Current Search : The Russian link in the Curaçao Visas affair
After the occupation of Poland in September 1939 by the Germans and the Soviets, some 15,000 Jews managed to flee from Poland to then neutral Lithuania. When the Soviets then occupied Lithuania in June 1940, these refugees were trapped. The most desired destinations, Palestine and the U.S, were now practically inaccessible. To get out of Europe, they would need first a destination (immigration) visa to some place - almost any place -, then a transit visa for any country through which they needed to travel to reach that destination, and finally a permit from the Soviets to leave the "Soviet paradise". But where could they hope to go?
As practically all foreign consulates had already been closed, the refugees' chances were slim indeed. They became even slimmer when it became known, in July 1940, that the USSR was about to annex Lithuania, making it part of the USSR (it happened on August 3)
In late July, a scheme started to take shape that eventually saved some 2,200 lives. Somehow the idea was born of using Curaçao as a destination. Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, was then a colony of the Netherlands. Holland itself had already been overrun by the Nazis, but its colonies remained free.
Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch Consul in Kaunas (Kovno), the Lithuanian capital at the time, provided a notation to the Jewish refugees that declared that entry into Curaçao required no visa (this was meant to be a ruse: only Curaçao's governor was authorized to admit aliens). This notation became known as a "Curaçao visa", because it appeared to legitimise Curaçao as a destination.
The only potential way to reach Curaçao from Lithuania at that time was by train across Siberia to Vladivostok, then by ship to Japan, and on from there across the Pacific. Therefore, a transit visa was required from Japan, allowing travel through that country and a limited time to stay there to arrange passage to Curaçao.
Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Kaunas, was cooperative and issued Japanese transit visas to all holders of Curaçao visas, even though he no doubt soon found out that these were not legitimate.
With both of these documents in hand, the refugees now needed one more vital document: a Soviet travel and exit permit to travel to Vladivostok and leave the USSR. Lithuanian citizens, who became Soviet citizens as of the annexation, in principle had no chance to get permission to leave: for a Soviet citizen to wish to leave was considered treasonous by the Soviet state. The Polish refugees, however, were still Polish citizens, and as such they were in a better position. No one knew how the Soviets, always unpredictable, would react to a request to leave. All the refugees feared that on their way through Siberia they might be pulled off the train. But it was their only chance. Not all took the risk of applying to the Soviets, but many did.
The Soviets, i.e. the NKVD (Stalin's secret police, later renamed KGB), for unknown reasons actually allowed the Jewish refugees, almost all Polish, to proceed to Vladivostok and to leave for Japan. As a result, about 2,200 Jews made it safely to Japan. None reached Curaçao, but that had not really been their intention. They survived, while those who remained behind in Lithuania were systematically killed after the June 1941 German invasion.
The Dutch and Japanese sides of this triangle have been widely researched and written about.
About the Soviet side in the Curaçao Visas affair we remain totally in the dark, and it is this link we would like to illuminate.
Soviet experts believe that it has to have been a top-level Soviet decision, dictated from Stalin on down, that permitted the escaping Polish Jews to travel across the USSR to Vladivostok in order to get to Japan. But were there perhaps also "Soviet angels" at lower levels to help this along? While the Curaçao visas and the Japanese transit visas were issued in the last week of July and into August 1940, the Soviets issued their exit permits much slower, over several months, and actual travel of these refugees to Japan spread out into the spring of 1941.
The departure from the USSR of such a sizable body of people in a relatively short period of time would indeed suggest a high-level political decision - not likely motivated by humanitarian considerations. These people had not fled into the Soviet Union but into neutral Lithuania, and the Soviets' invasion into the Baltics had surprised and trapped them there. One may assume that the Soviets found it politically expedient to be rid of them for a ny number of reasons. But so far, we only have assumptions, nothing more.
What we're trying to find out about is the source of the decision to allow a couple of thousand refugees, citizens of other countries, mostly Poland, to move along toward Japan with their visas for Curaçao or other places.
So far we have found no one who has researched the NKVD files on this subject.
The most likely individuals who would have shaped this policy in 1940 were:
a. Stalin himself
We are most anxious to learn of any records already known about from any Russian archives - and how one can gain access to whichever archive these records came from.
Would you be able to give us some guidance on this?
Would you be able to help us reach the NKVD and Russian Foreign Ministry archives?
Would you know, or know of, a Russian-speaking historian who could research such papers -- possibly a suitable PhD student ? We seriously believe that there is a Doctoral Thesis in this research.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has just finished an online version of the "Flight and Rescue" exhibition in 2001. It is excerpted from that exhibition and the book. The link: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/flight_rescue/