published in Lithuanian Papers
Annual Journal of the Lithuanian Studies Society at the University of
unacknowledged role of the Lithuanian government in
and assisting Poland's Jewish and other war refugees,
October 1939 to June 1940.
permission from Ginutis Procuta.
last, during the last decade, more books are beginning to appear about
rescue and assistance given to the European Jews during the Nazi
However, with the exception of rare mentions restricted to one or two
paragraphs, there is a lack of a more substantial acknowledgment or
of the pivotal role played by the government of independent Lithuania
October 1939 to June 1940.
thousands of desperate and traumatized Polish and Jewish war refugees
into the Lithuanian territory after the sudden defeat of Poland in
1939 - a human tragedy that had resulted from the secret protocol
signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939 by Ribbentrop and Molotov, the
foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Lithuanian Government provided food, shelter and medical assistance to
these refugees. In addition, the Lithuanian authorities issued them
internationally valid travel documents: an essential prerequisite in
homeless refugees subsequently. Since acknowledgments of Lithuania's
toward Jewish and Polish refugees are exceptionally rare, it is
quote Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:
old, liberal element of the Lithuanian government was friendly and
understanding. Contrary to Western countries, they did not intern the
although they themselves were in a most precarious situation vis-a-vis
Soviet threat. Sooner or later, Lithuania would be swallowed by Germany
or the USSR.
There was no practical way out for Lithuanian citizens. The Polish Jewish refugees as aliens had a better chance of
the country for a haven abroad."1
number of refugees will never be known. As various
sources indicate, a considerable number of refugees, fearing they would
returned to Poland, did not register with the Lithuanian authorities.
there was a period of twenty years of mutual hostility between
Poles over the possession of Vilnius and its region, both at societal
governmental levels. This may also have deterred some of the Polish
there are widely varying reports of the numbers of refugees,
both the lowest and the highest figures will be given here. The lowest
was 50,000. The highest was "not less than 200,000." This was
reported by the British envoy to Lithuania Thomas Preston who, after
collapse of Poland, took over the interests of the Polish legation in
Preston's figure is probably closer to the truth. Beside the two
positions he held at that time, he was also closely involved with the
Lithuanian Red Cross and mandated by the government to co-ordinate
international relief work among the refugees.
eight months of independence remained, before Lithuania,
like Poland, forcibly disappeared from the map of Europe, Lithuania's
government contributed 66,000,000 Litas to help Polish refugees. The
agreed to add 50 cents to every dollar received by the Lithuanian Red
from international welfare bodies (such as the International Red Cross,
as Christian and Jewish relief organizations) for the upkeep of the war refugees.
most senior executives responsible for the welfare and
security of the refugees were Dr. Jurgis Alekna, the Head of the
Cross, and Colonel Brunonas Stencelis, the Secretary-General of the
COMRADES AT ARMS: At
the start of World War II, German and Russian troops jointly conquered Poland, and divided that country between them. Thousands of people fled from Poland to Lithuania, to escape both German as well
as Russian atrocities. This picture was
taken in 1939, at the combined
and Russian celebrations
joint victory in Poland. The
left is Russian, the other two are
numbers and the different kinds of refugees in Lithuania resulted
Hitler's policies of Lebensraum (space to expand) and Vernichtungskrieg
(war of annihilation). By destruction and expulsion, these policies
envisioned denuding Poland and part of the Baltic States of 30 million
local population. Another goal was the complete destruction of the
intelligentsia and aristocracy. Poland was to disappear in its
political and ethnic sense and to be completely Germanized. This fitted
Stalin's plans to absorb the parts of Poland inhabited by Byelorussians
Ukrainians into the USSR. Hence, the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23,
its secret protocols of dividing Poland and the Baltic States.
before the attack on Poland, Hitler told the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen
(special killing troops) that "whatever we can find in the shape of
upper class in Poland is to be liquidated." Less than a month later, on
September 27, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Gestapo, stated that
the Polish upper classes in the occupied territories, only a maximum of
cent is still present."3
mass murder of the Jewish population of Poland came considerably later.
most of the refugees from the former Poland consisted of the two
and ethnic groups who were threatened the most by Nazi extermination.
there were also among them, about 10,000 ethnic Lithuanians,
other nationalities, as well as thousands of "ordinary" Poles. All of
them, irrespective of social class, economic standing, education,
religion or politics, shared one thing in common. The country they
was destroyed by the design of two totalitarian superpowers — they were
stateless. Their personal identity documents and passports were not
worthless, they had become a dangerous political liability, identifying
If caught by the Nazis or by the Soviets, their identity could lead to
destruction, deportation or imprisonment.
