Help from Dutch and Japanese Diplomats
After the Soviet takeover of Lithuania, the refugees once more felt trapped. Germany’s invasion of western Europe a few weeks earlier and the fall in succession of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France shattered any illusions of a quick end to war in the west.
Options for escape were few, and all required diplomatic permits – visas – to cross international borders. When the Soviets ordered all diplomatic consulates closed by August 25, 1940, time also began to run out. Without visas, the refugees would be stuck in Communist Lithuania.
For a fortunate few, the way out of immediate danger proved to be an eastward, Asian route using an odd combination of permits: a bogus visa for entrance to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao that few had even heard of, and a visa for transit through Japan. These precious papers were issued by foreign envoys responding to the human crisis at their doorstep.
The refugees’ preferred destinations were the United States and British-controlled Palestine, but rigorous laws and policies restricted entrance to both. The only hope was to bypass standard immigration procedures with the help of organizations abroad. Even with sponsorship, however, time ran out when the consulates in Lithuania closed. The American consul was able to issue only 55 visas, while the British envoy managed to release 700 Palestine certificates to Zionist youth, rabbis, and other groups. Hundreds of others still needed visas.
Help from the Dutch
The breakthrough in the visa dilemma came unexpectedly at the Kaunas consulate for the Netherlands. L. P. J. de Decker, the Dutch ambassador to the Baltic States, authorized his acting consul in Lithuania, Jan Zwartendijk, to issue permits declaring that “an entrance visa is not required for the admission of aliens to Surinam, Curaçao, and other Dutch possessions in America.” Omitted, in a conscious deceit, was the key fact that admission was the prerogative of the colonial governors, who rarely allowed it.
“If anybody deserves the title ‘Angel of Curaçao’ . . . it is His Excellency de Decker, who provided me the successful text for the pseudo-visa.”
—Jan Zwartendijk, postwar testimony
L. P. J. de Decker
His Excellency the Ambassador
During his 34-year career in the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, L. P. J. de Decker served as a diplomat in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In 1939 he became ambassador in Riga, Latvia. After the Soviets ordered all consulates in the Baltic States to close, de Decker went to Stockholm. He died in 1948, leaving no comment on his pivotal role in providing the pseudo-visas.
“Mr. Philips Radio”
Jan Zwartendijk had been working for Philips, a Dutch manufacturer of light bulbs and radios, for four years when he became director of its Lithuanian operations in May 1939. The Soviets’ seizure of his Philips office in Kaunas in early August 1940 ended his work and his issuing of “Curaçao visas.” A month later, Zwartendijk returned to the German-occupied Netherlands to work in Philips’s main office in Eindhoven. For years, many of those grateful for his help knew Zwartendijk only as “Mr. Philips Radio.”
“The Japanese consul who provided the transit visas in the passports provided a funny note during this period of calamity. He requested several times by telephone not to issue the visas so fast. He could not keep up, the street was full of waiting people.”
—Jan Zwartendijk, postwar testimony
Japanese Transit Visas
Escaping war-torn Europe to reach Curaçao meant crossing the Pacific Ocean, a route made possible by Japan’s acting consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara. In the absence of clear instructions from Tokyo, he granted 10-day visas to transit Japan to hundreds of refugees who held Curaçao destination visas. Before closing his consulate, Sugihara even gave visas to refugees who, lacking any travel papers, had only the hope of leaving Lithuania to obtain a U.S. visa elsewhere.
“I finally decided that it was completely useless to continue the discussions with Tokyo. I was merely losing time, as I had a lot of other things to do regarding the evacuation of the consulate. . . . I started to issue Japanese transit visas without official permission.”
—Chiune Sugihara, postwar interview
Japanese Imperial Consul
Chiune Sugihara was the first Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania. Fluent in Russian learned from Russian émigrés during 16 years in Harbin, Manchuria, he was sent to Kaunas late in 1939 to provide intelligence on Soviet and German troop movements. After he left Lithuania in early September 1940, Sugihara climbed the ranks as a second-tier diplomat assigned to Prague, Koenigsberg, and Bucharest. When Sugihara returned to American-occupied Japan in 1947, the Foreign Ministry retired him with a small pension as part of a large staff reduction.
After issuing some 1,800 visas, Sugihara finally received a response to his cables alerting the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo of the situation in Lithuania. On August 16, 1940, Tokyo reported that people with his visas headed for the U.S. and Canada had arrived without money or final destination visas. “You must make sure that they have finished their procedure for their entry visas and they must also possess travel money and money that they need during their stay in Japan. Otherwise, you should not give them a transit visa.”
In his response, sent around September 1, Sugihara admitted to issuing visas to people who had not completed all arrangements for destination visas. He explained the extenuating circumstances: Japan was the only transit country available for going in the direction of the United States, and his visas were needed to depart the Soviet Union. Sugihara suggested that travelers who arrived in the Soviet port of Vladivostok with incomplete paperwork should not be allowed to board ship for Japan. Tokyo wrote back that the Soviet Union insisted that Japan honor all visas already issued by its consulates.
Japanese Policy toward Jews
In a late 1938 cable, the Foreign Ministry informed its embassies that adopting an anti-Jewish stance was not in Japan’s interests. Jews were to be treated like other foreigners in matters of immigration to Japan. The cable addressed the growing refugee problem. In fall 1938 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were besieging Japanese consulates in Vienna, Berlin, and other cities of the Reich, seeking certificates to enter Shanghai, then part of the Japanese Empire, and visas for transit through Japan to other destinations.
“It is pivotal for the Empire’s diplomacy to maintain close friendly relationships with Germany and Italy under the present circumstances. We should as a rule avoid actively embracing Jews who are being expelled by our allies, but to radically expel Jews as Germany has done is not in keeping with the spirit of the Empire’s long-standing advocacy of racial equality. It also would bring extremely unfavorable results in the progress of the war effort under the emergency situation that confronts the Empire at the present, especially the need to invite foreign capital for economic development and to avoid any further deterioration of relations with the United States.”
“The Communists’ power in this country is rapidly expanding. Under the influence of the NKVD many acts of terrorism are occurring. . . . Nearly 100 people come to us daily and Jews throng to our building asking for visas to go to the U.S. via Japan.”
—Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, July 28, 1940