The Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania, who disobeyed his government’s orders in 1940 and issued transit visas through Japan to thousands of Jews seeking to flee war-torn Europe – wasn’t widely known until 1985, when Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, honored him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
But I grew up hearing Sugihara’s story because he saved my father’s life. My father, the attorney Nathan Lewin, is a Sugihara survivor. I also have a family connection to something few others have known until very recently – the answer to a long-unsolved mystery surrounding Sugihara’s rescue of an estimated 6,000 Jews.
Why did the Dutch consul in Kovno, Jan Zwartendijk, begin issuing the “Curaçao visas” – the Dutch endorsements that appeared to permit travel to Curacao, Holland’s island territory of South America upon which Sugihara relied when issuing visas? Why did Zwartendijk begin writing in Jewish passports that a visa was not needed to travel to Curaçao? Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
The answer: my late grandmother. Peppy Sternheim Lewin, the recipient of the first Curacao visa, is the “missing link” in the story.
My grandmother was a Dutch citizen Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
raised and educated in Amsterdam. After she married my grandfather, Dr. Isaac Lewin, she moved to his home country, Poland. When the Nazi army invaded Poland in September 1939, my grandmother’s parents and her brother visited her in Lodz, my father’s birthplace. My great-grandfather promptly flew back to Amsterdam to take care of his business. He later perished at Auschwitz.
Her mother, Rachel Sternheim, and her brother, Leo Sternheim, were smuggled with my grandparents and my father, who was then three years old, over the border into Lithuania.
My grandmother sought help from Dutch diplomats in Lithuania because her mother and brother were Dutch citizens and because she had been a Dutch citizen before marrying my grandfather. She initially asked Zwartendijk, who was in Kovno, if he could issue her a visa to the Dutch East Indies, which included Java and Sumatra. He refused. So she wrote to the Dutch ambassador in Riga, L.P.J. de Decker. He also turned down her request for a visa to Java or Sumatra. Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
Refusing to be discouraged, my grandmother, who was then in Vilna – a short trip from Kovno – wrote to de Decker again and asked him whether there was any way he could help her family because it included Dutch citizens. The ambassador replied that the Dutch West Indies, including Curacao and Suriname, were available destinations where no visa was needed. The governor of Curacao could authorize entry to anyone arriving there.
My grandmother again wrote to de Decker asking whether he could note the Curacao or Suriname exception in her still-valid Polish passport. She asked the envoy to omit the additional note that permission from the governor of Curacao was required. After all, she pointed out; she did not plan to go to Curacao or Suriname.
“Send me your passport,” Decker replied. So she did. Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
On July 11, 1940, de Decker wrote in her passport in French, “The Consulate of the Netherlands, Riga, at this moment declares that for the admission into Suriname, Curacao, and other possessions of the Netherlands in the Americas, no entry visa is required.”
My grandmother then showed Zwartendijk what the Dutch ambassador had written in her passport and asked him to copy it onto my grandparents’ Leidimas – the temporary travel document the Latvian government had issued them after the existence of Poland was officially nullified by the Nazi invasion. On July 22, 1940, Zwartendijk agreed and wrote de Decker’s notation on my grandparents’ travel papers. That is how my grandparents and father received our first Curacao visa.
Relying on Zwartendijk’s notation, Sugihara agreed to give my grandparents (and my grandmother’s mother and brother, who were still Dutch citizens) transit visas through Japan on their purported trip to Curacao. Sugihara issued their visas on July 26, 1940. The Japanese consul kept a list of the individuals he issued visas. My great-grandmother, Rachel Sternheim, is No. 16 on the list; my grandfather, whose Leidimas included my grandmother and my father, is No. 17, and my great-uncle, Levi (Leo) Sternheim, received Sugihara’s 18th visa. Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
The endorsement of Chiune Sugihara appears on the travel document that allowed Isaac Lewin
and his family to escape Lithuania in 1940. Nathan Lewin is a 4-year-old boy in the arms of his mother.
Credit: Courtesy of Alyza D. Lewin
The number of visas Sugihara issued jumped exponentially on July 29, 1940, when hundreds of Jews who had escaped to Vilna learned of my grandmother’s successful effort. They crowded outside the Japanese consulate in Kovno (Kaunas in Lithuanian), hoping Sugihara would issue them a visa. Sugihara worked around the clock for a month, issuing 2,139 visas, including to whole families. These enabled the refugees to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok and then travel by boat from Russia to Japan, supposedly en route to Curacao.
The story of Sugihara
and his rescue is told in a feature film, “Persona Non-Grata,” which premiers in October and is now making the rounds at Jewish film festivals across the country. It screened recently at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and was shown again in Washington, D.C., last month as part of CineMatsuri, the Japanese Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. Although my grandmother’s role is one of the mysteries in the film, my father was asked to share his mother’s tale after a CineMatsuri screening.
There are perhaps 100,000 descendants of Sugihara survivors alive today. It is humbling to think that my grandmother’s initiative and perseverance opened this travel route to safety for many. Grandmother Helped Sugihara Jews
Originally posted on The Times Of Israel, 2016 (The story of Rachel Sternheim may answer a long-unsolved mystery surrounding the rescue of 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the Nazis)
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...