Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2021

The Just (De rechtvaardigen), by Jan Brokken, translated by David McKay

It seems extraordinary that today, so many years after the Holocaust, there are still stories of heroism coming to light. The Just, first published in 2018 as De rechtvaardigen but now available in an English translation by David McKay, is the story of the Dutch Honorary Consul Jan Zwartendijk and his Japanese counterpart, Chiune Sugihara who in the period 16 July – 3 August 1940 enabled the escape of thousands of Jews by providing them with transit documentation and visas out of Lithuania.

Until reading this book, I had little knowledge of Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust.  It is deeply worrying that anti-Semitism is still rife in the country, even to the extent that a Lithuanian court recently ruled that swastikas could be displayed publicly and were symbols of “Lithuania’s historical heritage”.  (See Wikipedia).  IMO it’s not a heritage to be proud of:

The Holocaust in Lithuania resulted in the near total destruction of Lithuanian (Litvaks) and Polish Jews, living in Generalbezirk Litauen of Reichskommissariat Ostland within the Nazi-controlled Lithuanian SSR. Out of approximately 208,000–210,000 Jews, an estimated 190,000–195,000 were murdered before the end of World War II, most between June and December 1941. More than 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred over the three-year German occupation—a more complete destruction than befell any other country affected by the Holocaust. Historians attribute this to the massive collaboration in the genocide by the non-Jewish local paramilitaries, though the reasons for this collaboration are still debated. The Holocaust resulted in the largest-ever loss of life in so short a period of time in the history of Lithuania. (Wikipedia, viewed 21/7/21, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes.)

Zwartendijk became Dutch Honorary Consul in the chaos of WW2.  Lithuania had been independent since the end of WW1, enjoyed a brief period of democracy in the 1920s but lapsed into authoritarianism from 1926.  Both Nazi Germany and the USSR wanted control of the country and diplomatic efforts failed to prevent encroachments by both aspirants. However the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, gave Poland to the Soviets and they in the process invaded Vilnius, which Lithuania considered its capital.  To engineer its return, Lithuania had to agree to Soviet troops being stationed on their soil, to a pro-Soviet government, and ultimately to annexation by the USSR.  Zwartendijk was director of the Kaunas Philips plant being nationalised at this time, and was hastily appointed part-time acting consul of the Dutch government-in-exile represented by the Ambassador in Riga, Latvia, L.P.J. de Decker. No one could have foreseen that with clandestine advice from de Decker, Zwartendijk was to play a pivotal role in the rescue of so many Jews.

All over Europe Jews were fleeing the Nazis, but Lithuania was no safe haven.  Refugees came from German-occupied Western Poland and Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland, and included residents of Lithuania who knew they were at risk too.  When they came in desperation to Zwartendijk, with approval of his boss the Dutch Ambassador L.P.J. De Decker, he conceived the idea of annotating passports to allow entry without visa to one of two Dutch colonies beyond the reach of Nazi Germany: either Curaçao, in the Caribbean or Suriname in South America.  Their route was to take them across risky territory in the USSR to Japan before travelling onward, so they needed a transit visa from the Japanese Consul too.  Zwartendijk was able to speed up operations by having a stamp made so that only his signature was needed, but even with a stamp Sugihara had to write seven columns of Japanese calligraphy for each one.  Both men worked 20 hour days to process thousands of passports: Zwartendijk issued nearly 2,200 before he was forced to leave Kaunas, (and some issued illegally after that) and Sugihara was still providing these life-saving documents even as his train pulled out of the station.  Brokken’s research shows that there are Jewish families in Melbourne who owe their lives to these brave men.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this story is that there is documentary evidence that Stalin personally approved the refugees’ transit through the USSR to Japan.  In 1940 his stance was to stand up against anti-Semitism, and he made notes for a speech in which he described anti-Jewish hatred as ‘cannibalism’ and ‘a crime’. He bragged about the Jewish homeland he had established near the Chinese border: ‘The tsars wouldn’t give the Jews any land, but we have.’  In trying to interpret this quixotic support for Jews, Brokken suggests two motives: that by charging an exorbitant fee for the journey on the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok — in American dollars no less, at a time when the mere possession of the currency meant very heavy penalties — the USSR had valuable foreign currency for the purchase of armaments.  It’s also possible that Stalin intended to boost the Jewish population in Birobidzhan…

Zwartendijk and Sugihara were not the only heroes quietly risking their lives in this way.  The author’s research led to the discovery that the same note in a passport had led to the rescue of a Melbourne Jew called Abram Weiner in Sweden, where the signature was that of the Dutch Consul A.M. (Adriaan Mattheus) de Jong, also guided by De Decker.  It’s not possible to know how Wiener acquired a transit visa for Japan because both Wiener and De Jong are dead, and (no doubt following the prudent disposal of all records by Zwartendijk and Sugihara), no other travel documents have survived.  Weiner may have used the USSR-Palestinian route which emerged after the Kaunas consulates were closed, facilitated by forged British entry visas for Palestine, expertly made by an underground printery in Vilnius. (After the British complained to the USSR about the influx of refugees, the printery was shut down, and the printer was sent to Siberia for ten years.)  But De Jong continued to issue Curaçao visas (nearly 500) and the search began for a Japanese consul who was prepared to overlook the fact that these visas implied that you could easily enter Curaçao or Suriname.  That was not actually so, but the important thing was that they got the visa-holder out of the danger in Lithuania.  (Even if they had to wait out the war in Siberia, as some did, they were still better off. However, those who were Dutch nationals who did reach the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) were interned by the Japanese under brutal conditions.  None of this story has simple happy endings.) The name of this consul in a place called Chita is not given, and this is one of the minor flaws in this book… not all sequences follow a coherent chronology and sometimes it’s difficult to patch information together. De Jong also played a part in British espionage and seems to have an interesting story to tell, including that he was badly treated by the postwar Dutch authorities for showing too much initiative. I hope someone has written a bio of this man.  (I didn’t get far with a Google search, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one).

