On September 17, 1939, Soviet troops occupied eastern Poland, partitioning the country with Nazi Germany, which had invaded on September 1. As news spread of the impending October transfer of Vilna and its environs from Soviet to Lithuanian control, 15,000 Jews fled Soviet-controlled Poland into Lithuania, primarily to Vilna, hoping the tiny nation could maintain its neutrality throughout the war.
These hopes proved fleeting. On June 15, 1940, the Soviets occupied Lithuania, and as of August 4, 1940, the official annexation date, the refugees would be in the U.S.S.R., where they would be required to claim Soviet citizenship—thus precluding any chance of returning home after the war—or face exile to Siberia. However, a brief window of opportunity allowed some of the refugees to flee once more. The Soviet Union ordered all consulates closed by August 25, and Jan Zwartendijk, acting Dutch consul, and Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul to Lithuania, aided approximately 2,100 mostly Polish Jews to escape eastward across the U.S.S.R. to Japan. Though they would never meet, the consuls' independent actions resulted in the issuance of what proved to be lifesaving visas to the refugees.
The refugees obtained documents from the Polish attaché to the British consulate in Lithuania declaring their Polish citizenship. (Lithuanian Jews were immediately classified as Soviet citizens and prohibited from emigrating.) Zwartendijk, with the help of his superior, the Dutch ambassador to the Baltic States L. P. J. de Decker, provided the refugees stamped declarations stating that entry visas were not required to Curaçao and other Dutch West Indies possessions. While technically true, Zwartendijk consciously omitted the key fact that entry was contingent upon the territories’ governors approving each immigrant on a case-by-case basis, something that was rarely done. But on the basis of these destination "visas," the refugees obtained 10-day transit visas to Japan from Sugihara. Japan was ostensibly a layover before proceeding to Curaçao, but the refugees intended to seek final entry to other destinations once in Japan.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Lithuanian representative Moses Beckelman arranged to finance many of the refugees’ trips. Tickets were purchased for passage to the Russian port city of Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Contact was made with an established Jewish community in Kobe, Japan, comprised largely of Russian émigrés, that assisted the refugees mainly with "Joint" funds. In January and February 1941, the refugees began arriving in Japan in large groups. Approximately 1,000 of the refugees obtained visas to emigrate to Palestine, the United States, or other destinations; the remaining 1,000 became stranded.
Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the refugees were deported to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, eventually being confined by Japanese occupation forces to a "designated area" for stateless refugees. Like the Polish Jewish refugees, some 17,000 German and Austrian Jews were considered "stateless" and confined to the ghetto. An established community of young Russian Jews went unmolested as Japan wished to avoid diplomatic confrontations and war with the Soviet Union. Although ghetto life was difficult—residents were subject to numerous Japanese decrees and shortages of food and medicine—they were spared the terrors of deportation and death that most ghettoized European Jews faced. Only when they emerged from the ghetto did they realize the magnitude of the destruction wreaked on their communities and loved ones in Europe.
Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk have been honored as "Righteous among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority, for the help they provided to the Jews in 1940.