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Holocaust Memorial Museum's Flight and Rescue Exhibition - Japanese and Dutch Diplomats Save 2,100

by Gad Nahshon

Just months before the Nazi campaign of genocide against Europe's Jews began, some 2,100 Polish-Jewish refugees living in Lithuania reached safety in the most unlikely of havens, Japan - an Axis nation allied with Germany. Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk, representing Japan and the Dutch government-in-exile, respectively, played pivotal roles in many of these refugees' escapes. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's special exhibition Flight And Rescue examines the extraordinary circumstances and individual actions that made this unusual flight possible. The exhibition opened May 4, 2000, and runs through October 21, 2001. The exhibition is free and no passes are required.

Through historical artifacts, films, testimonies, and photographs, Flight And Rescue documents the refugees' 6,000 mile journey from Poland to Lithuania, across Russia to Japan, and, for some, finally to Shanghai, China. The exhibition follows the refugees' journey across Asia to their eastern haven and examines how they adjusted to life in this alien environment and how their hosts responded to them.

"Flight And Rescue chronicles the path of 2,100 mostly Polish-Jewish refugees to safety and the humanitarian acts that made their escape possible - all set against a backdrop of rapidly shifting diplomatic relations," states exhibition curator, Susan Bachrach. "The exhibition illustrates the near impossibility, once World War II began, of rescuing Jews trapped in occupied territories. Only a tiny minority of Poland's 3 million Jews was saved. In this instance, it took the combination of fortuitous circumstances and the cooperation of many individuals and organizations to save a small number."

On September 17, 1939, Soviet troops occupied eastern Poland, partitioning the country with Nazi Germany, which had invaded on September 1. As news spread of the impending October transfer of Vilna and its environs from Soviet to Lithuanian control, 15,000 Jews fled Soviet-controlled Poland into Lithuania, primarily to Vilna, hoping the tiny nation could maintain its neutrality throughout the war.

These hopes proved fleeting. On June 15. 1940, the Soviets occupied Lithuania, and as of August 4, 1940, the official annexation date, the refugees would be in the USSR, where they would be required to claim Soviet citizenship - thus precluding any chance of returning home after the war faced exile to Siberia. However, a brief window of opportunity allowed some of the refugees to flee once more. The Soviet Union ordered all consulates closed by August 25, and Jan Zwartendijk, acting consul representing the Dutch government-in-exile and Chuine Sugihara, Japanese consul to Lithuania aided approximately 2,100 mostly Polish Jews escape Lithuania before evacuating themselves. Though they would never meet, their independent actions resulted in the issuance of what proved to be life-saving visas to the refugees.

The refugees obtained documents from the Polish government-in-exile in Lithuania declaring their Polish citizenship. Lithuanian Jews were immediately classified as Soviet citizens and prohibited from emigrating.) Zwartendijk, with the help of his superior, the Dutch Ambassador to the Baltic States, L.P.J. de Decker, provided the refugees travel papers stating entry visas were not required to Curacao and other Dutch West Indies possessions. While technically true he consciously omitted the key fact that entry was contingent upon the territory's governor approving each immigrant on a case-by-case basis, something the governor rarely did. The refugees then secured 10-day transit visas to Japan through Sugihara. Japan was ostensibly a lay over before proceeding to Curacao. The refugees intended to seek final entry elsewhere.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Lithuanian representative Moses Beckleman arranged to finance many of the refugees trips. Tickets were purchased for passage to the Russian port city of Vladivostock via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Contact was made with an established Jewish community in Kobe, Japan, comprised largely of Russian emigres that would assist the refugees mainly with "Joint" funds. In January and February 1941, the refugees began arriving in Japan in large groups. Approximately 1,000 of the refugees would obtain visas to emigrate to Palestine, the United States, or other destinations; the remaining 1,000 became stranded.

