Jan Zwartendijk – Righteous Among the Nations

Today, there are over a hundred thousand decedents of the Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk.

Jan Zwartendijk (1896–1976) was a Dutch businessman who worked for Philips, a manufacturer of light bulbs and radios. In May 1939, he became Philips’ director of Lithuanian operations. The company’s operations, including a workshop of 20 employees, were disrupted in the spring of 1940 after Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands prevented the export of radio components to Lithuania.

In September 1939, Hitler conquered the western part of Poland, while Stalin occupied the eastern part. Over 10,000 Polish refugees fled to Vilnius (Vilna),Lithuania, which was neutral at the time.

In June 1940, during the turmoil resulting from the German invasion of the Netherlands and the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Zwartendijk became acting Dutch consul in Kaunas.

Kaunas become a chaotic and dangerous city in By mid-July, 1940.  Zwartendijk wanted to leave and return to Holland, but the Soviets were not forthcoming in giving him an exit visa.  Holland and the USSR had no diplomatic relations at the time and Zwartendijk did not have a diplomatic immunity.

When the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in late July 1940, fear seized the Orthodox Jewish community, which realized they would be actively persecuted for practicing their religion under Communism. They sought whatever means they could to escape to the free world. Sweden, which was the only accessible neutral country, refused to let them in.

The only other possible destination was the Far East. Getting there required crossing the USSR from west to east on the Trans-Siberian train, and then finding a ship that will take them to another country. The obstacle was getting exit visas from the USSR, and getting an entrance visa to another country. No country was willing to accept the Jews.

Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum, two Yeshiva students with Dutch citizenship from the Lithuanian Telshe Yeshiva, asked the acting Dutch consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Jan Zwartendijk if he could help them get to Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. 

Jan understood their situation. He contacted L.P.J. Decker, the Dutch Ambassador in Riga, for advice and received a note saying that: “No visas were necessary for Curacao. The governor has exclusive authority to issue landing permits to foreigners, a power he rarely exercises.”

Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum asked Zwartendijk to write only the first sentence in their passports. Zwartendijk agreed and entered “Curacao End-Visas,” omitting the fact that the Island’s Governor  had to approve their landing once they got their. 

With this “revised” visas, the two yeshiva students went to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas. They asked for transit visa through Japan. He issued them transit visas valid for ten days in Japan. With the Dutch and Japanese visas, the students were able to obtain Soviet exit visas.This allowed them to travel to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and from there, by boat to Japan.

Gutwirth asked the advice to Zorach Warhaftig, a leader in the Jewish community in Vilnius (later to become Minister of Religious Affairs in Israel).  Warhaftig told Gutwirth to go back to Zwartendijk and ask if he would be willing to give the same notation to anyone who applied for it, and to add a consular stamp to make it look like a visa. Gutwirth made that request and Zwartendijk agreed. Warhaftig spread the word, and within hours, dozens were at Zwartendijk’s door.

Decker and Zwartendijk had intended to issue the modified visa just to few people. Zwartendijk agreed to extend it to anyone who asked.  In the next 4 days (July 24-27) he wrote about 1,300 visas by hand. He issued another 1,050 with the help of a stamp over the next five working days (July 29 – August 2).  The highest-numbered surviving visa known to date is No. 2,345, issued on August 2 to Eliasz Kupinski and family.

Neither Zwartendijk or Sugihara were professional diplomats. Zwartendijk was businessman who was asked by Decker to replace a Nazi sympathizer. Sugihara was an intelligence officer. 

The Japanese consul knew the visas weren’t real, but he issued transit visas to the Jews anyway. People who arrived in Japan sent their visas back to relatives still in Vilnius to be reused. Sugihara issued close to 2,000.

Fully aware of the questionable the documents, Japan allowed every Jew who used them to land. All of them were sponsored by the Jewish community in Kobe, Japan.

In early August 1940, Soviet authorities confiscated Zwartendijk’s office in Kaunas, ending his work and his issuing of “Curaçao visas.”  

Zwartendijk was worried that he will be sent to Siberia for irritating and troubling the Soviets by issuing all those visas to Polish Jews.  He sent his family to the country, some 60 miles away, along the Memel River, for greater safety, and came to join them on weekends only. Finally, the Soviet exit visa came through, and the Zwartendijk family left  by train to Nazi-occupied Holland in early September 1940. Decker, as a professional diplomat, was admitted to Sweden. 

Sugihara was able to stay a few more weeks. He continued to hand out transit visas even after he was forbidden to do so by his superiors. Chiune Sugihara was expelled by the Soviets. He requested an extension claiming illness, then continued to issue visas until the last moment. He was deported on August 31, 1940. Even when he was on the departing train, he threw transit visas to Jews through the the train window.   

Zwartendijk spent the entire war, from September 1940 on, in Holland, working for Philips. During the war, he spoke to no one in Holland about his consular activities in Kaunas for fear that the Gestapo might find out what he had done.

After World War II, Philips sent Zwartendijk to Athens in 1946 as its director for Greece.  He retired and returned to Holland in 1956.  During all this time his silence about his Kaunas activities continued. He never mentioned the episode until the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked him about it in 1963, after an article in the B’nai B’rith of Los Angeles called him the “Angel of Curaçao.” Zwartendijk’s was delighted to learn that some people had actually escaped. No one of the refugees remembered his name, some thought his name might be “Philips Radio.”

Nathan Gutwirth, living in Antwerp, had found Zwartendijk’s phone number in nearby Rotterdam and called him once in 1971.  None of the other survivors who had escaped with the aid of his Curaçao visa contacted Zwartendijk.

Between 2,100 and 2,200 Jewish refugees entered Japan.They remained there between three and eight months. More than half of them were able to travel on to free countries in the western hemisphere. The remaining 1,000 were transferred to the Japanese section of Shanghai, where they survived the war.

For his efforts on behalf of the refugees in Kaunas, Zwartendijk was posthumously honored, in 1997, as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Authority.



Zwartendijk with his daughter Edith and son Jan, Jr., Kovno, 1939-1940


Click here to read about  Chiune Sugihara