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Trans-Siberian Route to Japan

The pressure to leave Soviet Lithuania intensified in late 1940, when the government ordered all refugees to declare Soviet citizenship or face exile to Siberia as “unreliable elements.” Encouraged by reports of those who safely traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the eastern port of Vladivostok, hundreds of Jewish refugees applied for Soviet exit visas. It remains unknown why the Soviets allowed refugees with Polish travel papers, many of dubious validity, to leave. The refugees’ special status, however, gave them the opportunity to emigrate, a prospect denied to Sovietized Lithuanian Jews following the annexation of Lithuania.

Not all refugees helped by Zwartendijk and Sugihara left Lithuania for Japan. Some lacked the American dollars the Soviets demanded for the expensive railroad ticket. Though the Joint Distribution Committee helped pay for hundreds of passages, it could not assist everyone.

“We were full of mixed feelings of happiness and deep worry. Would we arrive in peace or was this not just another Soviet trick to discover who wanted to escape their ‘Garden of Eden’? . . . Emigration from Communist Russia had been unheard of.”

—Benjamin Fishoff, postwar memoir

“As we crossed the sea towards Japan, we waited in quiet anxiety for the day when we should pass beyond Russian territorial waters. It came at last. The Red flag was lowered and the Soviet officials left the ship. Freedom lay ahead. Japan was to be for us really the land of the rising sun.”

—Oskar Schenker, September 1941