Jan Zwartendijk

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.

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.

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