Sugihara did not do it alone

December 16, 2019 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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A Dutch reader questions the working title of Linda Royal’s planned movie about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania responsible for 6,000 Jews escaping Nazi Europe.  The reader argues The Saviour should be The Saviours.

Jan Zwartendijk

Arlette Liwer-Stuip writes from The Netherlands:

“I wonder why the title of Royal’s planned movie is “The Saviour” instead of “The Saviours”?

As everyone should be well aware, Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch honorary consul in Kaunas and director of Philips, first gave the refugees a bogus destination visa to the Dutch island of Curaçao. Those lucky visa recipients, including my grandfather (visa numbers 1025 and 1026), next went to Chiune Sugihara to request a transit visa through Japan.

Without the Curaçao destination visas, most Sugihara transit visas would not have existed. Without Zwartendijk’s Curaçao destination visas, most Sugihara transit visas to Japan would be nothing more than pieces of paper.

Zwartendijk initiated a scheme, one which could only succeed with the cooperation of Sugihara. Sugihara, in turn, was equally heroic, and without his collaboration, Zwartendijk’s destination visas would have been useless. Although the two did not meet, it was through their cooperative work that this scheme was a success. These two compassionate, humanitarian, courageous and determined men responded to the humanitarian crisis at their doorstep. They risked it all, at a time of great peril and evil. The lives of thousands of people were at stake, strangers of a different religion, nationality, language and culture. And for these people whom they would probably never see again, Jan and Chiune resolved to do something very dangerous.

What puzzles me is why Sugihara has received much-deserved recognition, while Zwartendijk has not.

There is a very active movement around the heroic activities of Chiune Sugihara, but mostly Jan Zwartendijk is never mentioned. The man who began the rescue deserves an equal place of honour. Both were unassuming men with hearts of lions. Yet Sugihara’s work became world-famous, while Zwartendijk’s heroic deeds remained under-appreciated.

Chiyune Sugihara

Several movies have been made about Sugihara, several books have been written about him, there are several museums honouring him in Japan and one in Kaunas, there are streets named after him, and it was recently announced by the Lithuanian parliament that 2020 will be declared the year of Sugihara. The list goes on. All one has to do is check the daily updates on the Sugihara FB site to see the never-ending events honouring Sugihara in Israel, the USA, and other places around the world. His children and grandchildren and widow have worked relentlessly on this mission for years.

Jan Zwartendijk took an enormous risk and, unlike Sugihara, put his life and the life of his family in great danger, on behalf of people he did not know. Regardless of the personal danger, he was determined and committed to helping as many people as possible.

Jan’s great personal risk was taken at a time when the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis.

When he returned, four years before the war ended, he lived in constant fear of his over-2000 visas being discovered, and of his whole family being shot.

He jeopardized the lives of his three children, his wife, and himself, to save the lives of strangers, knowing only too well that the Soviets could send them to Siberia or that the Nazis could arrest them at their house in the Netherlands and bring them to a camp at any given moment, during the ensuing four years of the occupation of his country. Since the Nazis were in Lithuania from 1941, the fact that his acts were not discovered is nothing short of a miracle.

I would go as far as to put forth that although Sugihara was a hero who ignored instructions from his superiors, something that must have been highly unusual in hierarchical Japan, his actions were not life-threatening especially given the fact that Japan was allied with Nazi Germany. Zwartendijk and his family would certainly have been shot if the Germans had found out, so he risked much more.

Zwartendijk was a modest man who did not talk about his heroic deeds. He did not promote himself by writing a self-glorifying autobiography, nor did his widow write a biography promoting him. His family is and remains as humble. His children respected their father’s wish to not seek glory. It was only this year that the Dutch government apologized for not honouring him. Perhaps had a family member promoted him, he would have the acclaim he also deserves. But that’s not the kind of man he was.

While Zwartendijk’s family remained humble in honouring their father as he would have wanted to be remembered, myths began to circulate about Sugihara, after his death.

Jan Zwartendijk’s son Rob  with Arlette Liwer-Stuip in Holland

These stories hid the fact that Sugihara did not act alone. His celebrity flourished and seemingly became profitable business for some. And, worse yet, embedded in the Sugihara propaganda is the omission of Zwartendijk.

