Visiting Exhibit Reveals How Daring Diplomats Saved Jews During WWII

Written by Malka Goldberg on . Posted in Community News

Of the more than 26,000 people Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center has recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for their efforts to save Jews from Nazi extermination during the Holocaust, 36 were diplomats. "Beyond Duty," a traveling exhibit sharing the personal stories of nine such diplomats, opened Sunday, Feb. 4, at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM) in Baltimore.

Developed by Yad Vashem in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the exhibit honors diplomats from countries around the world and will be at the JMM until March 25, when it will then journey to DC.

These diplomats operated a range of rescue operations during the Holocaust. Acting against their governments’ policies, they issued visas and unauthorized national passports, and took “other extraordinary measures” to save Jews, said Delphine Gamburg, the director of cultural affairs at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. “Many of them suffered the consequences of their courageous acts, but it was for them a matter of human morals and beliefs in the values of humanity,” she said. The exhibit intersperses their stories chronologically into the historical narrative of World War II.

Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara is one of the profiled diplomats. He is known for helping over 2,000 Jews escape from Lithuania, but as the exhibit explains, his actions would not have been possible without the initial steps taken by Acting Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk.

After Germany invaded Poland, thousands of Polish Jews fled to Lithuania, where they were caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Since escaping to the West was no longer an option, they sought transit visas that would enable them to escape via the Soviet Union. The problem: The Soviet Union required anyone traveling through the country to provide proof of a valid entry visa for their final destination.

Zwartendijk, who was a businessman temporarily serving as a diplomat, issued statements that no entry visa was necessary to enter the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, tactfully omitting that entry was ultimately up to the discretion of the governor. When Jews in Kaunas, Lithuania, learned of this, they flocked to Zwartendijk to obtain statements of confirmation for their travel papers. But that was not enough to obtain permission to travel through the Soviet Union, which is where Sugihara came in to the picture. He issued transit visas for the Jews to travel to Curacao via Japan, which then enabled them to obtain permission to travel across the Soviet Union.

Acting without their countries’ support — even against direct orders — the thousands of documents issued by Zwartendijk and Sugihara before the Soviets shut down the consulates and embassies in Kaunas gave their bearers their best chance to survive the war. While none of the Jews who received these documents ultimately arrived in Curacao, they did successfully escape Europe. Meanwhile, over 30,000 Jews were not so fortunate, and died in the course of the subsequent Nazi occupation of Lithuania.

“It’s important that we learn from those whose integrity guided them to do what is right for humanity,” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the JMM.

" 'Beyond Duty' is a lesson of courage and resilience," Gamburg said, "and it is an opportunity for the Israeli ministry to pay tribute to those diplomats who decided, despite all odds, to show extraordinary courage in those dark times."

By Malka Goldberg

 Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.