Lisbon escape route

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.

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.

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.

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.

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