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The Righteous

The Righteous

The Righteous by Jan Brokken, translation: David McKay
(Scribe, 2021)

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Dutch consul in Lithuania found a way to save the lives of thousands of Jewish people who had fled Poland, by giving them visas for the Dutch island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. Visas in hand, the refugees were able to take the Trans-Siberian railway to Japan and then disperse to all four corners of the globe. The vast majority of them survived the war.

Jan Brokken has wrested from oblivion the heroic story of Rotterdammer Jan Zwartendijk (1896 – 1976), a director of Philips who suddenly found himself honorary consul in Kaunas. At the time this was the capital of Lithuania and it was on the point of being annexed by the Soviets. A cross between fellow businessman Oskar Schindler and the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Zwartendijk seized a precious window of just ten days to feverishly write out thousands of visas and thereby rescue as many Jews as he could from the Holocaust. Together with the Dutch Ambassador in Riga and the consul for Japan, an unlikely ally, he enabled these refugees to cross Soviet Russia to Vladivostok, to Japan, and then on to freedom.

Part rescue story, part moving portrait of a close-knit family under very difficult circumstances, The Righteous. How a Dutch consul saved thousands of Jews offers a vivid picture of Eastern Europe during the war and traces the life-stories of the rescued Jews, many of whom Brokken was able to find and speak with. In 1997, Zwartendijk was posthumously bestowed the Yad Vashem honorary title ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for his large-scale rescue mission. A monument was unveiled in Kaunas in the summer of 2018.

Jan Brokken has an impressive oeuvre to his name of well-documented, narrative non-fiction books, which read as novels. In all his works, he examines what makes some people behave in a cowardly fashion, while others demonstrate unexpected courage and determination.

In The Righteous, Brokken’s personal fascination for making the right choice at the right time is evident. He writes, ‘In a fraction of a second you have to decide. How do you react? I wouldn’t know, myself, and maybe that’s what made me burrow into this history like a mole.’ Once again, his book provides a lesson in courage.