Lithuanian Diplomats in the Arena of Humane Action and Aggression

V. Čečeta began working at the Lithuanian General Consulate in Vilnius on September 17, 1939. Photo: Archiwum akt nowych w Warszawe

Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk are foreign diplomats who rescued Jews and they have been commemorated in Kaunas and the world, but they were only able to do what they did between 1939 and 1940 because of efforts by Lithuanian state officials.

Have we forgotten our own role?

When a monument costing 150,000 euros is erected next year in Kaunas to the so far little-known honorable Dutch consul in interwar Lithuania Jan Zwartendijk, the world will learn about another foreign diplomat who rescued Jews.

As current Dutch ambassador to Lithuania Bert van der Lingen told BNS, The role world-famous rescuer of Jews Chiune Sugihara was only made possible because Zwartendijk made an entry in the passports the travellers were travelling to a Dutch overseas territory. This entry, the Dutch ambassador says, was the basis for Sugihara to issue visas to Jews to transit Japan. But have we thought about our own diplomats in this context?

That there is little interest and even avoidance of this topic was demonstrated by the difficult search for historians and Foreign Ministry representatives able to say anything about the topic of the activities of the Lithuanian General Consulate in Vilnius in 1939.

Refugees Not Just Poles

It turns out very few people know Lithuania may be called the first state which, at the beginning of World War II in September, 1939, opened the border for our neighbor overtaken by war through our country’s consulate in Vilnius, which was Polish territory.

Poles, Jews and people of other ethnicities flocked to our consulate in Vilnius from Poland. Refugees of a higher social status–officials, bureaucrats, soldiers, diplomats–sought to come to Vilnius in order to travel elsewhere, and received the necessary visas in Lithuania.

The problem for Lithuania were those who crossed the border and sought to stay; they had to be housed somewhere and cared for. So it’s understandable Lithuania strove for the least number of refugees to stay here and for as many as possible to leave.

Insured Departure from Lithuania

Historian Dr. Algimantas Kasparavičius says that under international legal practice then in force, refugees were only able to leave Lithuania after receiving agreement from another country to take them in and if they had a visa, or, if needed, a transit visa.

The basic foundation of the actions by Sugihara and Zwartendijk was that they organized and insured the process of departure from Lithuania. For instance, a refugee who had come to Lithuania would make a request to the Dutch honorary consulate in Kaunas asking for permission to travel to some Dutch overseas territory. But to get there, he had to go through Japan. The individual could legally leave Lithuania after receiving the Dutch consul’s permission to travel to a Dutch overseas territory, for example, in the Caribbean of Dutch Antilles, and a transit visa issued by Japanese general consul to travel through Japan to that territory. The great majority of people who did this weren’t fleeing the Holocaust, only the war.

The Role of the President

Dr. Algimantas Kasparavičius says: “We can speak confidently of the exceptionally humane position of the Lithuanian Government, and foremost that of president Antanas Smetona, after Germany attacked Poland. After all, it was our president’s decision whether to open the border to war refugees or not. Incidentally, diplomats would have unable to issue any visas without that decision by Smetona.”

He says Japanese and Dutch diplomats weren’t required at that time to check with their governments on their actions because their activities fell under the category of normal diplomatic activities.

Full story in Lithuanian here.