Curacao exception

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.

Zwartendijk keeps mum

We pick up Jonathan Goldstein's version of the Jan Zwartendijk story after his visa-writing campaign ends on August 3, 1940. Within days, he returns home to Nazi-occupied Holland with his wife and children.

For the next several years, Zwartendijk lived in fear that his actions in Kovno would be discovered by the Nazis. At one point he was interrogated by the Gestapo about an unrelated matter, but his actions in Lithuania escaped notice. Needless to say, he did not talk of the incident to anyone.

Goldstein writes that Zwartenkijk didn't learn that many of his beneficiaries actually made it out until 1963, when he was informed of survivors he had helped living in California. In 1976, Ernest Heppner and other survivors succeeded in locating the man most knew only as "Mr. Philips Radio" or literally as "Philip Radio."

That year, he was honored by the Montreal Rabbinical Court and communicated with historian David Kranzler, whose soon to be published history of the Shanghai Jews documented their connection to Zwartendijk. Shortly after, Zwartendijk passed away at age 80.

In 1997, through the efforts of Kranzler, Heppner, Goldstein and others, Zwartendijk achieved recognition as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.

Goldstein examines Zwartendijk's motivations and concludes that it was simple humanitarian instinct. He also looks at the motivations of the other players in the affair, Chiune Sugihara and the Soviet authority, which he finds more complex.

As for the Dutch government, Goldstein says they knew nothing about the incident until 1963, when Zwartendijk was called in for a discreet interview. Finally, Goldstein tells us that two other Dutch diplomats, A.M. de Jong in Stockholm and N.A.G. de Voogt in Kobe, Japan, subsequently issued their own Curacao visas. The suggestion, though not directly asserted, is that those later cases were inspired by Zwartendijk's example.

More to come on how this connects with our knowledge of the Toulouse Curacao visas.

Are the Curacao cases linked?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Is there a connection between the use of Curacao visas in Toulouse and a similar instance two weeks later in Kovno, which is 1500 miles distant? I will tell you up front that we don't know the answer definitively, at least not for now. But a number of signs suggest the possibility of a causal relationship between the two events.

First there is the surprising coincidence that both vice-consuls in question, A.J. van Dobben in Toulouse and Jan Zwartendijk in Kovno, are the local representatives of the Philips company in their regions. It is plausible that the Dutch foreign ministry had a practice of tapping the network of businessmen from one of the country's leading international firms for honorary diplomatic roles, especially in this period of upheaval and increased demand for consular services.

Another Philips connection is that its top executive in Europe, family member Frits Philips, is recognized as a "righteous among the nations" for having saved hundreds of Jewish employees of his company. Also, Philips relocated its head office operations from Holland to Curacao in the Dutch West Indies late in April 1940, intended to protect its corporate assets on the eve on the German invasion of the Netherlands. Philips seems to have had a corporate culture that enabled humanitarian action.

Is it possible van Dobben and Zwartendijk knew each other through a business connection? Or that their respective colleagues, G.P. Pichal in Toulouse and L.P.J. de Decker in Riga, knew one of the opposite group? Or that the two consulates were in communication during July 1940 about events in their localities? There is a good chance to try out any of these possibilities by mining the foreign ministry collection at the Dutch National Archives, whose online indexes indicate that files from the Toulouse consulate are available.

Next, let's look at the timeline. When you consider the full sequence of events in Kovno, you recall that the first mention of Curacao visas in Kovno was not July 26, when Jan Zwartendijk began issuing multiple Curacao visas. That was preceded by Pessia Lewin's first contact with Ambassador de Decker on July 11. That in fact is the very same day, a Thursday, that our Ringel family and two Freudmann family members got Curacao visas in Toulouse. In the Goldstein retelling of the Zwartendijk story, the Curacao idea originates with Lewin, gets approved in limited form by de Decker, and then expands in the numbers and type of people covered by Nathan Lewin and Zwartendijk.

In this narrative, there is no room for a rumor or diplomatic cable to carry the idea from the south of France to Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

Returning to Toulouse, the earliest known use of Curacao visas came on Monday, July 8, when another Freudmann family member acquired her Dutch diplomatic stamp. There could be earlier Curacao visas in Toulouse, but we don't know of any yet. If we take July 8 as the first date that A.J. van Dobben and G.P. Pichal issued such visas, is it plausible that the idea could have been transmitted to Kovno in the intervening three days?

Yes, but it would be cleaner if the origin of the idea in Kovno was from one of the Dutch diplomats and not from the refugee Pessia Lewin. We will continue to investigate this question, but we must acknowledge that it is certainly possible that the same idea arose independently in the two locations.

