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In Sugihara’s shadow: the Dutch diplomats who saved hundreds of Jews

Steve Meacham
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Published: 5 April 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

As a new book salutes two consuls who worked with Chiune Sugihara to help Jews flee Europe during WW2, Steve Meacham talks to the children of those who escaped, via Japan and Shanghai, to Australia

FEW HAVE HEARD of Dutchman Jan Zwartendijk, still less his compatriot Nicolaas de Voogd, former Netherlands consul in wartime Kobe, Japan.

Yet both men - Benelux equivalents of Oskar Schindler - took extraordinary risks in World War II, helping countless refugees escape the clutches of Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Why focus on such minor bit players now?

That Holocaust Remembrance Day is this Thursday (April 8) might be enough, but the English translation of Dutch author’s Jan Brokken’s 2018 history - The Just: How Six Diplomats Broke the Rules to Save Thousands of Jews from the Holocaustis finally on sale in Australia.

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Director Steven Spielberg (whose film Schindler’s List won 12 Oscars in 1994) is quoted on the cover: “If I had known Zwartendijk’s story before, I would have filmed that.”

Until now, Zwartendijk’s exploits have remained in the shadow of Chiune Sugihara - the celebrated Japanese career vice consul in wartime Lithuania. Both pioneered a route of salvation across the Soviet Union to Japan (then aligned with Hitler and Mussolini as an Axis power, before entering the war in December 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbour).

Between Sugihara and Zwartendijk, the various papers they signed against their government’s orders - exit permits, transit documents, final port of disembarkation - saved thousands from Nazi concentration camps or Stalin’s gulags.

According to Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz’s 2012 book The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews in World War II, 81 refugees who made it to Japan continued in wartime to Australia. But Shanghai proved the greatest refuge for the Sugihara-Zwartendijk Jews, sheltering 860 for the duration of the war.

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Melbourne barrister Deborah Wiener’s late Polish-born father Ascher was one who owed his life to Sugihara, Zwartendijk and de Voogd.

“He got to Japan in March 1941 and was in Kobe for six months,” she explains. Her father’s ordeal had begun on September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, triggering World War II.

A week before, Europe’s two most aggressive and supposedly diametrically dictators - Hitler and Stalin - had divided eastern Europe between their empires in a secret protocol as part of their “non-aggression pact”. Stalin’s troops invaded their part of Poland on September 17.

Once the Nazis invaded Poland, Ascher took his parents from their home in Krakow to Lublin in eastern Poland, thinking they would be safe. Sadly, both parents and his sister disappeared during the Holocaust.
I have often thought that [Zwartendijk] deserved at least half the credit which Sugihara has (posthumously) received - MARCEL WEYLAND

Ascher sought to escape but was caught in Minsk (now the capital of Belarus) and, at 35, was conscripted into Stalin’s army. “We don’t know what he did in the Russian army,” Wiener says. “He never spoke about it. But in January 1941 he escaped using false papers and made his way to Vilnius (now capital of Lithuania).

“Somehow he’d heard there was a way of getting out of the Soviet Union. He was there for three months,” his daughter explains. “In order to leave you needed three things: US dollars, which were illegal. A transit visa to Japan, allowing you to get to Kobe (provided by Sugihara). And an entry visa to continue to another country.”

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Zwartendijk, the primary subject of Brokken’s book, was an unlikely diplomat - let alone hero.

His main credentials?

He was Dutch, and he wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser (as some Dutch were). He was already in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, as the local representative of Philips, the legendary Dutch electrical firm.

And he agreed to take on the troubling task of acting consul after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. “Zwartendijk provided refugees like my father a visa to Curaçao,” Wiener says.

Where? It remains a bizarre fact of World War II that so many Jews escaped the clutches of Hitler and Stalin via a visa to a tiny island colony half a world away in the West Indies. “None of the refugees seem to have gone to Curaçao, but it was a way of escaping,” Wiener continues.
Zwartendijk's credentials? He was Dutch, he wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser, and he was already in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas.

She has no knowledge of her father Ascher meeting Nicolaas de Voogd. But they must have met, because de Voogd was the final link in the escape chain. “While (my father) was in Kobe he applied for various visas to go somewhere other than Curaçao, including the US,” Wiener says.

“Ultimately, he was one of at least 26 Jews who got permanent visas to travel to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland in October, 1941. He married my mother in 1946, and we moved to Australia in 1965.”

