Yom Hashoah began at sundown this evening with the annual ceremony at Yad Vashem. This year’s torch-lighters were all survivors who went on to rebuild successful lives in Israel. As in previous years, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned of a “comatose, delusional” world in the face of the Iranian threat and excoriated the world for not learning the lessons of the Holocaust:
“The main lesson of the Second World War, for democracies, is that they cannot turn a blind eye to tyrannical regimes,” Netanyahu said during a ceremony at the Yad Vashem museum to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Appeasement towards these regimes increases their aggressiveness,” the Israeli leader continued. “If this aggressiveness is not curbed in time, humanity may find itself in far greater wars in the future.”
Netanyahu noted that “ahead of World War II, the world attempted to appease the Nazis. They wanted quiet at any price, and the terrible price did come.” Six million Jews were murdered, as were millions of others. The lesson was clear, he said: Only standing firm in the face of violent, tyrannical regimes could ensure the future of humanity. But that lesson, he said, had evidently been forgotten.
Just as the Nazis sought to destroy Europe, Netanyahu said, so does Iran seek to wreak havoc in the Middle East and beyond, and to annihilate Israel.
World leaders utter the words “Never again” but don’t mean them, he charged.
Yesterday evening our shul held a fascinating talk given by the children of an unsung Jewish hero of the Holocaust, Zerach Warhaftig, who was one of those who signed Israel’s Independence Scroll, and later served as Minister for Religious Affairs in several Knessets.
Although Rabbi Warhaftig’s political life is well-known, I had no idea that he played such an important role in the escape of thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews to Japan and Shanghai, aided by the Righteous Gentiles Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, and Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch Consul also in Lithuania.
Here are their stories, and how the three men came together at the right time in the right place to save thousands upon thousands of Jews from the claws of the Nazis, putting their careers and even their lives at risk.
It was Jan Zwartendijk’s daring which gave Zerah Warhaftig the idea of applying for visas to such an exotic place as Japan:
The only other possible destination was the Far East. Getting there required crossing the USSR from west to east on the Trans-Siberian train, and then finding a ship that will take them to another country. The obstacle was getting exit visas from the USSR, and getting an entrance visa to another country. No country was willing to accept the Jews.
Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum, two Yeshiva students with Dutch citizenship from the Lithuanian Telshe Yeshiva, asked the acting Dutch consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Jan Zwartendijk if he could help them get to Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies.
Jan understood their situation. He contacted L.P.J. Decker, the Dutch Ambassador in Riga, for advice and received a note saying that: “No visas were necessary for Curacao. The governor has exclusive authority to issue landing permits to foreigners, a power he rarely exercises.”
Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum asked Zwartendijk to write only the first sentence in their passports. Zwartendijk agreed and entered “Curacao End-Visas,” omitting the fact that the Island’s Governor had to approve their landing once they got their.
With this “revised” visas, the two yeshiva students went to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas. They asked for transit visa through Japan. He issued them transit visas valid for ten days in Japan. With the Dutch and Japanese visas, the students were able to obtain Soviet exit visas.This allowed them to travel to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and from there, by boat to Japan.
Gutwirth asked the advice to Zorach Warhaftig, a leader in the Jewish community in Vilnius (later to become Minister of Religious Affairs in Israel). Warhaftig told Gutwirth to go back to Zwartendijk and ask if he would be willing to give the same notation to anyone who applied for it, and to add a consular stamp to make it look like a visa. Gutwirth made that request and Zwartendijk agreed. Warhaftig spread the word, and within hours, dozens were at Zwartendijk’s door.
Decker and Zwartendijk had intended to issue the modified visa just to few people. Zwartendijk agreed to extend it to anyone who asked. In the next 4 days (July 24-27) he wrote about 1,300 visas by hand. He issued another 1,050 with the help of a stamp over the next five working days (July 29 – August 2). The highest-numbered surviving visa known to date is No. 2,345, issued on August 2 to Eliasz Kupinski and family.
Neither Zwartendijk or Sugihara were professional diplomats. Zwartendijk was businessman who was asked by Decker to replace a Nazi sympathizer. Sugihara was an intelligence officer.
The Japanese consul knew the visas weren’t real, but he issued transit visas to the Jews anyway. People who arrived in Japan sent their visas back to relatives still in Vilnius to be reused. Sugihara issued close to 2,000.
Fully aware of the questionable the documents, Japan allowed every Jew who used them to land. All of them were sponsored by the Jewish community in Kobe, Japan.
Sugihara was able to stay a few more weeks. He continued to hand out transit visas even after he was forbidden to do so by his superiors. Chiune Sugihara was expelled by the Soviets. He requested an extension claiming illness, then continued to issue visas until the last moment. He was deported on August 31, 1940. Even when he was on the departing train, he threw transit visas to Jews through the the train window.