And as the numbers of refugees rose and the international situation
deteriorated, this is precisely where the Lithuanian government made
its as yet unrecognized contribution to the Ministry of the Interior in
Kaunas, Vilnius and other districts; the government made a safe-conduct
document available to all refugees at a very low administrative cost of
2 Litas (the equivalent of 50 cents U.S.). This was a bilingual
(Lithuanian-French) document called Leidimas/Permission.
It was described as a document replacing a passport and was valid for
Lithuanian document, the refugees gained greater psychological security
regained some of their international rights. A lucky 20,000 of them,
about 10,000 Jews, managed to get visas and left Lithuania before it
absorbed into the USSR in June 1940. A year later, Lithuania was
occupied by Hitler's Germany.
Poland's Jews who fled to Lithuania, many of their political
and religious leaders obtained these documents in Vilnius, notably
Begin who later went on to become Israel's prime minister. So did the
poet Czeslaw Milosz who in 1980 was to become the Nobel laureate for
literature. A high functionary of the Centrist Zionists in Warsaw,
Kleinbaum, attested to the international validity and worthiness of
document. "I obtained a Lithuanian sauf-conduit which allowed
embark upon my journey via Riga, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam,
Paris to Geneva, and from there via Trieste to Palestine."
clear evidence that the concern for the welfare of the
refugees did not end with the issuing of the sauf-conduit documents.
The Lithuanian authorities were interested in facilitating their search
more permanent home for the refugees, in a most secure manner. Mindful
Nazi-Soviet collaboration had destroyed and occupied Poland, they tried
minimize the potential of either German or Soviet authorities of laying
to the persons carrying Lithuanian sauf-conduit papers.
appear to have been instructions from the very top of the
Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior as to how the document was to be
especially the lines about citizenship/nationality and the place of
Almost all the war refugees who received this document were born in
this fact was not revealed. For example, in the actual sauf-conduit
Izaak Levin (Series A. No. 07308) the line for nationality says
The line for the place of birth says Vielicka, but Poland is left out.
line for profession is filled in very cautiously. He was most probably
journalist. But in times of war, some regimes were suspicious of the
journalists crossing borders, so Mr. Levin's profession was given in a
neutral manner as "homme de lettres."
information has been taken from a facsimile photograph of Mr.
Levin's sauf-conduit issued by the Lithuanian government in
shows the Lithuanian state insignia and bears the seal and signature of
Vilnius City and District chief administrative officer. Clearly marked
top in capital letters is LIETUVOS RESPUBLIKA/REPUBLIQUE DE LITUANIE.
published in the New York Times on its op-ed page on Tuesday,
20, 1994. Yet the caption beside the reproduced [sauf-conduit] document reads
"The safe-conduct passes for Isaac, Peppy and Nathan Lewin, issued
the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940."
would the New York Times do that?
Procuta, B.A. (University of Auckland, N.Z.), M.A. (Chicago) has taught at the State
University of Chicago and at the
University of Ottawa; has lectured in Germany and Lithuania; and has published widely.
NOTE [from Lithuanian Papers]:
After Germany and the Soviet Union jointly
conquered Poland in 1939, thousands of Polish and Jewish asylum seekers
refuge in Lithuania. Many wanted to keep moving on to more distant
destinations, but they had no acceptable travel documents. Poland had
exist as a sovereign state and Polish passports were no longer valid.
Government of free Lithuania played a crucial part in solving
this problem. Lithuanian authorities issued the internationally valid sauf-conduit
documents to all who needed them. The refugees could then apply to
consulates for visas. Japanese consul Ch. Sugihara and the Dutch
consul J. Zwartendijk were particularly helpful.
important historical background is re-iterated here, because
several writers have since claimed that Japanese consul Sugihara, and
one or two others, had single-handedly saved thousands of
shown in the above factual report, such claims are misleading. Before
for any visas, the refugees had to obtain a replacement personal
Lithuanian safe-conduct pass (as described, and pictured,
the Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior. Only then could the consuls
and proceed with their contribution, by attaching their countries'
this essential Lithuanian certificate.
the refugees' papers were complete and in order, the
Soviet authorities did not allow them at first to travel across the
territory, from Vilnius to Vladivostok. Once again, the Lithuanian
came to the refugees' aid and negotiated an easement of this Soviet restriction.
Yehuda (1982). A
history of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, p.283.
PRESTON, Thomas (1950). Before the curtain. London: John
Heinz (2000). The order of the
Death's Head: The story of Hitler's SS. London: Penguin Books,