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the refugees were deported to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, eventually being confined to a "designated area" for stateless refugees in the Hongkew section. They remained in this so-called "ghetto" until Japan's surrender in August 1945. An established Jewish community of 4,000 Russian Jews and more than 17,000 German and Austrian Jews who had fled Nazi persecution, also assisted them in Shanghai. Like the Polish-Jewish refugees German and Austrian Jews were considered "stateless" and confined to the ghetto. Russian Jews went unmolested as Japan wished to avoid diplomatic confrontations and war with the Soviet Union. Although ghetto life was difficult-residents were subject to numerous Japanese decrees and shortages of food and medicine-they were spared the terrors of deportation and death that most ghettoized European Jews faced. Only when they emerged from the ghetto did they realize the magnitude of the destruction wreaked on their communities and loved ones in Europe.

Flight And Rescue is generously supported by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Inc.; NYK Line (North America), Inc.; Genia Szpiro and Professor Anna Lincoln; and Julie and Roger Baskes. No passes are necessary for entering the Museum and exploring its wide range of resources and special exhibitions. In addition to Flight And Rescue, special exhibitions include: Remember The Children, Daniel's Story and LIFE REBORN: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (through May 21). Passes are only required for viewing the Permanent Exhibition and may be obtained at the Museum or in advance by calling at (800) 400-9373. The Museum is open 10:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily and until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays through June 29. The Museum is closed Christmas Day and Yom Kippur. A unique public-private partnership, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has welcomed more than 13.5 million visitors since it opened in April 1993. This May, it will mark two decades of its founders' visionary leadership with the opening of Flight And Rescue, the national Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, and an evening honoring the work of the President's Commission on the Holocaust and its successor, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Two heroes of rescue who were righteous gentiles: Jan Zwartendijk was director of the Lithuanian operations of Philips, a Dutch manufacturer of light bulbs and radios, when he took on the part-time duties of acting consul for the Netherlands in June 1940. He was appointed by the Dutch ambassador posted in Riga, Latvia, L.P.J. de Decker.

Zwartendijk's appointment coincided with the Soviet takeover of Lithuania. Initially, a few Dutch-Jewish residents of Lithuania seeking to escape Soviet rule approached Zwartendijk for visas to enter Dutch colonies in the East or West Indies. Acting on de Decker's authorization, Zwartendijk agreed to help them. As word spread, many Polish-Jewish refugees who had fled occupied Poland in 1939 also sought escape with the help of Zwartendijk's visas. In a conscious deceit, Zwartendijk signed his name to a declaration that looked like a destination visa for Curacao and other Dutch possessions in the West Indies. Using words originally provided by de Decker, it stated that a visa was not required to enter these colonies. In reality, however, obtaining entry was up to the discretion of the colonial governor who rarely granted it. Although no refugee entered Curacao with the Zwartendijk visa, it provided the first step in leaving Lithuania via an eastern, Trans-Siberian route to Japan. As the Soviets closed all consulates in Lithuania, the refugees expected they could make other travel arrangements in Moscow or Tokyo, where consulates were still operational.

With "Curacao visas" in hand, refugees approached Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, for visas to transit through Japan on the way across the Pacific to Curacao. Because Japan still maintained relations with the Dutch government-in-exile, Sugihara recognized Zwartendijk's visa and began issuing the required transit visas.

Between July 26 and August 2, 1940, Zwartendijk issued over 2,400 "Curacao visas." His operation was shut down after the Soviets seized his Philips office in early August as part of their nationalization of the Lithuanian economy. In fall 1940 Zwartendijk returned to German-occupied Netherlands and worked for Philips at its headquarters in Eindhoven.

Many of the individuals Zwartendijk helped never knew his real name and only referred to him as "Mr. Philips Radio." In 1997, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, named Zwartendijk one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for the help he gave Jews in Lithuania. Zwartendijk died in 1979 at the age of 80. He is survived by his three children.

