June 21. 2024. 6:38

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Netherlands king urged to honour ‘Dutch Schindler’

A campaign is under way to award the Netherlands’s highest honour to a quiet diplomat who became known as “the Dutch Schindler” because he saved the lives of thousands of Lithuanian Jews by issuing visas allowing them to avoid Nazi extermination camps.

Jan Zwartendijk, who was born in 1896 and died aged 80, was head of Dutch conglomerate Philips in Lithuania, and as acting consul there led a double life worthy of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who protected Jews by employing them in his Polish factories.

In a letter to King Willem-Alexander this week, Dutch MPs, led by Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of D66, himself a former diplomat, urged that Zwartendijk be awarded the country’s highest honour, the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands – and that a professional reprimand against him be expunged from his record.

Although Zwartendijk has been honoured over the years by both Israel and Lithuania, his extraordinary heroism has never been formally acknowledged by his own country.

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In fact, while still in post, he received an official reprimand from right-leaning foreign minister Joseph Luns for breaking consular rules by issuing large numbers of visas for Suriname and Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean, Dutch territories not occupied by the Germans.

Pressure from Zwartendijk’s children led to an official apology for that reprimand in 2018.

“Zwartendijk didn’t care for decorations but that reprimand always bothered him”, said Mr Sjoerdsma. “It’s time the Netherlands acknowledged his lonely and quite remarkable bravery.”

In the MPs’ letter to the king, Mr Sjoerdsma quotes contemporary accounts from some who knew Zwartendijk and the one-man crusade he was engaged in at great risk to himself.

“Zwartendijk writes visas from dawn ‘til dusk until his hands are cramped”, said one account. “He doesn’t allow himself more than a sip of cold coffee and forgets it’s his birthday so caught up is he in his mission to save lives.”

The letter ends by observing: “If the situation were to repeat itself, what would we do? Would we look away or risk our necks? Zwartendijk did the latter and was castigated for it. Your majesty, it is time to put this right.”

Although Zwartendijk issued thousands of visas, he had no way of knowing how many people actually reached safety. His children say he believed for some reason that he had saved only one.

On the day of his funeral in 1976, however, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the Holocaust Research Centre said joint research showed that 95 per cent of those issued visas by Zwartendijk had managed to survive.

In 1997, Israel named Zwartendijk as ”Righteous among the Nations”, an honour awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives for Jews during the Holocaust. Lithuania unveiled a memorial in 2018.