Jan Zwartendijk was a Dutch businessman and diplomat in Lithuania who helped Jews escape from Europe by issuing fake travel permits to Curacao, at that time a colony of the Netherlands .
Born in Rotterdam in 1896, Jan was a businessman who in 1939 became director of Philips radio & light bulb plants in Kovno, Lithuania.
In 1940, USSR occupied Lithuania and Germany invaded the Netherlands. Dutch leaders fled to London where they established the Dutch government in exile. Jan, known to be highly intelligent, responsible and not a Nazi sympathizer, was installed as acting consul to Lithuania, a part-time position he filled concurrently to his work running the Philips plant.
Amid the political turmoil and Soviet persecution of the Jewish community, Dr. Isaac Lewin approached Jan to get a visa to the Dutch West Indies. Like many Jews, he was desperate to get out of Europe, where there was no haven from persecution. Jan’s superior, Dutch Ambassador to Latvia LPJ de Decker, had provided one to the doctor’s wife Pessla Lewin. Jan asked de Decker for permission, and de Decker told him that Curacao didn’t actually require a visa, just a permit containing a statement from the Dutch consul that “an entrance visa is not required for the admission of aliens to Curacao.”
Jan promptly issued a permit to Dr. Lewin. The Lewins didn’t have a way to reach Curacao, so Jan connected them with another diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese ambassador to Lithuania. Sugihara stamped the Lewins’ permits with the words TRANSIT VISA, which enabled them to travel through Japan. Armed with the Dutch permit to Curacao and the Japanese transit visa, the Jewish refugees were allowed to leave Lithuania and board the TransSiberian railway and then a ship to Japan.
Word got out in the Jewish community that there was a Dutch diplomat in Kovno who could help Jews leave the country, and soon hundreds of Jews were descending on Jan’s office. Over the next two weeks, Jan issued over 2000 travel permits to Curacao. He knew that if the authorities found out, he could be killed without even a trial, but the danger didn’t stop him. He coordinated with Sugihara, who issued the same amount of Japanese transit visas. In all, the fake permits created by Jan enabled 2,345 Jews to leave Lithuania and find safe haven in Asia and other safe places. Many of these Jews were students from the great Talmudic academies of Lithuania. Ironically, none of the “Curacao Jews” actually went to Curacao.
Only two weeks after Jan started issuing Curacao visas, the operation was shut down by the Soviets and Jan had to leave Lithuania. He returned to Holland, at that time occupied by the Germans, and continued working as an executive at Philips. Jan never spoke about his wartime heroism, and he died in 1976.
Many of the Jews saved by Jan Swartendijk never learned their rescuer’s name; they knew him only as “Mr. Philips Radio.” After decades of searching, they finally identified Jan as their savior, and in 1997 Jan was posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. Belatedly, the Dutch government started to honor him as well, and in the last few years Jan has been the subject of a TV drama and a biography.
For saving 2,435 Jews at great risk to himself, we honor Jan Zwartendijk as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.