Chiune Sugihara was the first Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania. Fluent in Russian, he was sent to his post in 1939 to provide intelligence reports on Soviet and German troop movements. After the Nazis and Soviets partitioned Poland, and despite Japan's soon to-be formalized alliance with Germany, Japan maintained diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile.

On August 4, 1940, the Soviet Union officially annexed Lithuania and ordered all consulates closed by August 25. Sugihara was faced with an unexpected demand for visas for travel through Japan. Western escape routes from Europe were closed. Few options existed, other than eastern routes across Siberia to Japan. Most of the requests came from Polish-Jewish refugees who had fled occupied Poland for independent Lithuania in the fall of 1939. The Polish refugees desperately sought documentation that would allow them to exit Soviet territory while they still could.

Sugihara had cabled his Foreign Ministry in Tokyo about the increased demand for visas amidst the political turmoil in Lithuania. After failing to receive instructions, Sugihara issued hundreds of visas on his own initiative, most to refugees holding deceptive "Curacao visas" issued by acting Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk. Sugihara's visas permitted a 10 days' transit through Japan. The refugees hoped to arrange immigration to the U.S. or elsewhere from Moscow or Tokyo, where consulates were still operational, rather than continue to Curacao.

Before having to evacuate his office, Sugihara issued over 2,100 visas, although not everyone who received one was able to leave. Some visas also covered wives and children. He even issued some visas to individuals who lacked Curacao, or destination visas of any kind, or the funds needed to live in Japan. Poland's Ambassador in Tokyo, Tadeuz Romer, described how Polish citizens arriving in Japan spoke with "only the highest praises" for "Japanese consular offices" in Kaunas "[that] went above and beyond the customary, rigid, bureaucratic regulations."

After leaving Lithuania in September 1940, Sugihara was posted to Prague, and later Konigsberg and Bucharest. When he returned to American-occupied Japan in 1947, the Foreign Ministry retired him with a small pension as part of a large staff reduction.

In 1984, Yad Vashem named Sugihara one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for his efforts to save Jews. He died two years later in 1986. He is survived by his wife and three children.

The following is the life story of two families which were rescued.

Jakub Dymant was born on May 15, 1914, in Brezny, Poland. He studied law at the University in Warsaw until September 5, 1939, when he fled the city as the German Army approached. Jakub escaped to Vilna, arriving on October 23, 1939. When the Soviets took over Lithuania in June, 1940, Dymant looked for escape routes. In August 1940, Dymant obtained a "Curacao visa" issued by acting Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk and a Japanese transit visa from Japanese consul Chuine Sugihara. After he secured permission from Soviet authorities to depart, he left Lithuania in February 1941 and traveled to Kobe, Japan. With the help of Polish ambassador Tadeusz Romer, he secured a British visa for Burma. He transited through Shanghai and left for Burma in the summer of 194 1. When Japanese forces attacked Burma in early 1942, Dymant fled to India. He settled in Bombay, where he established a business with fellow Polish-Jewish refugees. In 1946, Jakub obtained a visa for immigration to the United States. He settled in New York and married a Holocaust survivor from his hometown in Poland. With the help of his contacts in India, he started a business that specialized in the trade of rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Dymant died in 1986. He is survived by his widow, who lives in New York, and a daughter in California.

Icchok and Fejga Melamdowicz lived in Bialystock, Poland, before World War. They had one son, Lejb (Leo), born in 1932. Icchok was a math teacher, a city councilman and a member of the Jewish Labor Bund. When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, he and other prominent citizens fled ahead of the German advance to avoid being taken hostage. Fejga and Leo joined Icchok in Vilna in October 1939. The family hoped to leave Lithuania for the United States with visas sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Federation of Labor. But, when the Soviets occupied Lithuania in June 1940, the American consular staff was evacuated before visas could be issued. In late August 1940, Icchok, Fejga and Leo secured three of the last Japanese transit visas issued by Japanese consul Chuine Sugihara. After receiving Soviet exit visas several months later, they crossed the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, where they sailed to Japan. After two months in Japan, the Melamedowicz family received their U.S. visas and traveled to the United States, arriving in Seattle in April 1941 and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois. Leo Melamed is the former president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Among the artifacts in this unique exhibition:

