Great Britain

Unsung hero: how ‘Mr Radio Philips’ helped thousands flee the Nazis

He helped save more Jewish lives than Oskar Schindler, but while the brave deeds of the German industrialist were known around the world because of an Oscar-winning film, few know the name Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch radio salesman who helped thousands of Jews flee Nazi-occupied Europe.

Now a book by the celebrated Dutch writer Jan Brokken seeks to rescue Zwartendijk from obscurity, as well as other courageous officials who bent the rules to help several thousand Jews trapped between Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Just, published this year in English, recounts how up to 10,000 men, women and children fled the Holocaust. At the heart of the story is Zwartendijk and the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who improvised an improbable escape route from Lithuania to the Japanese port of Tsuruga and beyond. Over 10 frantic days in the summer of 1940, the two men issued “visas” to 2,139 people. Researchers estimate 6,000 to 10,000 may have escaped, as women and children often travelled on male relatives’ documents.

Yet while Sugihara became a national hero, featuring on Japan’s school curriculum and with three museums dedicated to his life, Zwartendijk was forgotten. His youngest son, a baby in the Lithuanian years, knew nothing of his father’s actions until he was in his 30s. “He never spoke about this period,said Rob Zwartendijk, 81, speaking to the Observer from the North Holland town of Blaricum.

“And whenever it cropped up, he said: ‘Ah, that’s not very important, everyone would have done those things if they had been in this position’. Which you and I know is not true.”

Jan Zwartendijk was an accidental diplomat. When war broke out in 1939, he was head of the local Philips branch in Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania, which sold radios, gramophones and lightbulbs. Life was good. He was happily married with three children and a secondhand Buick in the drive.

The lists of transit visas Chiune Sugihara kept in Kaunas.
The lists of transit visas Chiune Sugihara kept in Kaunas. Photograph: Japanese Foreign Ministry Diplomatic Record Office

As a reliable company man, Zwartendijk was asked by the Dutch government in exile to step into the unpaid position of consul in Kaunas, as the previous occupant was suspected of Nazi sympathies. Expecting only to assist a few Dutch citizens, Zwartendijk was soon confronted with a dangerous choice. He was not a born hero, writes Brokken, but made a snap decision to help Jewish refugees who came knocking at his door: they had fled to Lithuania after the Nazi invasion of neighbouring Poland in September 1939.

During the second world war, Lithuania suffered a double occupation by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany but, for nearly 10 months, Kaunas was a free city. Dubbed the “Casablanca of the north”, it was a nest for spies and haven for refugees fleeing both Nazis and Soviets.

That changed when the Red Army invaded Lithuania on 15 June 1940. Jewish refugees began searching desperately for a way out. Approached by a couple of refugees with a plan, Zwartendijk agreed to write in their passports that no travel document was required to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. This was technically true, but withheld the detail that permission from the island’s governor was required. Zwartendijk was counting on no one checking the entry requirements for a tiny

island on the other side of the world. And nobody did. This pseudo visa unlocked the door to leaving. Armed with the “Curaçao visa”, Jewish refugees could petition Sugihara – and the foreign-currency hungry Soviet authorities – for transit papers. Word about “Mister Radio Philips” began to spread.

Although they lived less than 300 metres apart, Zwartendijk and Sugihara never met. But they spoke on the phone sometimes. Sugihara urged his Dutch colleague to slow down issuing visas. While Zwartendijk wrote his visa with a fountain pen and green-ink stamp, Sugihara composed his with more laborious ink and brush. Both ran a huge risk. Sugihara defied his bosses in Tokyo, while Zwartendijk would have been in mortal danger had the Nazis found out when he returned to his occupied home country.

They also risked the attention of the Soviet police, who noticed long queues outside the Philips office that served as the Dutch consulate. One evening, Zwartendijk received a visit from a Russian officer, who ordered soldiers to block the pavement to the office. Accusing Zwartendijk of endangering public safety, he threatened to close the consulate immediately. The Dutchman offered him a Philishave, the brand-new electric razor the company had introduced in 1939. Given a quick demonstration of the gadget, the officer declared it a miracle and let Zwartendijk carry on.

