A Dutch diplomat who issued visas to thousands of Lithuanian Jews so they could escape persecution by the Nazis, but was reprimanded for breaking diplomatic rules, has been finally awarded the highest possible Dutch non-military honour.
Jan Zwartendijk (1896-1976), who headed Philips in Kaunas in Lithuania and was acting consul there, helped thousands to escape to the Dutch Antilles and Suriname, which were not occupied by the Germans.
Now, 47 years after his death, he has been given a posthumous gold Erepenning voor Menslievend Hulpbetoon (medal of honour for humanitarian aid) – the first to be awarded since 1964.
Tragically, Zwartendijk thought he had only managed to save one person. On the day of his funeral, his children learned that research by the Simon Wiesenthal centre and the Holocaust Research centre had shown that 95% of the people who were issued visas by their father survived.
Although Israel made him Righteous among nations in 1997, and Lithuania honoured him with a memorial in 2018, Zwartendijk’s work was never officially recognised by the Dutch state during his lifetime.
He was even reprimanded for breaking consular rules on visa applications after the war by then minister Joseph Luns, who was later said to have been a member of the Nazi affiliated party NSB.
D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, who came across Zwartendijk’s story in the book De Rechvaardigen (The Just) in 2018, has been campaigning for recognition for Zwartendijk ever since.
‘Zwartendijk didn’t care for decorations but that reprimand always bothered him,’ Sjoerdsma told public broadcaster NOS earlier this year. Five years ago the Dutch state issued a formal apology for Luns’s action to Zwartendijk’s children.
Prime minister Mark Rutte handed the honour to Zwartendijk’s son and daughter on Thursday afternoon.
“My father always felt he had done his duty,” Rob Zwartendijk (83) told broadcaster NOS.
“We are very happy with this recognition and for us, wrongs have now been righted,” he said. “We have closure. My father would not have been interested in pomp and ceremony, but he would have been extremely happy with this gesture.”
“No-one would have blamed my father if he had kept the door shut and helped no-one,” he told RTL Nieuws. “But he thought ‘wait, I have to save these people’. And with some ingenuity, he was able to do it.”
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