Speech by Minister Stef Blok at Beyond Duty – Visas for Life event

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at Beyond Duty – Visas for Life event on 24 September 2020.

‘I am visited by a constant stream of Dutch people who in one way or another have got themselves into a mess. As Consul, I must do my best to help them. This means I have a great deal of work to do, but alas, none of it to do with business.’

These words were written by Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch Honorary Consul and Managing Director of Philips in Lithuania. They were part of his weekly report to the company’s head office in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.

It was June 1940. The Netherlands was already under Nazi occupation, and Lithuania had been invaded by the Red Army.

Concealed in the consul’s carefully worded missive lies a great deal of suffering and a great deal of courage, too. The message reveals neither Zwartendijk’s plan, nor the thousands of lives he was helping to save.

After all, it was vital not to attract attention. That way, Zwartendijk could keep issuing visas to desperate Jews for as long as possible. He was now their last chance of getting out of Lithuania. Their last chance to escape the war with their lives.

Less than a year later, Lithuania fell to Nazi Germany.

The vast majority of Jews did not survive the occupation.

As true diplomats, the Dutch and Japanese consuls Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara operated mainly behind the scenes. As did the men and women who worked with them to make the impossible possible. And yet, their actions and their personalities will never be erased. As Jan’s daughter Edith once proudly said of the Japanese consul’s wife, ‘She’s not someone you forget in a hurry.’

I find the courageous actions of Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara deeply moving.

They move me as a child of the war’s aftermath. Although I didn’t experience the war personally, it was always close by, living on in the stories my parents told me. My father and grandmother barely survived their imprisonment in an internment camp in Indonesia. My grandfather perished there. And my great uncle, Bram Blok, who was arrested for helping Jews, died in Neuengamme concentration camp.

The brave deeds of the two consuls also move me as a European. One who’s been able to live his whole life so far in peace and freedom. In the full knowledge that the price of that gift was paid in advance by the courage of previous generations.

And they move me as a politician, who sees only too clearly how fragile those hard-won achievements are. And who understands that courage is needed today as well. Not only from individual members of the public, but also – and especially – from politicians.

Years before the war, Jan Zwartendijk received a letter from his sister Didi. She wanted to warn him about the cold, bleak wind that was rising in Europe. When Jan confided that he would have preferred to have studied philosophy, she began peppering her letters with wise quotes. Like this one from Dutch historian Johan Huizinga:

‘Man has been replaced by the masses. Ideas have been replaced by ends. Symbols replaced by programmes. Quality by quantity. Depth by breadth.’

The story of Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara gives the lie to this quotation.

Against the backdrop of the masses following blindly as tyranny ruled, their story is one of individuals who, in their own unique way, and at great personal risk, dedicated themselves to humanity. It was an extraordinary partnership between two people, at a time when the rule of law had failed, and the world was on the edge of the abyss.

These were individuals who sought loopholes in the law only so they could save people’s lives. Zwartendijk issued entry visas for Curaçao. Sugihara issued transit visas for Japan. Enabling thousands of Jews to escape from Lithuania. Via Russia, to Japan and beyond.

They used a loophole in the system of international law, not even knowing if it would work. As Jan Zwartendijk said to himself more than once, ‘It’s surely impossible. But who knows?’

It turned out that a consul’s toolbox contained more than anyone had thought.

Zwartendijk even managed to calm the suspicions of a Russian officer by gifting him a Philishave, purely to buy some time. ‘Kakoë tsjoedo’, or ‘What a marvel!’, the officer exclaimed.

Little did he know that the real marvel was happening right under his nose.

In the end, the best tools in the box turned out to be a pen and an ink brush.

A few times, the Japanese consul telephoned Jan Zwartendijk in a panic. He couldn’t keep up with all the visas he had to sign because his calligraphy strokes flowed less swiftly than the Dutch consul’s pen.

In that microcosm – a single square kilometre of Kaunas – something very special was happening.

Two diplomats – one Japanese, one Dutch – working together as one, without ever having met, and jointly striving for justice.

It was a high-risk operation.

Zwartendijk signed as ‘Consul de Pays-Bas ad interim’, so that he could point to his inexperience if he were to be interrogated later.

Which is ironic, as he showed with his actions what a natural diplomat he was.

After all, diplomacy is partly about preventing human failure.

And that’s precisely what these two consuls did.

In a world that had given up, their courage saved countless lives.

Eighty years later, the world is not quite the same.

From the rubble of the Second World War democracies arose.

Democracies that rest on structures and treaties designed to prevent human failure.

Structures and treaties that should – in theory - be able to do what those consuls did.

Structures and treaties that should – in theory – be able to protect individual courage, too.

Sadly, in practice this isn’t always the case…

Today, we remember Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara.

Not only by expressing admiration for what they did.

But also by refusing to forget. By taking action.

By defending the structures and treaties that protect individual courage.

By expressing support for everyone who fights for democracy.

For people like Alexei Navalny, who almost paid with his life in that struggle.

For the people who have taken to the streets in Belarus, because they want free and fair elections.

For the people who have been imprisoned and tortured for raising their voices in protest.

In the words of the Belarusian writer and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich,

‘First they kidnapped our country, now they’re kidnapping the best of us.’

She’s the only member of the presidium of the Coordination Council who is still free in Belarus at this time.

Svetlana is now being flanked by a cordon of diplomats, to prevent her from being rounded up too. One of them is the Dutch chargé d’affaires in Minsk.

A creative choice from the diplomat’s toolbox.

We too must gather as a cordon to protect our post-war achievements. Our flourishing democracies. Our freedom.

In 1969, Willy Brandt said, ‘Dare more democracy’.

Today I would like to say: dare to be more like Zwartendijk and Sugihara.

Thank you.

Inspiratie voor de speech (en de gebruikte citaten): Jan Brokken, De rechtvaardigen. Hoe een Nederlandse consul duizenden Joden redde, Atlas Contact.