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2017-11-10 Back to list

Would we be as Courageous as Jan Zwartendijk Was?

While the name of Chiune Sugihara most definitely rings a bell for people in Kaunas and Japan (particularly Japan), Jan Zwartendijk is the silent hero. Will this change?

In June 1940, Jan Zwartendijk, the director of the Lithuanian branch of Philips, was appointed as the temporary consul of the Netherlands, a country then already invaded by Nazi Germany, by the Dutch ambassador to the Baltic states, L.P.J. de Decker, who himself resided in Riga. Very soon after that the Soviets occupied Lithuania. What happened next – leading to a few thousand lives saved from the Holocaust – is one of the great stories that bring back the faith in humanity. Not many of us know the story, though. While the name of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul that issued transit visas for Jewish people to travel to Curacao and Suriname, most definitely rings a bell for people in Kaunas and Japan (particularly Japan), Jan Zwartendijk is the silent hero. Will this change? Should this change? How do we wake up from the common amnesia and re-embrace the multicultural history of Kaunas? Is erecting more monuments the only way of waking up the collective memory? Probably not. Maybe not. Raising questions like this is an important task of the Memory Office, a program initiated by the Kaunas 2022 team, but they don’t want to be the ones who answer them.

The current Ambassador of the Netherlands to Lithuania, Gijsbert Hendrik Christiaan van der Lingen, isn’t keen on deciding things alone, too – this is the impression we got after sitting down with him in the most Dutch place in Kaunas at the moment. We’ve actually visited it in our blog recently – this is Nyčės Ūsai, an art gallery ran by Elzė Hoogduijn and her husband Adriaan Hoogduijn who has recently moved to Kaunas for personal and business purposes. Just like Jan Zwartendijk did almost 80 years ago. Let’s hear what the Ambassador and Adriaan have to say about the whole story. Apparently, there are a lot more interesting connections between the Netherlands and the Baltics. There are some differences, too – statues as such haven’t been big in the Netherlands for the past 500 years. It might have something to do with the Iconoclastic Fury.

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Ambassador: “I first read about Jan Zwartendijk in Budapest, in my previous posting. There was an exposition of heroes who saved thousands of people, they had Carl Lutz, Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler... Also, much to my surprise, there was a person called Jan Zwartendijk. I thought, that sounds really Dutch! Of course, I tried to figure out who he was. It was quite close to the start of my tenure in Lithuania. Within 2 weeks of my stay here I was invited by The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum to deliver a speech on Zwartendijk. I think it was no coincidence. In my speech, I tried to explain to the audience what it means to risk your life for other people whom you do not know. After leaving Kaunas, he continued working for Philips in the Netherlands, and if somebody there would have found out about his exploits in Kaunas, he would have been in very big trouble. But, still, he took the risk, he knew what was at stake. And then, I said, if I translated it to the today’s events ad something of the same magnitude would take place, and I would in fact be in that position. Would I be as courageous as he was? I cannot say that. Maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe not.

Later, I understood that nobody really knew Jan Zwartendijk. There was of course the Sugihara House, park, plaques… Fair enough, Chiune Sugihara saved a lot of people as well, but a lot of those people wouldn’t have been rescued if it were not Zwartendijk who the visa process in the first place.

So, I thought it might be a good idea to do something about the memory of this historical figure in Kaunas, to try to present a monument for commemoration not of the person himself – because that’s what he didn’t want – but of the deed. To commemorate that it is good to care for people and to care for the wellbeing and safety of people. This is exactly what he did.”

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Jan Zwartendijk

Adriaan: “I had read quite a bit on Lithuania and Baltic history because I was travelling back and forth to visit Elzė, who is now my wife. I always come across this episode of Sugihara more or less to balance out all the horror that happened during the war. I never really found anything about Zwartendijk until I stepped into the Sugihara house.

I must admit it’s a beautiful history for me to discover. But, in general, we’re humble people and it’s not really in our culture to erect a cult of personality. The Japanese are concentrating on a single person for his deeds, Sugihara, but in the Netherlands, it would be very strange and even unnatural. I like the idea that the monument will be in honour of the personality and the symbolicalness of his deeds but not focusing on his person. It makes it less passing and more lasting. If you look at the Lithuanian cult of commemoration, you find all the different plaques all around the cities, especially in Kaunas, about who lived and worked where... I have asked Lithuanians who these people were, in 9 out of 10 cases my acquaintances would have absolutely no clue.”

Ambassador: “Right now, we are working with the support of the Dutch government, Philips and Lithuanian organisations, amongst others, the Ministry of Foreign affairs, Kaunas Municipality and the Jewish community. We have reached the consensus that a monument should be there and that it should be a monument of light, because light means hope. So, it should be a Holocaust monument which doesn’t highlight the dark side and the mourning of what has happened, but rather the fact that there were people who did care and went the extra mile.

I’m also in close contact with the children of Zwartendijk, Edith and Rob. They completely agree with the proposal and I am very happy with that. If I can interpret the feelings of Edith and Rob, they really want to maintain that feeling of modesty, that this is a cultural thing. If you do not have that then something is really wrong with you. In this sense, we are very cautious to overdo things.

In the beginning of October, we are hoping to receive two internationally acclaimed light artists from the Netherlands selected by common decision. They’ll come together with the director of GLOW Festival in Eindhoven and will talk to the local authorities, city architect, heritage department and the municipality to see where we stand. (this has happened! – editors note)

My hope is that the monument will be ready before I leave Lithuania in the summer of 2018. 2018 is an important year here and I know about the efforts of Kaunas to prepare for 2022. Also, looking at the development of the string of monuments in the city, this could be a fantastic thing. I also hope that, when the director of GLOW Eindhoven will be here, we will be able to talk with a number of representatives of the cultural world here to see whether or not something like GLOW could be imagined here in Kaunas, because this would be really good for the city. In Eindhoven, more than 700000 people come in one week. I’m also looking at side effects, you know? This is how we Dutch are.”

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Adriaan: “What about the book?”

Ambassador: “Ah, yes. Jan Brokken, a famous Dutch author, is hopefully writing a book about Zwartendijk. I cannot say too much about it because it’s his thing but I hope something will come out. 

Jan Brokken is the author of “Baltic Souls”, a very popular book which is a compilation of life histories of prominent persons in the Baltic states, including Loreta Asanavičiūtė, Romain Gary, Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein and many more. The book sold over 90 thousand copies in the Netherlands is very instrumental for learning the history of the region. I hope there will somebody who translates the book into Lithuanian. A few years ago, he was staying at my residence as he was giving a lecture on “Baltic Souls” in Vilnius, this is when the idea of a book on Zwartendijk was born.”

Adriaan: “Baltic Souls” actually brings a lot of tourists to the region, both from the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. They use it as a guide. Last year, we were sitting in a café in the Old Town of Vilnius and noticed a lecture taking place next to us – a professor used the Jan Brokken book as a reference when talking to a group of Danish people.”

Ambassador: “I read in his blog that Dutch tourists walk in Vilnius with the book in their hands, so I asked our intern to prepare a walking route through the centre of the city – you can now find it in the website of the publishing house and himself”.

The article was originally published in the October issue of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine (find the whole issue here).
Photos by Elzė Hoogduijn

 

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