On 14 September 2023, a historic recognition was made by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, shedding light on the valorous deeds of an unsung hero from the tumultuous days of World War II. Mr. Jan Zwartendijk, former Netherlands Honorary Consul in Kaunas, was posthumously awarded the Medal for Acts of Humanity in Gold. This esteemed recognition was given in honour of Zwartendijk’s audacious endeavours that saved thousands of Jews from the horrors of persecution and death in 1940.
A Stalwart in Kaunas
In the interwar period, spanning from May 29 to August 17, 1940, Jan Zwartendijk held the significant role of the Netherlands Honorary Consul in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania. Beyond his diplomatic duties, he was the director of the Lithuanian branch of Philips, the global giant known for its radio and light bulb innovations. He was fondly dubbed ‘Pone Radija’ in Kaunas, a nickname stemming from the main product his shop offered on Laivės Alėja.
The Beacon of Hope: ‘Curaçao Visas’
In a brief yet impactful span between July 11 and August 3, 1940, Zwartendijk undertook a mission of humanity. As the acting Honorary Consul, he issued over two thousand ‘Curaçao visas’ to desperate Jewish refugees. These weren’t ordinary visas. They declared that the holder didn’t require a visa to enter the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, paving the way for them to apply for a transit visa.
This strategy was amplified through a remarkable collaboration with Chiune Sugihara, his Japanese counterpart. Together, they orchestrated an improvised escape route, enabling thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews to journey through Lithuania, the Soviet Union, and finally to the safe shores of Japan. This pathway allowed them to dodge the looming shadow of the Holocaust in Europe.
The precise number of lives Zwartendijk and Sugihara saved remains shrouded in mystery, as Zwartendijk, in an act of caution, destroyed the consulate archives upon his exit. However, later recoveries indicate that he issued at least 2,345 ‘Curaçao visas’, with several families often travelling on a single visa. Subsequent research unveiled a heartening fact: approximately 95% of these visa recipients survived the war.
Intriguingly, while their joint effort created a lifeline for many, Zwartendijk and Sugihara never met in person. Their only known interaction was a phone call, with Sugihara requesting Zwartendijk to slow down visa issuance, given the painstaking manual process Sugihara followed.
For years, Zwartendijk lived without knowing the fate of those he assisted. It was only after his passing that the world realized the magnitude of his contribution. In 1997, the revered institution Yad Vashem honored him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” His legacy was further immortalized through monuments in cities like Rotterdam, Eindhoven, and Kaunas. The tale of his bravery found a voice in Dutch author Jan Brokken’s biography, “The Just”, soon to be available in Lithuanian by spring 2025.
2023 witnessed another tribute to this hero. The Zwartendijk room was inaugurated in the Sugihara House in Kaunas, marking another testament to his indomitable spirit, with the ceremony graced by the current Netherlands Ambassador, Mr. Jack Twiss Quarles van Ufford.
A Medal of Distinction
The Medal for Acts of Humanity isn’t just another accolade. Dating back to its inception in 1822 by King Willem I, it stands as the oldest and most prestigious Dutch honour, reserved for those who display unparalleled courage, leadership, and self-sacrifice outside of battlefields. Prime Minister Mark Rutte presented this medal to Zwartendijk’s surviving children, Edith and Rob, on a day that also marked the 47th anniversary of Jan Zwartendijk’s passing. Read the speech held by Mark Rutte at Duivenvoorde Castle in Voorschoten, on the occasion of the posthumous presentation of the Medal for Acts of Humanity to Jan Zwartendijk.
Jan Zwartendijk’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the boundless human spirit. In times of peril, it’s individuals like him who rise above the ordinary, illuminating the path for countless others. As we commemorate his deeds, we’re reminded of the timeless importance of bravery, humanity and the indelible marks they leave on history.