Lisbon escape route

HIAS documents

From Walter: here are the two scanned documents from HIAS. The first is the file filled out by the HIAS worker in NY and the lower is their address in Lisbon.

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.

Irwin Schiffres oral history

I introduced you to Irwin Schiffres in the last post because his story of escape from southern France in the summer of 1940 courtesy of Dutch consuls closely tracks to my mother's similar story. When I listened to his oral history, collected by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, I found many other parallels that help to illuminate Helga's experience. I'll summarize.

Schiffres was raised in Cologne of a Polish-born dentist and his German wife from an orthodox Jewish family. They were somewhat insulated from the early anti-Jewish measures and even after the Nuremberg laws the family remained fairly comfortable. In 1938, Poland changed its laws to revoke citizenship to nationals living abroad, and Germany responded by issuing pre-emptive deportations to Polish Jews in Germany, including Schiffres' father.

Learning of his imminent deportation order, the father had a physician friend order him hospitalized. As a result, he was able to obtain an extension of six months, allowing time to prepare his family to flee. They left Cologne on December 10, 1938, a week after burying the patriarch of his mother's family, Irwin's grandfather. (There are several echoes of Helga's story here. She buried her father and left Berlin in August 1938. Irwin buried his grandfather and left Cologne about three months later.)

Irwin's father was able to travel to Belgium, where he had a brother. Similarly Irwin's mother was able to travel to Holland, where she had a brother. Thus the family split up for the next five weeks. Irwin remembers being strip-searched (looking for hidden money) as they crossed the border at Kaldenkirchen. Then they stayed for a month in Rotterdam before making the more difficult crossing from Holland to Belgium.

There they had paid to be met by a smuggler who vouched for the Schiffres as family members. In Belgium, they reunited with Irwin's father in the resort town of Spa, surprisingly close to German border and just 60 miles from their departure point of Cologne. They lived in Spa for nine months, perhaps with hopes that they might be able to return home. By September, when war commenced on the Eastern front, they concluded it was time to move on.

They next went to live with the uncle in Antwerp until May 10, 1940, when the war swept into Holland and Belgium and they joined the legions of refugees on the run.

They were delayed crossing the French border at De Panne, because at first the father's Polish passport was not accepted. Then they were in Dunkirk, Calais and Paris, before proceeding with thousands of refugees to Bordeaux. They stayed there in a furnished room for a month, leaving on what Schiffres says was the last train out of Bordeaux to Hendaye before the Germans arrived on June 21.

Schiffres doesn't mention Sousa Mendes in his account, and even though his family was in the right place to possibly obtain help from the Portuguese consul they evidently did not, either in Bordeaux or Hendaye. Unable to exit France, they were bused to a possible temporary shelter among French peasants but Schiffres' mother did not trust the offer and they continued on to Toulouse. Here they spent the night in a refugee center in a converted movie theater but decamped early the next morning, again on the distrust of the mother.

In retrospect, we know that if they had hung around Toulouse for a few more days, they might have secured visas there. Instead, they departed by train for Marseilles, where the family would spend the follow two months, long enough for Irwin to be enrolled in a school there for eight days.

It was there in the latter part of August where the family was able to secure a destination visa from the consulate of the Netherlands to travel to the Dutch East Indies. Not Curacao but Indonesia, but similar in many respects to the Dutch visas in Toulouse. With the Dutch stamp, the Schiffres family was now able to get transit visas from Portugal and Spain, though not a French exit visa. They ended hiking across the Spanish border to circumvent that final requirement.

I'll pick up with more of the Schiffres story, and its parallels to the Ringel story, in the next post.


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