The Jewish Woman Behind the “Curaçao Visa”
During World War II, Chiune Sugihara saved many Jewish refugees with “Visas for Life.” This incredible feat is well-known. But it is less widely known that there was a Dutch diplomat who, along with Sugihara, issued life-saving visas to rescue Jews fleeing the Nazis. In November 2017, we introduced this little-known story, receiving a great response from our readers.
Meanwhile, in October 2017, UNESCO declined to add the records of Chiune Sugihara to its Memory of the World Register. The records include the “Sugihara list” which displays the 2,139 names of Sugihara visa recipients. While UNESCO did not explain its decision, one reason might be there were many diplomats in other countries who also worked to rescue Jewish refugees.
Of course, the value of Chiune Sugihara’s humanitarian actions will not be lost merely as a result of not being included in the Memory of the World Register. Furthermore, it is also true that the escape route for Jewish refugees would not have been possible without the collaboration of many people. The success of “Visas for Life” was not because they were issued by humanitarian diplomats alone. Without the Jewish refugees’ determination to survive, the “Visas for Life” would not have been generated. In this article, I want to shed light on that point.
In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and quickly controlled the western half of the country. As a result, many Jews living in Poland escaped to Lithuania, the country’s neighbor to the east. However, the advance of the German army in Europe remained unchecked. At the same time, as the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Poland, danger was close at hand in adjacent Lithuania. Here, the dramatic escape of thousands of Jewish refugees began.
This was the prelude to the issuing of the “Sugihara visas.” As I described in my earlier article, Sugihara visas relied upon another kind of life-saving visa, issued by the Dutch Honorary Consul, Jan Zwartendijk.
Behind the scenes, a Jewish woman was greatly involved in the genesis of this other document, the “Curaçao visa.” The woman’s name was Peppy Sternheim Lewin. Born in 1911 and originally of Dutch nationality, Peppy Sternheim Lewin later acquired Polish citizenship when she married the Polish writer and scholar, Isaac Lewin. When World War II broke out, the couple and their young son escaped to Lithuania from their home in Lodz, the second largest city in Poland. Peppy Sternheim Lewin’s mother and brother, who had been visiting her in Lodz, fled along with her.
Peppy Sternheim Lewin, an intelligent woman, perceived that Lithuania was not safe. She appealed to the Dutch Honorary Consul, Jan Zwartendijk, for an entry visa to Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Zwartendijk refused to issue her a visa on the grounds that she already lost her Dutch nationality. So, she decided to appeal directly to Zwartendijk’s boss, the Dutch ambassador to the Baltic states, L.P.J. de Dekker. De Dekker was living in Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Initially, de Dekker politely declined her request, informing her that the business of issuing visas had been suspended. Desperately striving to save her family, Peppy Sternheim Lewin persisted. She wrote back to the ambassador and pointed out that she was a former Dutch citizen, while noting that her mother and brother who fled with her from Poland were still Dutch citizens.
De Dekker wrote back and explained that no visa was needed to travel to the Dutch territories of Curaçao in the Caribbean and Suriname in South America, but the final decision to issue an entry permit would be made by the local Dutch governor. (I described this special circumstance in my previous article.)
However, Peppy Sternheim Lewin thought that even if her mother and brother, as Dutch citizens, were permitted to enter the country, it was unlikely the Lewin family would be allowed to enter because of their Polish citizenship.
At this juncture, Peppy Sternheim Lewin had a brilliant idea that would finally yield success. She asked de Dekker to add a note to her Polish passport, leaving out the detail that permission of the local governor was required for entry. The note should only state that no visa was needed to go to Curaçao and Suriname.
De Dekker accepted Peppy’s appeal and wrote a note to that effect on her passport, which became known as the “Curaçao visa.” Having received the Dutch ambassador’s certificate, she once again appealed to Jan Zwartendijk for his help with her husband’s documents. Zwartendijk copied de Dekker’s note on Isaac Lewin’s passage certificate “LEIDIMAS.” (This was a permit granted to refugees by the Lithuanian government as an alternative to a passport.) The date was July 22, 1940.
Four days later, on a sunny summer day, Isaac and Peppy Lewin visited the Japanese consulate with Curaçao entry permits, acquiring Japanese transit visas from Chiune Sugihara.
