Edith Zwartendijk was twelve years old in 1939 when her father Jan Zwartendijk reluctantly accepted the post of Dutch Consul in Kaunas, Lithuania. She remembers him working late into the night to issue over 2,300 visas to Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, allowing Jewish refugees to escape the Holocaust. Only after Jan’s death in 1976 was his heroism recognized when stories emerged from survivors around the world. In 1996 Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, named him “Righteous Among The Nations.” He has also been posthumously honored by civic groups and public organizations, including the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Edith took great pleasure in attending the weddings of survivors’ grandchildren in London and the United States.
And yet Jan’s story was virtually unknown in the Netherlands and ignored by the Dutch government until 2023 when he was belatedly awarded the Honorary Medal for Charitable Assistance, the Netherlands’ highest non-military award. Why did it take until this year for his native country to acknowledge him?
Jan Brokken’s Biography
Based on extensive interviews with Edith and her younger brother, De Rechtvaardigen was published in Dutch in 2018. The English translation, The Just, came out in 2021.
Steven Spielberg commented, “If I had known Jan Zwartendijk’s story before, I would have filmed that.”
Bill Clinton’s review noted “[Zwartendijk’s] actions will remain a beacon of decency and righteousness for generations to come.”
The book’s rigorous reconstruction explains why this history was forgotten for so long.
Jan himself never spoke about his wartime service in Lithuania. He was not authorized by the Dutch government to issue the visas. While he continued a career in international diplomacy, he feared the consequences if the story came to light. The conservative post-war governments in the Netherlands included several officials who had been Nazi sympathizers during the Occupation. Indeed, in 1964, after his retirement, Jan was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and reprimanded for giving an interview to a provincial newspaper which mentioned the visas.
Another reason, Jan didn’t speak about the visa scheme is that he believed it had failed and that he had sent thousands of people to their doom. Having heard of only three survivors, his later life was shadowed with the burden of guilt. He died in 1976, a week before a letter arrived from Simon Wiesenthal’s Holocaust Research Center in Los Angeles. The Center’s investigation concluded that 95% of the Jewish refugees with visas from the Dutch Consul in Kaunas survived the war.
My Friend Edith
I first met Edith about seventeen years ago. She was my niece’s neighbor in Southwest France. I renewed her acquaintance each summer I visited until 2019, when Edith moved back to the Netherlands into an assisted living facility.
Fluent in four languages, with a wide circle of friends around the world, Edith was wonderful company. She had a great sense of humor and a genuine interest in other people.
Her stories about her father inspired me to write the story that later became Daughters of Riga. In fact, the first draft was tentatively titled The Consul’s Daughter, until the narrative expanded beyond the war in the Baltics to embrace other characters and settings.
Edith Zwartendijk died in Amsterdam on October 4, 2023, aged 96.