Chiune Sugihara’s story was as follows:
Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese spy was sent to Lithuania as a Japanese consul to learn what were Nazi Germany military intentions in the region. On the morning of August 1st, Chiune Sugihara saw a group of Jews standing outside his fence, begging for transit visas. For ten days he telegraphed Tokyo asking for instructions. He received no answer. On August 11 he issued the 10 days transit visas. He continued granting transit visas while in Lithuania, ignoring official orders from his superiors to stop. He issued as many transit visas as he could to fleeing Jews; sending them to Japan and the Dutch West Indies.
Chiune Sugihara was expelled by the Soviets. He requested an extension claiming illness, then continued to issue visas until the last moment. He was deported on August 31, 1940. Even when he was on the departing train, he threw transit visas to waiting Jews through the the train window.
He is credited with saving 6,000 lives. Throughout the war, the Japanese government resisted German calls to institute Anti-Semitic policies and to exterminate the Jews living in the Shanghai Ghetto in Japanese controlled China.
Explaining his heroism and simple humanity, Chiune Sugihara’s explains:
“Everyone in life has an opportunity to do a good deed. Do it and leave it alone. Don’t write about it or publicize it; don’t make money from it. Just do what’s right because it’s right.”
The answer is breathtaking in its simplicity. How sorely lacking the world was of more such heroes then, and even today!
Zerach Warhaftig‘s role in the dramatic escape reads like something out of fiction:
Zerach Warhaftig, a religious orthodox zionist, was the head of the Polish Rescue Committee. An organization which was committed to rescue Jews. The organization operated in the orthodox Jewish circles in Poland. Zerach remained in Warsaw until the last moment and then, together with his wife, he crossed the border to Lithuania, just before the city fell into the hands of the Nazis. He took with him several hundreds British certificates for immigration to Israel.
During this period, many of the Jewish leaders who realized that it was just a matter of time before Lithuania became under Nazi or Soviet control, left the country. Zerach Warhaftig, although he himself had plenty of legitimate British travel certificates to Israel, remained with his wife in Lithuania in order to help other Jews escape.
First, Zerach went to Vilnius (Vilna ), a city with a rich Jewish history and many Yeshivot (religious Jewish schools). Thousands of Polish Jewish refugees were already in the city. A group of activists, religious zionists, joined him and they became the rescue center for Jews. Zerach distributed the British immigration certificates that he brought to hundreds of people who used them to immigrate to Israel through Sweden. He called all the Jews in Lithuania to get Polish passports and leave Europe immediately. He met with the heads of all the Yeshivot, urging them to live Europe, but because of the bad experience the yeshivot had in WWI, when they moved from one place to another, while mistreated by the Germans and the Russians, this time, they decided to stay put.
Zerach Warhaftig tried to convince the heads of the yeshivot that it was only a matter of time before Lithuania was captured by the Germans (who would kill all the Jews), or by the Russians (who would send all the religious Jews to Siberia). He was not able to convince them. He moved to Kaunas (Kovno), which was Lithuania’s capital at the time, to be near the foreign embassies in order to get visas for Jews, so they could exit Europe.
Zerach Warhaftig and his team knew that they were running out of time. They worked hard to get as many religious Jews out of Europe, before it was too late. They forged and handed out fake visas. For fear of being captured and imprisoned, Zerach and his team did not keep an office; they distributed the certificates from benches in public parks, and constantly moved from one place to another.
Zerach Warhaftig was finally succeeded in convincing the leaders of one Yeshiva, the Mir yeshiva, to apply for Polish passports in the British embassy in Kaunas. The Mir yeshiva was the only large European yeshiva that survived the war intact, preserving the culture, the knowledge, and teaching methods of the the great European yeshivot.
In July 1940, Lithuania gave up its independence and joined the Soviet Union. Time was running out for the Jews. As described in the article Jan Zwartendijk – Righteous Among the Nations, Zerach found an escape route from Europe through Russia to Japan.
To get a Soviet exit authorization was impossible. As a last resort, Zerach forwarded a list of 2,000 names of religious and secular Jews to Stalin, asking his permission for the Jews to travel across the USSR from west to east and then exit the country. It was a risky a request since it gave the Soviets a list of names, which they could have considered troublemakers and arrest. However, a miracle happened; the Soviets issued exit visas to everyone on the list.
Zerach organized the exit of thousands of people, by first sending them on the trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok, and then paying for ships to transport them to Japan. He himself stayed with his wife and newborn son in Lithuania until October, while continuing to send Jews to Japan. He and his family escaped Europe only after he learned that the NKVD (earlier version of the Soviet KGB secret police) was looking for him. In Japan, Zerach Warhaftig continued to visit foreign embassies again and again in effort to secure exit visas for Jews.
You can read the rest of Zerach Warhaftig’s outstanding contribution to Israel’s political and legal systems at the link.
A wonderful film about Warhaftig’s life was produced a few years ago by the late Israeli journalist Adir Zik. Unfortunately most of the film is in Hebrew and I have not managed to find a version with subtitles. But there is enough English in it to get an idea of what was going on.
May the memories of the righteous people, Jews and Gentiles, who helped so many thousands to escape, be for a blessing, and may their heroism be taught as a lesson for future generations.