More humanitarian Dutch consuls

Yesterday I decided to post a call for other Toulouse visa holders to come forward on the discussion board. I've used the board a few times before to seek information with some success. Before posting, I ran some queries to make sure the topic or something similar had not be covered previously. I searched a variety of terms including "Toulouse," "Gissot," "van Dobben," etc. When I tried "Dutch consul," I found a highly interesting 2001 posting by Irwin Schiffres.

He was posting the results of his investigation into the circumstances of his family's exit from Marseilles to Lisbon in August 1940, courtesy of visas issued by the Dutch consulate in that city. Schiffres was 10 years old at the time, having been born in Cologne in 1931 and having escaped with his family to Belgium in 1938.

Here are excerpts from his account:

After managing to get out of Germany in 1938, escaping Belgium when the Germans invaded in May 1940, and leaving Bordeaux on the last train before the Nazis arrived, my parents and I finally made it to Marseilles in August 1940. The pressing need at the time seemed to be to get out of Vichy France and at least to get to neutral Portugal. But a Portuguese transit visa, as well as a Spanish one, could be obtained only if one had a visa to an overseas destination. My recollection was (I was only 10 at the time) and for years I have told the story that my parents obtained a visa to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) so as to enable them to get the Spanish and Portuguese visas. (We still did not have a visa de sortie -- but that's another story.) We arrived in Lisbon in October 1940.

He then writes that he learned many years later that various experts about refugees in Marseilles—an author, a documentary film maker—knew nothing about Dutch diplomats playing a role in refugee rescue. This is in the mid-1990s. The one Dutch connection that is known and which he Schiffres now learns about is the case of Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania, but he doesn't see the connection. But he now takes the inquiry a step further.

Having exhausted my library search, I wrote to the Dutch consulate in New York inquiring whether they knew of the issuance of such visas to Jewish refugees. I received a reply from Stef Buytendijk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, stating that the Dutch consul-general in Marseille in 1940 was Mr. C.J. van der Waarden, the consul was Mr. J. ten Hagen, and that it was likely that either granted our visa. He further stated that a third person who could have granted the visa was a Mr. D.F.W. van Lennep, "a member of Dutch lower nobility" who [later became a representative for refugees] in Vichy France.

Schiffres followed up with Buytendijk to inquire why any of these gentleman would issue visas to a non-Dutch family. Schriffres and his mother were German; his father, Polish.

I received a further reply from Mr. Buytendijk which stated that the summer of 1940 was a very disturbing and confusing time and that due to bad communication, Dutch consulates in Vichy-France did not know if they could grant visas for the Dutch East Indies to people with [foreign] passports. Mr. Buytendijk further stated that he found some correspondence in the Dutch archives showing that visas could only be granted to people with [foreign] passports upon a bank guarantee and after the consul-general in Vichy, van Sevenster, was consulted. Thus, it was possible for Polish citizens to apply for visas altough the Dutch consulates knew that that it was very difficult for Polish citizens to obtain a 'visa de sortie' from the French authorities.

For further insight, Schiffres next wrote to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, then very new, to ask "(1) Did the Dutch consuls issue visas that helped refugees escape the Holocaust and (2) If so, have they gotten proper credit for this Mitzvah?" He was answered by museum historian Severin Hochberg, who noted the Zwartendijk case but otherwise had no further information about rescues and Dutch diplomats.

As to Marseilles, Hochberg thought that the information sent to me by the Dutch authorities was interesting, and was the first that he had heard about this. Hochberg also consulted some other books on the Netherlands, France, Marseilles, etc and was not able to come up with anything. He emphasized that much of the diplomatic history of the Holocaust is only now beginning to be researched and relatively little is known even as regards the activities of the U.S. consuls!

Finally, Hochberg also noted the Marseilles consuls were extensions of the Netherlands government in exile, established by now in London, and that the officials' leniency toward refugees reflected the government's policies. Recall that Holland had accepted tens of thousands of escaping German Jews prior to the 1940 invasion.

This is interesting to me because the factors that led the Dutch consuls of Marseilles to issue Indonesia visas to the Schiffres family in August 1940 would equally apply to the Dutch consuls in Toulouse who issued Curacao issues in July 1940. Dutch East Indies, Dutch West Indies. Otherwise, much the same story.

With some excitement, I fired off an email to Irwin Schiffres. There had been no discussion board response to his posting from October 2001. Of course, I realized he would now be in his 80s and possibly not still be around to receive it. That's when I did a search on his name in Ancestry. Alas, his 2010 death certificate popped up right away. Under that, however, was a link to something that could prove to be almost as valuable as a direct dialog with him, an hour-long audio oral history about his refugee experience that he recorded for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1996.

I'll report on that in the next post. Oh, I did get around to making my post to the Jewish Gen main discussion board as well as the French special interest group board. We'll see if that turns up anything.


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