appointed as a career consular official, and was posted again to Chile, as well as later to Athens and other outposts. In 1917, he was arrested in Salamanca, Spain, for associating with an early band of Spanish Republicans. He also played in politics, running but losing in Parliamentary elections in 1919. Between 1928 and 1932, he advised French Interior minister Albert Smock. The article then skips over to his death in Toulouse in November 1958, omitting any mention of his role in the 1940 refugee crisis.

We'll set that aside for the moment, too, as we consider the inventory of Internet sightings. Most deliciously, that portrait from the biography article, showed up as a physical postcard available for sale on several Internet memorabilia sites. Evidently he had the cards made for himself and used them as stationery. This one is hand-inscribed to a correspondent in 1916, so the photo shows him perhaps in his early to mid 30s. Note that same distinctive signature we will see on visas 24 years later. After I tipped off Olivia at the Sousa Mendes Foundation about the card, I'm pleased to say she purchased it online for the foundation's collection.

The next thing of note that turns up is that Chilean economic report,, available for download as a PDF. Finally, there are a number of citations and references to his activities as Portugal's honorary vice consul in Toulouse, including from several French Sousa Mendes tribute sites. Most intriguing is this listing in the index of archived records of Antonio Salazar, Portugal's longtime strongman leader, of a report about an inquiry into irregularities involving the activities of Emile Gissot in Portugal's Toulouse consulate.

The report is not available online or evidently physically in the archive, since the documentation is said to have mysteriously disappeared. Now on to what might actually have happened in the next post.

Rua de Gloria 41-28

Before returning to Mssr. Gissot, we'll skip ahead a month or so to when our intrepid travelers have reached the promised city of Lisbon. Several years ago, Walter's friend Valery Bazarov, who was the house historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, searched the HIAS files for information about our family members. He discovered two important bits of information, as is described in the blog at the time. One piece was a scrap of notepaper with the names of Elly and Helga Ringel and an address in Lisbon.

When Joanne was in Lisbon last summer, she and Bill located Rua de Gloria 41-28 on the map not very far from their hotel on the Rossio. Here are Joanne's photos of the building exterior and front door closeup. It is not hard to imagine the same scene in the summer and fall of 1940.

Who was Emile Gissot?

Yesterday, as a result of our contact with Olivia Mattis at the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation, we learned the identity of the Portuguese consular official in Toulouse who issued a Portugal transit visa to Elly and Helga Ruby on July 11, 1940. Here is that visa. Notice the signature in two places of one Emile Gissot.

Gissot was known to the people at the Mendes Foundation as one of several vice-consuls in cities near to Bordeaux who cooperated with the actions of Sousa Mendes during his campaign of mercy. The foundation has several records in its files of families with Gissot visas from Toulouse. They had been working from the assumption that the vice-consuls in Bayonne and Toulouse had acted under instructions from Sousa Mendes, the senior consular official in the region. But in at least one of their cases, and now with our new Ringel instance, some Gissot visas date from a week or more after the Sousa Mendes campaign had ended in his summary recall to Lisbon.

So who was Emile Gissot? You don't have to go far to find out, since he has a wonderfully google-able name and a fair number of notable achievements. More in the next post.

Portuguese consul Emile Gissot

I somehow overlooked a very interesting comment on the blog from early in January. A staffer at the Aristedes de Sousa Mendes Foundation had seen our Ringel escape route postings and wanted to know if the signature on the Portuguese visa in Elly's passport matched any of several other names besides Sousa Mendes. On her list was the name of Emile Gissot, and indeed as you can see from the closeup here, that's who signed off on granting a transit visa to Portugal to our family members in Toulouse on July 11, 1940.

After sending back this photo, I heard back from the director of the foundation with additional questions. She may be able to help clear up our party's movements in the weeks leading up to their arrival in Toulouse. We may also find that our family members will be added to the foundation's roster of those who benefited from the heroic action of de Sousa Mendes.


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