Resistance hero Jan Zwartendijk will today, posthumously, receive the Medal of Honor for Humanitarian Assistance in gold. This is the oldest and most important bravery award outside combat and was last awarded in 1964. Outgoing Prime Minister Rutte will present the Medal of Honor to Zwartendijk’s children this afternoon.
Diplomat Zwartendijk (1896-1976) saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jews in Lithuania at the beginning of the Second World War by providing them with a Dutch visa. Zwartendijk was then director of Philips in Lithuania and deputy consul.
In the summer of 1940 he issued 2,345 visas in ten days. Sometimes an entire family could travel on one visa. This allowed the Polish refugees to reach Japan via the Soviet Union. Zwartendijk worked with the Japanese consul Sugihara.
“When we returned to the Netherlands in 1940, my father, out of fear of persecution, kept silent about his action until after the liberation, after which he rarely spoke about it,” says son Rob Zwartendijk (83). Together with his sister Edith (96), he will receive the Medal of Honor this afternoon. “My father always thought he had done his duty and I didn’t feel much about it either. After his death, that changed.”
Rob says he is proud of his father:
According to Rob Zwartendijk, his father always wanted to know how many people he had saved. “He didn’t hear anything and was afraid that his action had failed. He was afraid that Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union had still died and that he had therefore hunted them to their deaths.”
In 1976, on the day that Jan Zwartendijk was buried, the letter from the Holocaust Research Center arrived in Jerusalem with the redeeming word. He appeared to have saved thousands of lives, including that of Polish Marcel Weijland (96). He and his family received a visa from Zwartendijk and ended up in Australia via Japan. He owes his life to Zwartendijk: “We were very lucky. Anyone who was less lucky did not survive.”
From reprimand to recognition
Rob Zwartendijk’s older brother, his father’s namesake Jan, conducted research into his father’s acts of resistance. With success, in 1997 Zwartendijk received recognition from the Israeli memorial institute Yad Vashem. In 2018, a monument was unveiled in Lithuania in the presence of King Willem-Alexander and the book The Righteous by Jan Brokken was published.
There was no high distinction yet, but he was appointed Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau in 1956. After the war, Zwartendijk was even reprimanded during an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for incorrectly issuing visas. “My father came home furious from that conversation,” Rob Zwartendijk remembers.
In 2018, the ministry apologized to the family for this, even though it could not find anything in the archives: “If this reprimand took place, it was highly inappropriate.”
At the initiative of D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, the entire House of Representatives asked Prime Minister Rutte and King Willem-Alexander for the highest award. The Medal of Honor was created in 1822 as a supplement to the Military William Order, which is only awarded for war situations. The gold variant was last awarded in 1964 to a fighter pilot who prevented his burning Starfighter from crashing in Enschede or Hengelo.
Rob and Edith Zwartendijk are grateful: “We are very happy with the recognition from politics, this has put everything right for us. We can close it all. For my father, such a ceremony with fuss was not necessary, but with this gesture he was been very happy.”
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