Zwartendijk "Curacao Visas"

On June 19, 1940, L.P.J. de Decker, the Dutch ambassador in Riga, Latvia, appointed Jan Zwartendijk, director of the Philips corporation's Lithuanian operations, as part-time acting consul to Lithuania for the Dutch government-in-exile. After Zwartendijk aided some Dutch Jews to leave Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Polish-Jewish refugees besieged his office seeking visas that would allow them to leave Soviet territory as well. With de Decker's authorization, Zwartendijk issued travel papers stating that the refugees needed no visas to enter Curacao and other remote Dutch holdings in the West Indies. While technically true, he consciously omitted the key fact that only the territories' governors could authorize entry, something they rarely did. Flight And Rescue contains several visas signed by Zwartendijk. The exact number of visas issued by him is unknown. He burned all records before leaving Lithuania when the USSR closed his Philips's office on August 3, 1940, as part of a nationalization campaign. Travel documents with stamps dated from July 26 to August 2, 1940, and numbered as high as 2,400 have been identified.

Sugihara Visa List

Working as Japan's acting counsel to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara issued visas for transit through Japan to mostly Polish-Jewish refugees fleeing eastward, most of whom had received bogus "Curacao visas" from Jan Zwartendijk. None of the refugees intended to travel to Curacao. Most hoped to secure visas later to enter the United States, Palestine, or other final destinations. In January and February 1941, hundreds of refugees began arriving in Japan unable to proceed further, causing the Japanese Foreign Ministry to cable Sugihara to learn how many transit visas he had issued. On February 28, 1941, from his new post in Prague, Sugihara sent a 32-page list of 2,139 persons to whom he had issued the documents. (Several hundred recipients were unable to leave Lithuania.) Sugihara produced two copies of the list, one of which is included in the exhibition. Lender: Japanese Foreign Ministry, Diplomatic Records Office, Tokyo.

"Wandering Jew" Photographs

When entering Japan, the majority of the Jewish refugees stayed in Kobe, where, with funds largely from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, arrangements for food and shelter were made. Despite Japan's close relations with Germany, the Japanese public was hospitable to the Jewish refugees whom they regarded with curiosity rather than antipathy. Members of the avant-garde Tanpei Photography Club in Osaka photographed the refugees for two days in April 1941. The exotic looking - by 1940s Japanese standards, refugees and particularly the rabbis and yeshiva students were popular subjects for the photographers.

In May 1941, 22 of the photographs were exhibited under the rubric "Wandering Jew" at the Osaka Asahi Kaikan museum. Reproductions of ten of those photographs are shown in the exhibition along with 23 others not included in the original exhibition. Flight And Rescue includes photographs from Toru Kono, Osamu Shiihara, Kaneyoshi Tabuchi, and Nakaji Yasui. Many of them were included in a 1995 exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

The success of this exhibition stems from the superb work of Stephen Goodell and Dr. Susan Bachrach. Stephen Goodell is Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Under his direction, the Museum has created several highly acclaimed special exhibitions, including Liberation 1945; THE NAZI OLYMPICS Berlin 1936; Josef Nassy: Images of Internment; Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto; Refuge Denied. Voyage of the St. Louis; LIFE REBORN: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951; and Flight and Rescue. Mr. Goodell was influential in developing traveling versions of these exhibitions as part of the Museum's mission to reach audiences beyond Washington, DC. These traveling exhibitions have toured cities across the continental U.S. and Alaska.

Dr. Susan Bachrach is Curator of Special Exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In this capacity, she oversees all phases of select special exhibitions at the Museum, including the historic research, developing the story line, identifying and borrowing artifacts, and creating accompanying publications. She is curator of the Museum's most recent special exhibition, Flight And Rescue.

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