Pessla Lewin, born in Amsterdam, became a naturalized Polish citizen through marriage to Issac Levin in 1940 and was stranded in Kaunas, Lithuania, when the Soviets annexed the country in July of that year. It seemed that there was no escape from persecution, but Pessla decided to apply to the Dutch Embassy of the Baltic States, whose headquarters were in Riga, Latvia.
In July 1940, the Ambassador, Mr. L.P.J. de Decker, wrote in her passport, in French, “The Consulate of the Netherlands, Riga, hereby declares that for the admission into Surinam, Curaçao, and other possessions of the Netherlands in the Americas, no entry visa is required.”
After his wife had successfully obtained this quasi-visa notation in her passport, Pessla’s husband, Dr. Isaac Lewin, approached the Dutch Consul, Jan Zwartendijk, in Kaunas, Lithuania, and asked him to write the same in his Leidimas (safe-conduct) papers which served as his identity card. He received this notation on July 22, 1940, and his was the first such “visa” issued in Kaunas. With this Curaçao “visa,” the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara, was prepared to stamp passports with the notation,“TRANSIT VISA”.
In July 1940, Jan Zwartendijk had been asked to replace the Dutch Consul in Kaunas. Actually, Zwartendijk was not a professional diplomat at all. He was simply the representative of Philips in Lithuania, but he was a Dutchman and he was not a Nazi sympathizer. Having agreed to take on the position of Acting Dutch Consul, Zwartendijk could hardly have guessed what his short diplomatic career would have in store for him.
After having granted Isaac Lewin the Curaçao “visa” that served as the key to the Japanese transit visa and a Soviet exit visa, two Dutch students at talmudic academies in Poland, Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum, who had also become fugitives in Lithuania, obtained the same “visa” from Zwartendijk and spread the word. In a matter of hours, hundreds of panic-stricken Jews lined up at the Dutch Consulate to obtain the same Curaçao-stamp from Zwartendijk.
From July 23, 1940, until August 3, when the Soviets closed the embassies and consulates in Kaunas, Zwartendijk managed to issue between 1,200 and 1,400 “visas” to Curaçao. The Japanese Consulate issued close to 2,000 transit visas and some of these were re-used when sent back to relatives from Japan.
Altogether, between 2,100 and 2,200 Jewish refugees arrived in Japan with these visas, where they remained for three to eight months. None of the refugees arrived in Curaçao, but more than half went on to free countries, while about 1,000 were transported by the Japanese to Shanghai, in China, where they survived the war.
Zwartendijk was forced to close down the Consulate in Kaunas on August 3, 1940. He spent the rest of the month trying to get back to the Netherlands, but, before that, he burned all official papers, removing any trace of the illegal transactions he had initiated on behalf of the Jews. He spent the rest of the war in Holland, working for Philips. He never told anyone about his wartime deeds. The Dutch government first became aware of his activities in 1963.