Motivation in Holocaust Rescue

Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania, 1940
  • Jonathan Goldstein


What prompted a Dutch businessman to ignore serious risks in order to assist Jews stranded in wartime Lithuania? In the summer of 1940, Jan Zwartendijk rescued thousands in Kovno. What was his role in the Kovno rescue episode? What was the role of other individuals such as the Japanese Consul-General Sugihara Senpo? What was the attitude of the Soviet government? And how did the State of Israel come to recognize Zwartendijk’s courage fifty-seven years after the event?


General Staff Dutch Citizen Religious Affair Rubber Stamp Soviet Authority 
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  1. 1.
    ‘Mr. Beckelman’, ‘The Refugee Problem in Lithuania’, February 1940, 16-page typescript in Joint Archives, New York City, File number JDC: 1937–1950, 730, p.2.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thousands of the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi or Soviet persecution found temporary haven in Vilna (Vilnius), which was incorporated into independent Lithuania on 10 October 1939. Lithuania ceased to be a safety zone for these refugees when it was occupied by the U.S.S.R. on 15 June 1940. Beckelman noted that of the 9,824 Jewish refugees registered with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Vilna as of 31 January 1940, ‘3153 came from territory now occupied by the Russians [and] 6671 from German-occupied Poland.’ For additional detail on the hardships of the Jews under the Soviet occupation, see Zorach Warhaftig, Refugee and Survivor: Rescue Efforts during the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1988), pp.91–101, 115–19.Google Scholar
  3. and Masha Greenbaum, The Jews of Lithuania (Jerusalem and Hewlett, N.Y.: Gefen, 1995), pp.288–301. The situation of the Jews in German-occupied Poland and in the German-occupied Klaipeda (Memel) region of Lithuania was infinitely worse. Murder, brutal forced labour, expulsions, and ghettoization were commonplace. For additional descriptions of the persecution of Jews in the Generalgouvernement and in areas formally annexed into the Third Reich.Google Scholar
  4. see Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1945), pp.12–37;Google Scholar
  5. Chaim A. Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp.19–236;Google Scholar
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  8. 3.
    Documents about Philips’ presence in Lithuania in 1939–0 have been preserved in Lithuania’s Central State Archives in Vilna. These are mainly Finance Ministry records bearing original tax stamps and include photographs of Zwartendijk and his wife. I am grateful to Archives Director Riorardas Cipas and Deputy Director Grazine Sluckaite for making these papers available to me during my June 1998 research trip. The Kaunas Regional Archives (Juozas Rimkus, Director), contain some Finance Ministry and other commercial documents from 1940–41 and telephone books for the years 1939–40. For additional background on Orthodox Jewish organizations and their contracts with Zwartendijk, see Efraim Zuroff, The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 2000), pp.83–94, 96.Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    The episode is described in Isaac Lewin’s Remembering Days of Old: Historical Essays (New York: Research Institute of Religious Jewry, 1994), pp.171–76 and in Nathan Lewin’s ‘Memories of my Father’, Washington Jewish Week, 7 September 1995, p.53.Google Scholar
  10. 5.
    Warhaftig, Refugee, pp.112–31. Other accounts include Hillel Levine, In Search of Sugihara (New York: Free Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  11. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, ‘Tackling a Mysterious Mass Rescuei’, The New York Times, 23 December 1996, C16; Ernest G. Heppner, ‘A Rescuer’s Image is Gilded’, Jewish Post and Opinion (Indianapolis), January 1997;Google Scholar
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  13. and Mel Gussow, ‘Sugihara’s List: A Play about 6,000 Saved Jews’, The New York Times, 21 January 1998, B3.Google Scholar
  14. A widely published but unfootnoted account about Sugihara’s activities appears in Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews during World War II (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1979, reprinted New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1996), also published under the title Desperate Voyagers (New York: Dell, 1980)Google Scholar
  15. and translated into Chinese by Gong Fangzhen, Zhang Letian, and Lu Haisheng as Hetun yu Jihua: Dierce Shijie Dazhan Qijian Ribenren yu Youtairen de Mimi Jiaowang Shi (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Shudian, 1992).Google Scholar
  16. 7.
    Until 1941, when the Japanese closed the gates of Shanghai, this city was a place where a foreigner could legally walk ashore without any documentation whatsoever. For eyewitness testimony, see Ernest G. Heppner, Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), p.40 and passim, translated into German by Roberto de Hollanda as Fluchtort Shanghai: Erinnerungen 1938–1948 (Bonn: Weidle Verlag, 1998).Google Scholar
  17. 8.
    In fact, Jewish refugees were admitted to Curacao and not turned back to sea. After the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, several Jews with Austrian and German passports were interned on the Dutch West Indian island of Bonaire. Even more significantly, in late 1941 a League of Nations refugee official in London prevailed on the Dutch Government-in-Exile to cable the Governor of Curacao to admit to Curacao approximately 82 Jewish refugees aboard the Spanish ship Cabo de Hornos. The Cabo de Hornos incident recalls the arrival of the first contingent of Jewish in New Amsterdam in 1654, when In 23 Jewish refugees were admitted to the colony on orders from Amsterdam over the protest of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. See Warhaftig, Refugee, pp. 104–05; Beckelman, Asuncion, Paraguay, to Joint, New York, 13 December 1941, 23 December 1941, Joint Archives; ‘High Seas’, Time Magazine, 1 December 1941, p.30; Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, ‘The Policy of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards Jewish Refugees’, Ph. D. diss., Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, 1996, pp.297–300; David and Tamar de Sola Pool, An Old Faith in a New World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), pp.4–31;Google Scholar
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  19. 9.
    Letters from Nathan Gutwirth, Antwerp, to Marvin Tokayer, Tokyo, 24 September and 22 October 1974, both courtesy of Marvin Tokayer; to Mordecai Paldiel, Jerusalem, 28 May 1996 and to Jan Zwartendyk, State College, Pennsylvania, 16 July 1996, both courtesy of Jan Zwartendyk [Zwarten-dijk’s eldest son]; David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938–1945 (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1988), pp.311–312.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    On the efforts of Heppner, Kranzler, and others, see letters from J. Zwartendyk and Ernest G. Heppner in The Jewish Post and Opinion, 30 April 1976, p.2; Ed Stattman, ‘Japanese granted Dutchman denied laurels for saving Jews’, The Jewish Post and Opinion, 21 June 1995, p. NAT4; Ed Stattman, ‘Dutchman to be honored for 1940 rescues’, The Jewish Post and Opinion, 8 May 1996, p. NAT2; Steve Lipman, ‘The Decent Thing’, The Jewish Week (New York), 10 May 1996, p.1; letter from Paldiel to Jan Zwartendyk, 7 October 1997; and Phyllis Braun, ‘Yad Vashem gives Righteous Gentile his due’, Arizona Jewish Post (Tucson), 1 May 1998, pp.1, 8.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Betty Goodfriend, conversation with the author, October 1999. On Jewish fears of deportation to Siberia, see Warhaftig, Refugee, pp.121–23 and Menachem Begin, White Nights (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Sugihara Yukiko, Rokusennin-Inochi-No Biza [Life Visas for 6,000 People] (Tokyo: Asahi-sonorama, 1990), p.73; quoted in Palasz-Rutkowska, pp.293–94.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Goldstein

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