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Japanese Visas That Saved Jewish Refugees Are Just Half of the Story



Jan Zwartendijk


First of two parts


The achievements of the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands in Lithuania are buried in history.


Chiune Sugihara is known to have saved the lives of 6,000 Jewish refugees from persecution in Nazi Germany by issuing Japan transit visas based on his own judgment. This humanitarian action by the Acting Consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania has become known as the source of “Visas for Life.”



However, few people know the escape of these Jewish refugees was accomplished in cooperation with, and as a result of, the good intentions of many other people. Most notably, there was a diplomat other than Chiune Sugihara who issued “visas for life.” His achievements often goes unrecognized and even his name is not widely known, however.


Jan Zwartendijk was the branch director of the prestigious company Philips in Lithuania, he also became the honorary Dutch Consul of Lithuania in June 1940. To help Jewish refugees escape Europe, he issued them “entry visas” to Curaçao—a Dutch territory in the Caribbean. The refugees who got the documents would then rush to the Consulate of Japan, where Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas to Japan. It was an absolute requirement the refugees acquire entry visas to countries far beyond Japan.


In other words, “Curaçao visas” were the original source of the “Visas for Life” by Chiune Sugihara.


By coming to understand this background, my conviction grew stronger that, without talking about Curaҫao visas, Chiune Sugihara’s heroic deeds cannot be fully appreciated. Naturally, the Japanese honor Chiune Sugihara as a matter of course. Without the Curaҫao visas, however, Sugihara visas would not have existed. We Japanese must acknowledge this historical fact.


Just as such thoughts were developing, I learned that the eldest son of Jan Zwartendijk, his namesake, had written a memoir of those days. I immediately obtained a copy of this essay and soon discovered this passage:


The wide publicity surrounding Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940, provides only part of the story of the escape of more than 2,000 Polish Jews trapped in Lithuania at that time….


Less known is the story of how, and from whom, the refugees got the destination visas that would require them to travel through Japan.


I was touched by the strong feelings the son showed for his father in this essay. Although Chiune Sugihara’s achievement is now famous internationally, Jan Zwartendijk’s name is barely known even in his native Netherlands. A sense of mission to contribute to the proper historical recognition of Jan Zwartendijk thus blossomed within me.


In October 2015, just as my resolve was growing, I was invited to the opening ceremony of a Holocaust exhibition titled Testimony of Courage: Anne Frank and Chiune Sugihara’s Decision at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro. The Dutch ambassador and the Lithuanian ambassador would attend the event as distinguished guests. These two diplomats pointed out that there was another consul who issued visas for Jewish refugees, just as Sugihara, and referred to Consul Zwartendijk.


A few days later, I visited the Embassy of the Netherlands in Tokyo and conveyed my intention as a Japanese citizen to publicize this historical fact. The public relations officer was very pleased and then offered to fulfill my hope of meeting Zwartendijk’s family. Unfortunately, the eldest son who wrote the memoir had passed away in 2014. However, I was later introduced to the second son, Robert Zwartendijk, with the assistance of the embassy.




Shortly thereafter, I began to exchange frequent emails with Robert. I mentioned my desire to inform the Japanese public about his father's role issuing the Curaçao visas. Robert replied with delight, and wrote, “I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.” Towards the end of message, nonetheless, he added, “What does bother us, however, is that there is a very active movement around the heroic activities of Sugihara, but mostly my father is not even mentioned.”


Reading these words, the feeling of a bereaved family reached me deeply.


One year and eight months later, my wish for an interview with Robert Zwartendijk was realized. In late June 2017, I had a talk at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands, based in Amsterdam. During my stay, I visited Robert's home, located about one hour from Amsterdam via train and bus.



The house was in the corner of a quiet, residential neighborhood. He told me about his recent visit to Kaunas, Lithuania. Kaunas is the town where Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk were stationed as consuls of their respective countries. It became the stage for permitting “visas for life.” The Japanese Consulate building still stands in this town, however, it has become a museum called Sugihara House. Jan Zwartendijk has also been featured in an exhibit at the museum. Robert recalled that when introduced himself as the son of Zwartendijk, “The person in charge of the museum was very surprised.”


Asking his impressions of Sugihara House, I noticed that Robert looked somewhat perplexed. Visiting a museum that honors Chiune Sugihara, he once again must have been struck by how his father’s achievements have been overlooked.


“To help Jewish refugees was just a philanthropic act as a human being to my father. He would not want to overly emphasize his achievement. However, it is regrettable that no attention has been paid to actions at all.”


Robert understandably showed mixed sentiments.




To be continued:

Looking for the ‘Angel of Curaçao’: The Unknown Hero of Jewish Refugees


AUTHOR’S NOTE: The number of Jewish refugees saved by Sugihara is said to be 6,000. This number was not claimed by Sugihara himself; rather, it is estimated on the basis that a family of three members could travel with one visa. Although the “Sugihara list” records the names of 2,139 Jewish refugees who received visas from him, it is believed that Sugihara issued more visas than this figure.

Also, taking into account the difficult situation in which he was working in those last days and hours of the consulate, it can easily be imagined that Sugihara could not record the names of those to whom he issued visas after number 2,139.




Akira Kitade was born in Mie, Japan, in 1944. After graduating from Keio University in 1966, Akira Kitade worked for the Japan National Tourism Organization, and was stationed in Geneva, Switzerland; Dallas, Texas; and Seoul, South Korea. He was appointed Convention Promotion Manager in 1998. He retired from JNTO in 2004. Akira Kitade has published several books, including Poet of the Snow, Charisma of Korea’s Tourism, Pusan Harbor Tales, and, most recently, Visas of Life and the Epic Journey, a 2017 Foreign Minister Commendation recipient.




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