‘Dutch Schindler’ receives Netherlands award 47 years after his death

Diplomat Jan Zwartendijk saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews from Nazi concentration camps

A former Dutch diplomat who breached consular protocol to save thousands of Lithuanian Jews from Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps has been awarded the Netherlands’ highest non-military award 47 years after his death.

At a quiet ceremony, the Medal of Honour for Humanitarian Aid was presented by caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte to Jan Zwartendijk’s children, Edith (96) and Rob (83), who said their father had always regarded his secret work as “no more than his duty”.

“He would not have been remotely interested in pomp and ceremony,” Rob said afterwards. “But he would have been extremely happy with this gesture. Wrongs have finally been righted.”

Known as “the Dutch Schindler”, Zwartendijk, who died in 1976 aged 80, was head of Dutch manufacturer Philips in Lithuania, and as acting consul in the country led a double life comparable with German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who protected Jews by employing them in his Polish factories.


While still in post, he received an official reprimand from the Netherlands’ right-leaning foreign minister, Joseph Luns, for breaking consular rules by issuing suspiciously large numbers of visas for Suriname, Curacao and Netherlands Antilles, Dutch territories not occupied by the Germans.

In the summer of 1940 alone – when Lithuania’s Jews were being shipped to concentration camps in which 90 per cent of them would die, according to records – he issued 2,345 visas in 10 days, some of which allowed entire families to travel to safety.

“Zwartendijk writes visas from dawn ‘til dusk until his hands are cramped,” said one contemporaneous account written by a friend and colleague.

“He doesn’t allow himself more than a sip of cold coffee and forgets it’s his birthday so caught up is he in his mission to save lives.”

Although Zwartendijk has been honoured over the years by Israel and Lithuania, his extraordinary heroism had not been formally acknowledged by his own country.

Lithuania unveiled a memorial in his honour in the capital, Vilnius, in 2018.

“Nobody would have blamed my father if he’d shut his door and helped nobody,” said Rob. “Instead he thought to himself, ‘Wait, I can help these people’.”

Zwartendijk had no way of knowing how many of those he helped reached safety. He always suspected the worst.

On the day of his funeral, however, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre said its research showed that 95 per cent of those he issued visas to had survived.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court