#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE JUST: HOW SIX UNLIKELY HEROES SAVED THOUSANDS OF JEWS FROM THE HOLOCAUST by Jan Brokken

The Just is the story of Jan Zwartendijk – and five others – who jointly and severally worked to give many thousands of Jews safe passage out of Lithuania, Poland and even Austria and Germany over just a few weeks in 1940-41. Steven Spielberg is quoted on the book’s dust jacket as saying, ‘if I’d known Jan Zwartendijk’s story before, I would have filmed that’, implying the tale would have taken precedence over Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler saved the lives of around 1,000 Jews; this book shows that ‘the six’ saved many, many more – 10,000 is suggested, but that is probably an underestimate, as the diplomats involved destroyed much of the documentation when they pulled out of Lithuania. Certainly, they saved a lot more than Schindler. But until now, their story has remained forgotten (or deliberately covered up) and untold.

Jan Zwartendijk was known as ‘Mr Radio Philips’: he was the branch director of Philips, the Dutch electronics company in Kaunas, Lithuania. Out of the blue (for complex diplomatic reasons) and somewhat reluctantly, he was appointed Dutch consul there, a job for which he thought himself quite unsuited. As both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia divided up Poland and cast greedy eyes on the Baltic States, thousands of Polish Jews fled across the border to Kaunas. One of them was an old friend of Zwartendijk’s and convinced him to use his position as consul to issue visas for the Dutch colony of Curaçao, which, in diplomatic terms, were worth no more than the paper they were stamped on. They merely stated, in French, that no visa was required for the passport holder to travel to the Dutch West Indies. But they worked, because Zwartendijk developed an informal alliance with the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, thus allowing whole families to travel on one passport across the Soviet Union to Japan – and from there on to Shanghai, at that time under Japanese occupation. Alongside Zwartendijk and Sugihara, the other four of ‘the six’ are three more Dutch consuls – in Sweden, Kobe and Shanghai – and a Chinese diplomat in Vienna. But, in essence, this is the story of Jan Zwartendijk: a man who defied his own government and worked under the radar to issue visas to people the Netherlands would never have allowed to immigrate. His reasons were many but he had a code: ‘…make sure you’ll never have to feel ashamed of using your family name.’

These events have gone unreported for so long because both Zwartendijk and Sugihara feared reprisals from their own governments for acting without explicit consent – and reprisals did come. Zwartendijk was, initially, congratulated for his work; then the foreign ministry did a volte-face and he was told he had acted illegally and would not receive any decoration for his war service. The whole affair was swept under the carpet. It’s a tribute to Jan Brokken’s persistence and commitment as a journalist that he has unearthed this great human odyssey of the Second World War, which weaves from Kaunas via Moscow, Vladivostok, Tsuruga and Kobe to Shanghai, where most of the refugees spent months, even years, awaiting their onward journey. Few if any of those Jews made it to Curaçao, but almost all of them survived to make their homes in countries as diverse as Australia, South Africa and the USA (the UK is notable for its absence from the list). 

The story is told through the memories of relatives of the diplomats (who are all long dead now), Jewish survivors and their descendants, information from several government archives – including former Soviet ones – and contemporary press reports. There are so many interwoven strands, so much detail painstakingly teased out, so many personal histories of the protagonists and their associates, that at times the text is bewildering, even confusing in places, in spite of the first-class translation by David McKay. A little more editorial input and a cast list would have made frantic back-and-forth referencing less necessary. But this is a minor criticism of a book that lifts the lid on the generosity and courage of hitherto unknown men who risked everything, including their jobs, to get Jews out of the clutches of the Nazis. It’s a compulsive read and a moving one, which also throws a chilling light on the unwillingness of many Allied governments to acknowledge the reality of the Holocaust – even as it was taking place.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE JUST: HOW SIX UNLIKELY HEROES SAVED THOUSANDS OF JEWS FROM THE HOLOCAUST

by Jan Brokken

Translated by David McKay

Published by Scribe (2021)

December 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer. Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT: THE STRANGE AND EPIC STORY OF MODERN ROMANIA by Paul Kenyon Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of BETTY by Georges Simenon Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE DAWN OF LANGUAGE: HOW WE CAME TO TALK by Sverker Johansson Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE PASSENGER by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE BASEL KILLINGS by Hansjörg Schneider Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE MEASURE OF TIME by Gianrico Carofiglio Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE DITCH by Herman Koch Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of GAME OF THE GODS by Paolo Maurensig Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of two versions of WOMEN by Mihail Sebastian Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE READERS’ ROOM by Antoine Laurain Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of SUMMER OF RECKONING by Marion Brunet Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of ANALYSIS OF JAZZ: A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH by Laurent Cugny Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of ALONE IN BERLIN and NIGGHTMARE IN BERLIN by Hans Fallada Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of MAYBE WE’RE LEAVING by Jan Balabán Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of TRAP by Lilja Sigurðardóttir Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of VINTAGE 1954 by Antoine Laurain Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of DEVILSPEL by Grigory Kanovich Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE SECOND RIDER by Alex Beer Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of EVIL THINGS by Katja Ivar Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE COLD SUMMER by Gianrico Carofiglio Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of DAMNATION by Peter Beck Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of INHUMAN RESOURCES by Pierre Lemaitre Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of BABY BLUE by Pol Koutsakis Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of MACBETH by Jo Nesbø Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of SHTETL LOVE SONG by Grigory Kanovich Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of WHITEOUT by Ragnar Jónasson Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of SNARE by Lilja Sigurðardóttir Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of CURSED by Thomas Enger Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE WINTER QUEEN by Boris Akunin Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE REVOLUTION OF THE MOON by Andrea Camilleri Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of FAITHLESS by Kjell Ola Dahl Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of CRIMES OF WINTER – VARIATIONS ON ADULTERY AND VENIAL SINS by Phillippe Georget Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of ATHENIAN BLUES by Pol Koutsakis Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of EXPOSURE by Aga Lesiewicz Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES by Sascha Arango Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS by Mario Giordano Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of RAGE by Zygmunt Miłoszewski Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of WALPURG TIDE by Jógvan Isaksen Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of A FINE LINE by Gianrico Carofiglio Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of DIVORCE TURKISH STYLE by Esmahan Aykol Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto Read Max Easterman’s #RivetingReview of THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB by David Lagercrantz

Category: ReviewsDecember 2021

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