April 14, 2000
ESCAPE FROM POLAND THROUGH SOVIET UNION TO JAPAN AND CHINA IS FOCUS OF HOLOCAUST MUSEUM’S FLIGHT AND RESCUE EXHIBITION
Japanese and Dutch Diplomats Instrumental in Aiding 2,100 Polish Jews Flee to Far East
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just months before the Nazi campaign of genocide against Europe’s Jews began, some 2,100 Polish Jewish refugees living in Lithuania reached safety in the most unlikely of havens, Japan — an Axis nation allied with Germany. Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk, representing Japan and the Dutch government-in-exile, respectively, played pivotal roles in many of these refugees’ escapes. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s special exhibition Flight and Rescue examines the extraordinary circumstances and individual actions that made this unusual flight possible. The exhibition opens May 4, 2000, and runs through October 21, 2001. The exhibition is free and no passes are required.
Through historical artifacts, film, testimonies, maps, and photographs, Flight and Rescue documents the refugees’ 6,000 mile journey from Poland to Lithuania, across the Soviet Union to Japan, and, for some, finally to Shanghai, China. The exhibition follows the refugees’ journey to their eastern havens and examines how they adjusted to life in these alien environments and how their hosts responded to them.
“Flight and Rescue chronicles the path of 2,100 mostly Polish Jewish refugees to safety and the humanitarian acts that made their escape possible — all set against a backdrop of rapidly shifting diplomatic relations,” states exhibition curator, Susan Bachrach. “The exhibition illustrates the near impossibility, once World War II began, of rescuing Jews trapped in occupied territories. Only a tiny minority of Poland’s 3 million Jews was saved. In this instance, it took the combination of fortuitous circumstances and the cooperation of many individuals and organizations to save a small number.”
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 USSR, 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 consul representing the Dutch government-in-exile, and Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul to Lithuania, aided approximately 2,100 mostly Polish Jews to escape before the deadline. Though they would never meet, their independent actions resulted in the issuance of what proved to be life-saving visas to the refugees.
The refugees obtained documents from the Polish government-in-exile 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 travel papers stating entry visas were not required to Curaçao and other Dutch West Indies possessions. While technically true, he consciously omitted the key fact that entry was contingent upon the territory’s governor approving each immigrant on a case-by-case basis, something the governor rarely did. The refugees then secured ten-day transit visas to Japan from Sugihara. Japan was ostensibly a layover before proceeding to Curaçao. The refugees intended to seek final entry elsewhere.
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 would assist 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 would obtain 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 to a “designated area” for stateless refugees in the Hongkew section. They remained in this so-called “ghetto” until Japan’s surrender in August 1945. An established Jewish community of 4,000 Russian Jews and more than 17,000 German and Austrian Jews who had fled Nazi persecution also assisted them in Shanghai. Like the Polish Jewish refugees, German and Austrian Jews were considered “stateless” and confined to the ghetto. 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.
Flight and Rescue is generously supported by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Inc.; NYK Line (North America), Inc.; Genia Szpiro and Professor Anna Lincoln; and Julie and Roger Baskes.
No passes are necessary for entering the Museum and exploring its wide range of resources and special exhibitions. In addition to Flight and Rescue, special exhibitions include: Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story and LIFE REBORN: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (through May 21). Passes are only required for viewing the Permanent Exhibition and may be obtained at the Museum or in advance by calling tickets.com at (800) 400-9373. The Museum is open 10:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily and until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays through June 29. The Museum is closed Christmas Day and Yom Kippur.
A unique public-private partnership, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has welcomed more than 13.5 million visitors since it opened in April 1993. This May, it will mark two decades of its founders’ visionary leadership with the opening of Flight and Rescue, the national Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, and an evening honoring the work of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and its successor, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.