In 1939, when Poland was invaded at the beginning of the Second World War, thousands of Jews fled across the border to the relative safety of neutral Lithuania. One year later, with Lithuania annexed to the Soviet Union, thousands of them fled again. This time eastwards across the Soviet Union to Japan and beyond, armed with transit visas issued by the Japanese consul in Kaunas, then capital of Lithuania.
What is less well known is that to obtain a transit visa they first needed a destination visa, and that the vast majority of these were provided by a consular official in Kaunas called Jan Zwartendijk. As Managing Director of the Philips sales office in Lithuania, Jan had agreed to act as temporary Dutch consul after the abrupt departure of the previous consul.
By issuing the visas, Jan put himself at personal risk, because the destination visas he provided were for the island of Curaçao, then part of the Dutch Curaçao and Dependencies colony, and they omitted to state that entry to Curaçao was dependent on agreement by the island’s governor. In reality, such agreement was rarely, if ever, granted. Nevertheless, Jan’s visas were convincing enough to allow their bearers to travel, saving the lives of over 3,000 people. Most of those who queued at Jan’s office door, during three weeks in which he frantically signed thousands of Curaçao visas, knew him only as 'Mr. Radio Philips'. In their hearts, they later renamed him 'The Angel of Curaçao'.