How diplomacy helped save lives during the Holocaust

“It was quite unusual to send a diplomat to a country and to tell him that he could do anything to save lives.”

April 10, 2018 14:39
2 minute read.
How diplomacy helped save lives during the Holocaust

Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel explains how foregin diplomats from Japan and the Netherlands helped to save Jewish lives during the holocaust. (photo credit: SHAY ZAVDI)


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The American Jewish Committee brought together ambassadors from Lithuania, Belgium and Sweden to Jerusalem, where on Monday night they explained how their countries’ diplomatic teams helped save thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

The Jerusalem Report Editor-In-Chief Steve Linde moderated their panel discussion at the fourth annual AJC event ahead of Holocaust Remembrance day on Thursday.

Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Edminas Bagdonas opened the discussion by holding up a map of Lithuania and explaining that during the Holocaust, “85% of Lithuania’s Jews were killed in brutal ways.”

In contrast to the lives lost, Bagdonas recounted how in 1939, Japanese ambassador Chiune Sugihara and Dutch ambassador Jan Zwartendijk, both of whom were based in Lithuania, saved at least 2,000 Jewish lives by simply issuing visas and travel documents to their countries.

“By getting a visa to Japan, Lithuanian Jews were able to travel to Moscow by train,” he explained.

“From there, Vladivostok, [from] where it was a relatively short trip to Japan, [and] from Japan, South America or the United States.”

“In two weeks [after the Nazis occupied Belgium],” said Belgian Ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle, “the world fell apart.”

While Belle lamented that his country did not do enough to save its Jews, he did offer one story of how British ambassadors issued visas that permitted travel not only to the United Kingdom but also to Switzerland.

In 2000, then-prime minister Guy Verhofstadt took responsibility for Belgium’s role in the Holocaust. “There were mistakes made,” Belle said.

“And it made us confront the Holocaust and not to hide, and to share this association with the international community” Magnus Hellgren of Sweden reminded the audience of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s work in Nazi-occupied Hungary that saved tens of thousands of Jews.

“It was quite unusual to send a diplomat to a country and tell him he could do anything to save lives,” he said.

“He was not abiding by the rulebook of diplomacy. Wallenberg had a lot of money.

And a lot of it came from the Joint Distribution Committee, and he had free reign to do what he needed to do to save lives.”

In order not to overshadow others who helped, Hegren noted, “There are about 30,000 Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem, 60 of these are diplomats and six of them are from Sweden.”

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