2020.10.25 08:41

Jan Zwartendijk, a lesser-known hero of the Holocaust

Ludo Segers, LRT.lt2020.10.25 08:41

Walking down the central Laisvės Alėja (Freedom Avenue) in Kaunas, one can spot a circular light installation suspended in air. It is a monument for Jan Zwartendijk, a lesser-known accomplice to Chiune Sugihara who helped thousands of Jews to escape the Holocaust.

The monument stands across from 29 Laisvės Alėja where Zwartendijk's had his office. It was inaugurated in June 2018, in the presence of Dutch King Willem Alexander, former President Dalia Grybauskaitė and the surviving children of Jan Zwartendijk.

In the 1930s, Zwartendijk was a honorary consul of the Netherlands in the then capital of Lithuania and the country manager for Philips. Together with the Japanese Vice Consul Chiune Sugihara, they probably saved about 10,000 Jewish lives from the Holocaust.

Sugihara's contribution is well-know and documented. Zwartendijk's, meanwhile, is less known, though the two worked together in 1940 issuing visas to Lithuania’s Jewish citizens to enter the Dutch colony of Curaçao via Japan.

None of those lucky to obtain the visas actually set foot on the Caribbean island. It was a sure route to safety, away from the cruel fate suffered by about 200,000 Jews in Lithuania.

After the war, Zwartendijk kept a low profile about his role in the scheme. When asked much later in his life about this dramatic period, he said: “I only did my duty.”

That Zwartendijk is commemorated in Kaunas with a light monument is rather appropriate. Philips was at the time known as the world's largest manufacturer of light bulbs and radios.

The renowned Dutch light artist Giny Vos used about 2,000 pieces of glass to build the 7-meter wide monument.

Jan Brokken, a well-known Dutch writer and the author of the bestseller Baltic Souls, described Zwartendijk’s story in his book The Righteous (De Rechtvaardigen, published in Dutch in 2018). The Lithuanian translation of Brokken's book is to be published later this year.

Read more: Kaunas unveils monument to Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during WW2