Those in charge of perpetuating Sugihara’s image and reputation often displayed an unwillingness to acknowledge the equally heroic and humanitarian participation of Jan Zwartendijk, claiming all of the credit for one man only. I believe that Sugihara, a man of great honour, would have wanted Zwartendijk, a courageous and decent man, to be acknowledged equally. How wonderful it would be if every celebration included the work of both heroes. There is certainly plenty of room for two heroes.

During his lifetime, Jan Zwartendijk sought neither recognition nor honour, because he did not consider his actions to have been extraordinary. Rather, he said, it was simply the decent thing to do. Unfortunately, that compelling sense of decency has been all too rare, not only during the darkest days of World War II, but also in our day. (Ernest Heppner, author of “Shanghai Refugee”)

“Perhaps the most telling evidence of Zwartendijk’s selflessness is that between 1945 and his death in 1976, he never spoke about or made any attempt to publicise or glorify his role.” (Jonathan Goldstein, “Motivation in Holocaust Rescue: The Case of Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania 1940)

And so it is up to us, the survivors, to honour this brave and heroic man as well. There is room for two heroes in this story. It is important to set the historical record straight. Anyone wishing to learn more should know that Jan Brokken, a well-known Dutch author, wrote a Dutch book about Jan Zwartendijk last year, entitled “De Rechtvaardigen” which quickly became a best-seller in the Netherlands. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Dutch Libris History Prize of 2019.

Its English translation, which may be called “the Righteous” or either “The Just” or “The Righteous”, is getting prepared for publication.

My family escaped from Będzin (Poland), Siberia (Soviet Union), and Kaunas (Lithuania), to Tokyo (Japan), then Vancouver (Canada) and Seattle (USA), ending up in New York. Their lives were saved thanks to BOTH Chiune Sugihara AND Jan Zwartendijk.”

We asked Arlette how she had gathered so much information. She replied: “For the past two years, I have been writing a book about my grandfather’s escape from Będzin, Poland.

When I started, I knew so little that it filled one page only. My research has taken me to Kaunas, Israel and Będzin. The very first thing I had to do was find Rob so that I could thank him for what his father had done. As it turned out, he lives one hour from me.
This means that I could have also gone to meet his dad and thanked him directly, while he was still alive, had I only known. All Jan Zwartendijk wanted was to find out was if any of his visa recipients had survived… “

Linda Royal

Sydney’s Linda Royal is behind the projected historical feature film. Asked about concerns about her movie which focuses on the deeds of Chiune Sugihara who saved 6,000 Jews by issuing them illegal transit visas to Japan but does not mention the party played by Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendyjk.

She responded: “He was naturally the first port of call for these desperate people and started the ball rolling by issuing them papers allowing them entry into Dutch Curacao. They then needed visas via Japan to get there. Both gentlemen deserve recognition.

Firstly the title ‘The Saviour‘ is a working title only and this venture is years away from being realised. The first draft has not even been written yet.

Secondly, the story will go through many changes before it sees the light of day. I am well aware that Jan Zwartendyk needs to be honoured alongside Sugihara and will do my best to address this somehow where possible.

But at present, the main story thread is that of a middle-aged woman in search of the man she met who issued her a visa to Japan, in order to thank him and how that leads to discoveries for her granddaughter within her own family and the repairing of a fractured relationship with her traumatised father. The Sugihara story takes the second stage to that. The movie if not about him, it is inspired by him.”

Through Sugihara, Victor Grynberg’s parents reached  Japan, a transit stop before settling in Sydney. He told J-Wire: “I am absolutely in agreement in recognising Jan Zwartenijk. That’s why I bought a Philips TV set deliberately just recently as a reminder of his heroism and that without him our parents would have perished. My brother and I would not have been born. Nor the six children between us and nor the 19 grandchildren we have.”

Editor’s note: The Simon Wiesenthal Centre is the source of the figure of 6,000 transit visas issued by Sugihara.


One Response to “Sugihara did not do it alone”
  1. Peter Rose says:

    ” The Saviours” should also include Dr.Ho, the Chinese emissary in Vienna who issued many transit certificates for Jews to travel to Shanghai, then an international port. As a result, a large number of them were saved from the Nazis. i hope that you will promptly bring this to Linda Royale’s attention.

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