Lewin’s passage certificate “LEIDIMAS” which has the “Curaçao visa” and the “Sugihara visa”
Saburo Nei’s bravery connects the baton of life
Still, another hurdle remained. The refugees’ route from Lithuania to Japan led to Vladivostok, which could only be reached via an arduous journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The permission of the Soviet Government was, likewise, needed to pass through Vladivostok.
At that time, Intourist, the official state travel agency of the Soviet Union, took over the arrangement of the Jewish refugees’ passage through the Soviet Union. During this period, the Soviet Union needed foreign currency and, in addition, desired current information on all parts of Europe. Jewish refugees were seen by the Soviet authorities as precious sources of information as well as sources of foreign funds. For these reasons, the Soviet government’s attitude towards the refugees seems to have been relatively generous.
After a long, disorienting journey over land, when the refugees finally arrived at the end-point of Vladivostok, they next faced the journey by sea to Japan. Here, Jewish refugees were to encounter further barriers.
The Soviet Authorities wanted the Jews to leave the sovereignty of the Soviet Union as soon as possible. On the other hand, the Japanese government instructed the Japanese Consulate in Vladivostok “to strictly check the identity of Jewish refugees,” so they were not allowed to pass quickly.
Of course, more rigorous identity checks will invariably result in the discovery of a greater number of suspicious people to detain. It was feared that more and more Jewish refugees would be stranded in Vladivostok.
At this juncture, Saburo Nei, Acting Consul-General of Japan in Vladivostok, played a decisive role. Sugihara had been Nei’s senior schoolmate at the Harbin Institute. Nei pursued a courageous course, embracing the intention of Chiune Sugihara to let the refugees pass. Nei believed that the prestige of Japan as an empire would be damaged if promises made by the Japanese Consul in Lithuania were not honored. As a matter of imperial honor, Nei decided to allow the Jewish refugees to board ships to travel on to Japan at his own risk.
The unexpected collaboration between two diplomats
Let’s return to the story of the “Sugihara list.”
Isaac Lewin acquired a Japanese visa from Sugihara on July 26, 1940. His visa is 17th on the Sugihara list. As the patriarch of his family, Isaac Lewin’s visa also covered his wife Peppy and his son Nathan.
Visas for Peppy’s mother, Rachel Sternheim, and her brother, Levi Sternheim, are entries sixteen and eighteen, respectively, on Sugihara’s list. “Netherlands” is entered as the nationality for these two visas. The Sugihara list contains the names of 2,139 people, of which more than 90 percent were Polish citizens. Besides Rachel and Levi Sternheim, only one other person with the nationality of Netherlands appears on the list. (This person is described below.)
This detail also attests to Peppy’s indomitable spirit in trying to protect her clan. It was exactly that spirit that moved de Dekker and Zwartendijk, creating a breakthrough for Jewish refugees.
Still, another key figure was needed to disseminate the currency of the Curaçao visas into every corner of the Jewish refugee community in Lithuania. At that time, Zwartendijk was friends with a Dutch student named Nathan Gutwirth. Gutwirth, who was attending a yeshiva in Lithuania at the time, is one of the aforementioned Dutch citizens on the Sugihara list. Zwartendijk, when consulted by Gutwirth on options to escape from Lithuania, informed him about the Curaçao visa.
Returning to the yeshiva, Gutwirth told his fellow students about the Curaçao visa. The students then spread information throughout the local Jewish community that they could escape to a safe place if they obtain these visas.
In this way, the breakthrough was widely expanded upon by Nathan Gutwirth. We can say that two different aims converged into one goal. There is the yeshiva student who said, “I want to save as many individuals as possible” and the woman who said, “I want to protect my family however possible.” These two points were connected and became a line, like a stream that eventually became a torrent and swept the whole city of Kaunas.
Gutwirth’s visa was acquired on August 6, 1940, eleven days after the Lewin family acquired a Sugihara visa. Gutwirth’s number on the Sugihara list is 1,264. More than 1,200 Jewish refugees flooded Kaunas in search of the Sugihara visas in the space of eleven days.
As a side-note, copies of about 40 visas are displayed in the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu-cho, Gifu Prefecture, which is Sugihara’s hometown. Curaçao visas and Sugihara visas were written in tandem, so it’s very interesting to understand the flow of issuance as each date can be read.
The copies of about 40 visas are displayed in the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu-cho, Gifu Prefecture.
