S.F. historians revel in war heros posthumous honor

But the letter, dated September 1976, was too late. It arrived at Zwartendijk's home on the day he was buried.

A sad enough tale for one so heroic to go unthanked, but even more tragic was the unexplained refusal by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, to honor Zwartendijk.

That was some 20 years ago.

Last month, the consul received posthumous recognition after staff, volunteers and interns at the Holocaust Oral History Project in San Francisco appealed the decades-old case with museum officials.

Zwartendijk's son, Jan Zwartendÿk of Arizona, is to accept the medal and certificate of honor, which names his father "Righteous Among the Nations."

The coveted title is awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

"This is one of the happiest times of my life," said Lani Silver, former director of the Holocaust Oral History Project. The Burlingame-based organization championed Zwartendijk's case and others like it as part of its mission to preserve the history of the period.

"Everyone laughed and said that [the campaign] wouldn't work," said Silver, after the efforts of many to win recognition for Zwartendijk had gone unheeded by Yad Vashem.

"It took convincing by a small army of concerned people. Staffers spent months and years on this," she said.

Silver also enlisted the aid of Ernest Heppner, an Indiana researcher who headed the initial campaign 20 years ago, and David Kranzler of New York, another historian of the Holocaust era.

"It is unusual that somebody is that decent," said Heppner of the consul's bravery.

Few of those who received a Zwartendijk visa remember clearly the man who issued it. But those who have vouched for him knew of others — including the entire staff and student body of a yeshiva — who escaped from Lithuania in 1940 with the help of two men known as the "Angels of Curacao."

It actually required three angels to orchestrate the third-largest wartime escape:

Zwartendijk issued the bogus entry visas to Curacao, an island and Netherlands' colony in the Caribbean. The consul wrote on the document instructions stating that no permission from Curacao authorities was required for travelers to enter the country. This wasn't exactly true but it would be convincing enough to get the Jews out of the country.

A Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara, was the second angel. He issued the Jews transit visas to Japan, a necessary stopover to a final destination. A third but unknown official, a Russian, is thought to have issued exit visas from Lithuania.

Although there is no evidence that Sugihara and Zwartendijk knew one another, historians speculate that each knew of the other. But while Sugihara easily won the title Righteous Gentile, Zwartendijk has languished in his shadow.

"I could hear the heartbreak in the voice of Zwartendijk's son," Silver said after interviewing him by phone. "We have waited 57 years for this," he told Silver when the elder Zwartendijk finally was recognized.

As for those who escaped, none is known to have landed in Curacao. From Japan, some left for the United States and Israel. Others settled into a multinational Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.

It was in Shanghai that Heppner, a German Jewish refugee, first heard of Zwartendijk, although not by name.

As he tells it, Heppner encountered two yeshiva boys in front of a Shanghai bookstore who were looking for someone to print copies of their Talmud.

The German-speaking Heppner had a hard time understanding their Yiddish, though he understood enough to learn of their arrival in Shanghai via Kobe with the help of zwei Engel or two angels.

Heppner didn't get far with the conversation. He referred the students to a printer and didn't think about the encounter again — until 1976. That was when Zwartendijk's name and "Angel of Curacao" handle re-emerged in Shanghai history circles.

"I put two and two together," he said, and contacted the then-dying consul's son. "I told him I would do what I could to get recognition for his father."

The younger Zwartendÿk said his father had no interest in honors, and rarely spoke of his wartime actions — even with his family.

Zwartendÿk, 68, can still remember helping his father to burn evidence of the visas in a potbelly stove before the family fled to Holland. They were not able to leave at first because Soviet authorities would not issue them an exit visa.

Fearing that someone would trace him to his bogus visas, Zwartendijk sent his family into hiding in the back country, along the Memel River. They left nearly a year later.

By mid-1941, the Nazis had overrun Lithuania and started the mass killing of Jews.

More recently, Zwartendijk also has been honored by the Hague — the ruling government in Holland — and the Israel boarding school Boys Town Jerusalem, which founded the Institute for Humanitarian Ethics and Values in New York as a memorial to him.

At the Boys Town ceremony in October, 10 Zwartendijk refugees finally got a chance to show their appreciation.

"It really hit me what it all meant when I met the first survivor," said Zwartendÿk. The refugee told him that he had "29 children and grandchildren [altogether] and none of them would be here if not for your father."

Another told him, "If only there had only been a few more like your father…"

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.