When Zwartendijk returned to the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in September 1940, the reasons for secrecy were obvious. Yet, long after the war, when the scale of the Holocaust was well known, Zwartendijk was never feted. In 1964, he was even reprimanded by the Dutch foreign ministry after a newspaper report about the mysterious “Angel of Curaçao” emerged. Brokken suggests that Zwartendijk’s heroism may have shamed his contemporaries.

Zwartendijk was furious about the reprimand, but he was tormented by not knowing how many had escaped on his Curaçao visas. In later years, in failing health, he never stopped asking what became of the people who had stood before him in that light-brown panelled office in Kaunas. His son thinks his father feared none had made it beyond Siberia. “He must have thought that most of these people perished. He must have been worried that he sent them to their deaths.”

In 1976, researchers assessed that 95% of Jewish refugees with Zwartendijk’s papers survived the war. The news arrived at the Zwartendijk house the day after Jan’s funeral.

Certainly, for the Jewish refugees, the Curaçao visa was no easy passport to freedom, but the start of a new painful odyssey. One recipient Jewish family, the Liwers, endured years of hardship, including, for the mother, Chawa, and daughter, Jadzia, forced labour making coffins in a Soviet camp and internment in the US for the father, Abraham.

The Liwer family, pictured before 1939: (from left to right) Jacques, Chawa, Jadzia and Abraham.
The Liwer family, pictured before 1939: (from left to right) Jacques, Chawa, Jadzia and Abraham. Photograph: Arlette Liwer-Stuip

When the Nazis invaded Poland, the three fled their hometown of Będzin, where Abraham owned a bicycle parts factory. After months on the run and a toe lost to frostbite, Abraham eventually made it to Kaunas. But his wife and daughter, who had stayed in Lvov, were arrested by the Soviet secret police and sent to a camp in the Urals. When Abraham Liwer finally made it to Vladivostok, he went to the NKVD (secret police) office every day for two months to petition for their release. Arlette Liwer-Stuip, Abraham’s granddaughter, thinks the local NKVD officer had a crush on him: “She enjoyed talking to him instead of having him arrested.” Incredibly, his efforts paid off: Chawa and Jadzia were released and the family made it to Japan. After several years of further trials, they eventually settled in New York.

For Liwer-Stuip, who has written a 1,200-page family history, both Zwartendijk and Sugihara played a huge role in saving her grandparents and aunt. “It was easy to find out information about Sugihara, but I was having a hard time finding out much about Zwartendijk. The unfairness made it emotional for me, as I kept asking myself why was one so famous and the other virtually unknown?”

“There is room for two heroes,” she told the Observer. “To honour one and basically ignore the other for me doesn’t ring like true history.”

Sugihara died in 1986, two years after being recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” – the highest honour accorded to non-Jews who risked everything to save Jewish lives. Zwartendijk was not given the same honour until 1997, a discrepancy that pained his family.

Recognition is finally coming. In the Netherlands, in 2018, Brokken’s book prompted an official apology to the Zwartendijk family, describing the 1964 reprimand as “completely inappropriate”. Last year, the then foreign minister, Stef Blok, praised Zwartendijk and Sugihara’s “extraordinary partnership”, who “at great personal risk dedicated themselves to humanity”. Brokken’s book has been translated into English and Italian and will be published in seven other languages, including French, Czech, Slovak and Russian. The author hopes to see an edition in Lithuanian. A previous publisher abandoned the book over objections to its recounting of mass murders committed by Lithuanian antisemitic paramilitaries.

The city of Kaunas has honoured Zwartendijk with a memorial in front of the Philips office. Suspended between trees is a spiral of 2,139 passports. When evening falls, the ever-changing colours – ocean blue, rose pink and forest green – light up the darkness.

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