“Those were terrible days.”
We are Edith’s guests for afternoon tea on the terrace of her house in the French countryside. We sip from bone china cups and nibble on the apple cake another old friend has brought. Edith is 92, walks with a cane, and is quite deaf. But she can slip with ease from Dutch to German to English to French, depending on the nationality of her guests. In two days’ time she will leave for Kaunas in Lithuania, to unveil a memorial to her father, the Dutch diplomat Jan Zwartendijk, who saved the lives of more than 2,200 Jews in the Second World War.
Edith anticipates her journey with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Supported by her youngest brother, she will stand between King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania. School children in national dress will cheer and wave flags. But her journey will be complicated. A friend will collect her at dawn and drive her to Angoulême where she will catch the train for Lille. At Lille, she will be met by her son, and be taken to his house near Amsterdam for the night. After her brother and his family arrive from the U.S. and Spain, the party will fly on to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
“Should I wear a hat? I don’t have one, but if the wind blows—” she gestures at her longish grey hair, inadequately secured by a clip at her temple.
We assure her she will have time to buy a hat in Amsterdam if she decides she needs one. The late afternoon heat, the sound of bees in the roses that border the terrace, and the view of cows moving slowly through the meadow beyond the ditch reduces us to quiet somnolence.
Edith tells us about the visit of a well-known Dutch journalist, Jan Brokken, who is writing a biography of her father. He came to interview her, the only member of her family with clear memories of the wartime period. She was twelve years old when her father, a businessman representing Phillips Radio in Lithuania, reluctantly accepted the position of Dutch consul after the removal of his predecessor, a Nazi sympathizer. When the German army invaded Poland in September 1939, the Soviets moved to occupy the Baltic States, Stalin having made a secret pact with Hitler to carve out separate “spheres of influence.” Jewish refugees fled Poland into Lithuania but received no welcome from the Soviets. The Lithuanian government, now no more than a puppet regime, moved from Vilnius to Kaunas. Lithuanian nationalists began to disappear in nightly sweeps carried out by the Russian political police.
In this chaotic atmosphere, Edith remembers her father working late into the evening to hand-write visas for the tiny Dutch colony of Curaçao in the Caribbean. Another member of the diplomatic corps—the Japanese consul—then issued a transit visa which enabled the refugees to leave Soviet-controlled territory.
“The Japanese consul asked my father to slow down; he couldn’t keep up with him!” Edith tells us. But as word spread amongst the Jewish community, more and more desperate families sought out “Mr. Phillips Radio.” All through the spring and summer of 1940, Edith’s father issued documents that allowed the refugees to travel by train from Lithuania across the Soviet Union to Vladivostok, and then by ship to safety. Few made it to Curaçao; some even waited out the War in Japan.
“After we left Lithuania,”—in August 1940 when the Russians closed down the consulate—“my father never spoke about the work he had done to help Jews escape. He had not been authorized to issue the visas under diplomatic rules, and he feared he had acted illegally.”
Only after Zwartendijk’s death in 1976, did the story emerge through the testimony of those he saved. In 1997, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust, gave him the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” and he is honored at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. In Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the protagonist Josef Kavalier escapes thanks to a “Dutch consul in Kovno”—the Russian name for Kaunas—"who was madly issuing visas to Curaçao”.
The sun is sinking now. The cows lumber back up the meadow from the stream. Edith presses us to take more apple cake, another cup of tea. We talk of mutual friends, of restaurants that have changed hands since we were last here, and the long wet spring now happily behind us. Edith promises to send us a copy of the book about her father when it is published in November.
“It will only be in Dutch to begin with, but there will be an English translation in due course,” she assures us. We do not speak of the sudden chill the words “in due course” elicit. Will Edith be here when we visit next year?
In 1940, nobody knew what would happen, who would win or lose the War, and who would survive to tell the stories. Today, we are thankful that a reluctant diplomat followed his conscience rather than the rules, and a young girl lived long enough to witness the recognition of her father’s courage.