There was also a Dutch consul in Kobe Japan who intervened to prevent 74 Jews who lacked transit visas being sent back to Vladivostok. Unlike the other diplomats who suffered the consequences of ‘breaking the rules’ Nicolaas de Voogd went on to have a successful career after the war.   In Shanghai there was Ho Feng Shan who defied the wishes of his immediate superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, who hoped to maintain good relations with Hitler.  His motto was ‘Do nothing you cannot justify in Heaven.’ Back in the Netherlands under the German Occupation there was Jan Swartendijk’s twin brother Piet and his brave daughter Ineke also acting courageously without either brother knowing what the other was doing.  Ineke, at seventeen, had thought that her Uncle Jan had played a ‘safe war’, and did not know about his courage until after his death, concluding that a few casual impressions don’t tell you a thing about how people will act  in wartime.

Recounting the bare bones of this rescue operation for a review does not convey the enormity of it.  Like others of the Righteous Among Nations these heroes imperilled themselves and the people they loved because they thought it was the right thing to do.  They worked long stressful hours exacerbated by the need for secrecy.  And each visa issued enabled the escape of whole families who could travel on the same visa.  Some who had common names (the equivalent of John Smith) were able to re-use them for other family members, and so there are many more descendants of these refugees than the mere number of visas. Given that after the war Zwartendijk was reprimanded for breaking the rules and that he died unrecognised not even knowing how many of those he had tried to help had survived the war, it’s important to note that…

… 95 per cent of those with visas from the Dutch Consul in Kaunas survived the war. (p.406)

This is a long book (and a heavy one for a one-handed reader!) and I haven’t been able to take notes as I usually do for a book like this.   I hope that I have given fair weight to all the men and women whose stories are told.

Author: Jan Brokken
Title: The Just, how six unlikely heroes saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (De rechtvaardigen)
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Cover design based a design by Roald Triebels
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021
ISBN: 9781925849295, hbk., 478 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. Wow. I don’t think I knew anything about Lithuania’s involvement before, but I find that ruling about the swastika totally shocking. Why have we not moved on from this kind of attitude by now? I do have my doubts about the sanity of some parts of the human race. :(((

    Like

    • I remember seeing a very small, old, weathered swastika on a gate post in Bali some years ago and being shocked though it’s not exactly the same and it does have an ancient history there. In Europe it’s totally different and for any country to persist in displaying it when it symbolises what it now does there, is more about promoting its WW2 symbolism than anything to do with history. It’s reprehensible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Before the Nazis stole the swastika for their own abhorrent ends, it was actually a good luck symbol. I didn’t know this until I visited the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen where there are swastikas carved into a pair of elephants in the belief they would make the brewery prosperous. More info here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/elephant-gate

        Like

        • I don’t dispute that the symbol has a history before the Nazis. But now that it is irrevocably associated with the Holocaust, IMO its previous history is not so important that it needs to be preserved.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh yes, quite agree. You’ll note on that Carlsberg piece they banned any use of the swastika after 1940… and rightly so. Symbols, like language, do change meaning over time.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. This book sounds very powerful, Lisa. I wasn’t really aware of Lithuania’s role in the war. How wonderful that brave and clever people helped so many to escape in ways that must have put their own lives and livelihoods on the line.

    Like

    • It’s surprising, isn’t it? There seems to be no end to WW2 in popular culture, and yet parts of it have been airbrushed away…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As you say at the beginning, there seems to be no end to stories about the war and the Holocaust. These two men were wonderful. I had forgotten how short a time they had.

    Like

    • All these years we’ve mostly heard stories from the major allies so there must be many more stories to come.
      I have a vague memory of requesting a review copy of a book about Indian soldiers in WW2 Britain, but I didn’t receive one, and now I don’t remember the name of it. That would be a most interesting book, I reckon.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I tried to Google de Jong in Dutch, but didn’t find more than a few lines. He was a consul in Stockholm and assisted with the so-called ‘Swedish road’. The Swedish road was used to smuggle people and data from the occupied Netherlands to Great Britain and vice versa. Cargo ships were allowed to go from the Netherlands to Sweden and Finland (albeit with German guards on board), and from Stockholm it was easier to get data to and from Britain.

    Like

    • Thanks for that, Elisabeth. There was something about the use of the cargo ships in the book, including that one of the agents turned out to be working for the Germans and betrayed some of the allied agents. There was also a Dutch historian called De Jong, with different initials…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that historian wrote a whole series of books about the war. And de Jong is one of the most common Dutch surnames..

        Like

  5. Unsure how much and how American news travels, but there was a leadership convention for the Republican party in the U.S. a few months ago in which the stage was shaped somewhat like a swastika which many did not believe was an accident or an oversight.

    I’m with you on being amazed (and appalled and relieved) by the amount of WWII material still emerging or, at least, it feels like it’s emerging…it feels like it’s only been about a decade that I’ve begun to really understand how many countries and continents were affected by the European wars, having had to overwrite my mistaken student impressions of it being only about the “important nations”.

    Like

    • I didn’t see that about the convention, but I was almost brought to tears by the testimony of the Capitol police yesterday…

      Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: