War hero Zwartendijk: “Don't look away”

Today is May 4th, the Netherlands' Remembrance Day. It is when we remember all the victims of war. And where there have been victims, there have also been heroes. Among them stands Jan Zwartendijk, not that he ever considered himself a hero. Regrettably, what he did for 10,000 Jews in the WWII has never been publicized. With his book and a lecture for Studium Generale, writer and journalist Jan Brokken is making sure this changes.

file photo Familiearchief Zwartendijk

When we think of our freedom, which we will be celebrating on May 5th, we naturally think of the allied forces. But very many private citizens also showed great courage during WWII. Jan Zwartendijk was one of them. As the director of Philips in Lithuania and acting consul, ‘Mister Radio Philips’ rescued an estimated 10,000 Jews from certain death. He did this by issuing visas for Curaçao, and also by helping to arrange the journey there: transport on the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok and Japan, as well as money to buy the ticket. In doing all this, he in turn was helped by others, among them Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul, and a refugee organization.

The lecture ‘Jan Zwartendijk: a Philips man, a war hero’ on Tuesday afternoon draws a good sixty viewers via YouTube. In cooperation with Liberation040, Studium Generale (SG) is organizing this event to bring wider attention to this unknown war hero. The book Brokken has written, however, has quite a different name, ‘De rechtvaardigen’ (The Righteous Ones). And deliberately so. Brokken recognized that others also played a role, however small, in Zwartendijk's story, and this is why the endeavor was so successful. But Zwartendijk's involvement was certainly critical, Brokken knows.

A passage from the book is read aloud: “I'm asking whether you'll be our man in Kaunas.”

“You can count on me.”

“Then as of now you are the acting consul in Lithuania. I'm swearing you in with immediate effect.”

“How do you know I'm sound?”

“I know how people tick, Zwartendijk. One look at you was enough.”

Borders closed to Jews

Brokken felt it was important to document this story and has done plenty of background research. From interviews in Lithuania and contacting Zwartendijk's children to trawling through the Philips archives. “Everyone knows of Schindler and Wallenberg, but no one knows about Zwartendijk. Of course, Schindler was also courageous, but his initiative was getting started in 1942/1943 when the camps were fully operational and the annihilation of the Jews was already happening on a large scale. Back in 1940 Zwartendijk saw this coming and he took immediate action. I had to write about him.” What's more, at the time Vilnius was regarded as the Jerusalem of the north. It was home to a great many Jews because Lithuania's borders, unlike those of most other countries, had long remained open to Jewish refugees. “But there came a moment when there, as elsewhere, it became unsafe and almost all the Jewish population in Lithuania was murdered.” Zwartendijk managed to make a difference for about 10,000 Jews.

I must help these people because if I do not, these people will face certain death. And I cannot accept that.

Jan Zwartendijk
War hero

Brokken: “Jan Zwartendijk was no reckless hero but a smart one. He thought: ‘I mustn't take any unnecessary risks, I must be smart’. That made him exceptional.” He issued a total 2139 visas, but many more people than that number benefited. “The visa was for the main traveler. That person could take their partner and children under the age of 21 with them. Often four people would travel on one visa. Added to which, several hundred visas were returned by post once the journey had been made. The name would be changed and the visa used again. After a lot of math, a conclusion was reached: some 10,000 Jews were saved by Zwartendijk's actions. Regrettably, he himself never knew this. On the day he died in 1976 a letter arrived from Jerusalem with the news that 95% of the Curaçao visa holders survived. If he had known that, he would have died a peaceful death. As things were, he died believing that his efforts had been of little use.” Zwartendijk never wanted to be thought of as a hero. “I have a number of values and standards as every person should, and you must never fall short of them,” he would say to this children. He acted purely for humanitarian reasons. “I must help these people because if I do not, these people will face certain death. And I cannot accept that.”


Interviewer Gijs van de Sande of SG wonders whether Zwartendijk did in fact receive recognition, given that he is a forgotten war hero. “Yes, ultimately, he did,” Brokken knows. “He became one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ (an honorary title taken from the Talmud and given by Israel to non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives during the Holocaust to help Jews go into hiding, escape or survive, ed.). This honor was bestowed on him by the Yad Vashem memorial authority in Jerusalem. He received it posthumously in 1997. The recipient receives a medal and a tree is planted in their name on Jerusalem's Avenue of the Righteous.”

Don't look away, but take responsibility and do it in a smart way

Jan Zwartendijk
War hero

The book's final sentences offer a clear message, as Zwartendijk intended: “Don't look away, but take responsibility and do it in a smart way. Often people think they can only change things if they have a lot of power. That is not so. He wasn't a tycoon in the business world, but ‘simply’ the director of Philips Lithuania; where ninety people worked. Zwartendijk sets the example that everyone can take their own responsibility at a certain point in time. And it is for each individual to ask themselves whether that time is now. Then you need to act and not look away. He did not have to help, but he did.”

Like to see more?

The Philips Museum in Eindhoven is hosting the exhibition Visas to Freedom until (it is expected) the end of 2021. This is an exhibition about Jan Zwartendijk, with the eye witness accounts of survivors. As well as photos and two short films, there are also original documents and objects to be seen, among them the Yad Vashem medal and a letter from former US President Bill Clinton, about the Jan Zwartendijk Award set up in the United States.

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