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The explanation for Curaçao’s role in this story comes from another Australian beneficiary of their intervention, Marcel Weyland, in his 2016 memoir, The Boy on the Tricycle (Brandl & Schlesinger).

“Sugihara’s superiors instructed him that no visas were to be issued unless he saw evidence that the recipients were en route to another destination. This was a problem which Sugihara resolved with the assistance of … Zwartendijk, who issued visas which in effect stated that no visas were required to enter Curaçao (inadvertently omitting a sentence which stated that special permission from the governor of the colony had to be obtained).

“That piece of paper allowed the holder to enter Japan, and in turn to obtain the Soviet exit visa.”

Polish-born Weyland, now 94 and living in Sydney, took a train with his family to the Soviet port of Vladivostok in 1941, a steamer to Japan, then on to Shanghai where they stayed for five years. They arrived in Sydney in 1946. He worked in architecture, the law and as an English translator of Polish poetry.

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Weyland was effusive in his praise of Sugihara in his memoir, calling him “that angel of salvation”, but believes Zwartendijk’s role has been underacknowledged. “I have often thought that the Dutchman deserved at least half the credit which Sugihara has (posthumously) received.”

Sydney-based writer Linda Royal is writing a screenplay and a novel based on the experiences of her grandparents and father, who were rescued by Sugihara and Zwartendijk.

(Though she and Deborah have never met, they recently discovered Ascher met Linda’s grandmother Felka, a fellow refugee, in Kobe. Deborah recalls visiting Felka Margolin as child with her parents.)

Like Deborah, Linda had never heard of de Voogd: “I only found out ten years ago about what my father endured to escape the Holocaust when he was in his eighties.  After hearing his story, I started writing a movie.”

The story she heard from her father, Michael Margolin, was that Zwartendijk became involved in the escape route because a few desperate Dutch-born rabbinical students approached him.
Like Deborah, Linda had never heard of de Voogd: I only found out ten years ago about what my father endured to escape the Holocaust when he was in his eighties. 

“The Netherlands had been invaded by the Nazis. So they wanted to get as close as possible to the United States, and realised Curaçao was still a Dutch colony.”

According to Royal, they contacted Zwartendijk seeking permission to relocate to Curaçao. He was willing to provide the entrance papers to their final destination but pointed out they would need a transit visa allowing them to enter Japan.

That meant a short but dangerous journey to secure the transit visas from Sugihara, the Japanese career diplomat who disobeyed orders from his Tokyo “superiors” to sign such transit visas.

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“Word soon got out to the hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking a similar escape, including my family,” Royal explains. “They eventually came to Australia because they had two uncles living here.”

Dr Egbert (Bert) de Voogd is the surviving son of Nicolaas de Voogd, the Dutch consul in Kobe whose essential role in this escape route is largely forgotten.

Now 86, the retired Victorian GP is sprite of mind. But he was a protected toddler when these events happened.

What he can contribute largely comes from his older brother, Jan, who died in January this year. “My brother told me our father had disappeared for a few days during a crucial part of the war,” Bert says. “We never knew why, but Jan assumed he was getting the visas organised to welcome these refugees to Japan.”

As the sons of a career diplomat, the brothers moved with their mother and father from Japan to Canada, the US and China.

In 1951, Jan and Bert were sent to boarding school in Melbourne. They remained in Australia, but never discussed their father’s role in this remarkable rescue trail again. “We were busy reconnecting on family holidays, we didn’t have much time for history,” Bert de Voogd explains.

There’s one further witness to this trio of unlikely wartime heroes. Sydney woman Weis Schuringa is a Quaker, as Jan became after transferring his allegiances from the Dutch Reform church.

Four years ago, Jan asked her to be his enduring guardian. “Jan only realised later in life what his father had done in Kobe,” Schuringa  says.  “He and Bert were children in wartime Japan and weren’t told anything so they had no secrets to inadvertently spill.

“Jan used to say, ‘Although we were the children of diplomats, we were refugees too. Our mother, Bert and I were on the last ship out of Japan after Pearl Harbour. We were bombed too.’”

The Just: How Six Diplomats Broke the Rules to Save Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, Scribe, $45.

Main photo: Dutch consuls Jan Zwartendijk (left) and Nicolaas de Voogd








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