Both Zwartendijk and Sugihara originally wrote their visas by hand, but as the two diplomats were flooded by applications, it is well known that stamps were soon employed. As I understand it, Zwartendijk began using a stamp on July 24th, while Sugihara switched to a stamp on August 1st. Both diplomats issued over 2,000 visas in a short period of time. It is difficult to imagine how hard they worked. The consuls of two different countries working together on a humanitarian cause of this magnitude is a marvelous convergence. Yet, in some sources, it is stated that they never actually met. Is it possible that two diplomats accomplished such a thing without ever actually meeting? It is an incredible story that I was determined to explore.
I participated in an event related to Chiune Sugihara held in Los Angeles in June of 2016, along with Peppy Sternheim Lewin’s son, Mr. Nathan Lewin, a lawyer. For me, it was a unique opportunity to pursue that question.
Mr. Nathan Lewin and the author.
“My mother said that they [Zwartendijk and Sugihara] may have met at some point, but I was not there so I do not know the truth,” was Mr. Lewin’s reply.
More importantly, Mr. Lewin told me details about the Curaçao visa and how it originated.
Below is the exchange with Mr. Lewin.
AK: Everyone who was saved by a visa uniformly declared, “If Mr. Sugihara were not there, my family and I would not have survived in this world.” But after listening to your story, I feel that, furthermore, we must not forget the existence of Mr. Zwartendijk.
Mr. Lewin: You are correct. And, also, it will be necessary to add the understanding and deeds of Ambassador de Dekker.
AK: Moreover, wasn’t your mother’s persistence also a contribution?
Mr. Lewin: Yes, we must thank her for her persistence, or shall we say, determination.
At that point, Mr. Lewin smiled and wore a satisfied expression.
The Lewin family
Subsequently, in June of last year, I traveled to the Netherlands and visited Jan Zwartendijk’s second son, Robert. When I asked him whether the diplomats had met, Robert Zwartendijk asserted, “There is no evidence that they ever met.”
However, he recounted an episode that shows that even if there was no physical contact between the diplomats, the two were in communication.
As mentioned earlier, Zwartendijk switched from handwriting to stamping a week earlier than Sugihara. So, Jewish refugees with Curaçao visas rushed to the Japanese consulate, forming a long line. Sugihara immediately called the Dutch consulate. “If I get too many visas so quickly, I cannot handle it here. Please slow down the pace a bit,” he said to Zwartendijk.
Robert Zwartendijk also told me that their two houses were situated so closely that Robert’s older sister recalled often seeing Mrs. Sugihara going out in her kimono.
Two diplomats with different nationalities and positions, in the long run, collaborated to save the lives of Jewish refugees. I feel deeply that this unexpected collaboration was a unique and unprecedented event in history.
Now is the time to universalize the achievement of Chiune Sugihara
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, as of this time the addition of the Sugihara list to the World Memory Registry has not been accepted by UNESCO.
While regrettable, the UNESCO decision does not diminish the importance of the Sugihara list, although we can easily imagine the disappointment of stakeholders including officials in Yaotsu-cho, Gifu Prefecture, who have been working for many years to add the Sugihara list to the register.
Eventually the reasoning of UNESCO decision-makers will be revealed. As in the Japanese saying, “Misery turns into bliss,” there could be a better outcome if we learn from this result and rethink the nomination of the Sugihara list. Let’s reset and consider future strategies.
If another attempt is made to nominate Sugihara’s documents for registration, it should be done not only by the local municipality of Yaotsu-cho, but also in collaboration with Tsuruga and Kobe, where the Jewish refugees were warmly received. In addition, the achievements of Saburo Nei as described above and of Setsuzo Kotsuji, a Hebrew scholar who helped extend the stay of the refugees in Japan, should be included. Wouldn’t it help to make the reapplication reflect “All Japan” instead of remaining a regional effort?
Furthermore, it would be easier for UNESCO to accept the nomination if Japanese officials cooperate with the Netherlands and shed light on the fact that Sugihara and Zwartendijk worked jointly to save thousands of Jewish refugees.
As we are Japanese, it is important to continue to honor Chiune Sugihara for his accomplishments. Yet if we Japanese resort to shallow hero worship or narrow nationalism, it may harm evaluation of his humanitarian deeds. I think that there is an important mission imposed on us to fully convey his actions to future generations and universalize them in a global context.
Akira Kitade was born in Mie, Japan, in 1944. After graduating from Keio University in1966, he worked for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) 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. He 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.