A Dutch World War Two hero takes his place in history
Estimated reading time: 3-5 minutes
Jan Zwartendijk, 1896 – 1976
On Friday, June 15, during his state visit to the Republic of Lithuania, His Majesty King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands attended the unveiling of a monument to a relatively unknown hero of the Second World War who helped save the lives of thousands of people. His story, which he only acknowledged 23 years later and had never felt the need to talk about, is a remarkable example of simple human kindness – a willingness to go beyond the call of duty in order to save people from discrimination and persecution.
A selfless act of humanity
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'.
Today, it is more important than ever to remember the tragedies of the past. Monuments to brave people like Jan not only commemorate individual actions, they are a constant reminder that we must not take the rights and freedom that Europe’s citizens have enjoyed for the last seventy years for granted.
Jan Willem Scheijgrond
Head of Government and Public Affairs at Philips.
“Faced with a desperate situation, Jan took the courageous decision to put the well-being of those in need before his own and did what needed to be done to help save them,” said Jan Willem Scheijgrond, Head of Government and Public Affairs at Philips. “Today, it is more important than ever to remember the tragedies of the past. Monuments to brave people like Jan not only commemorate individual actions, they are a constant reminder that we must not take the rights and freedom that Europe’s citizens have enjoyed for the last seventy years for granted.”
The monument to Jan Zwartendijk, unveiled in Kaunas by his children in the presence of His Majesty King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, was designed by the Dutch artist Giny Vos. It was funded by the Governments of Lithuania and the Netherlands, Royal Philips NV, the municipality of Kaunas, the Jewish community of Lithuania, and the Kazickas Family Foundation.
Forever remembered by Philips
Jan’s actions during the Second World War will also be commemorated in a special exhibition at the Philips Museum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The exhibition will open on September 18, coinciding with annual celebrations to mark the liberation of Eindhoven from occupied rule in 1944.