Originally published in Lithuanian Papers
Annual Journal of the Lithuanian Studies Society at the University of Tasmania


The Silent Helpers


Toronto (Canada)

The unacknowledged role of the Lithuanian government in sheltering 
and assisting  Poland's Jewish and other war refugees,
October 1939 to June 1940.

Reprinted by permission from Ginutis Procuta.

At last, during the last decade, more books are beginning to appear about the rescue and assistance given to the European Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. However, with the exception of rare mentions restricted to one or two paragraphs, there is a lack of a more substantial acknowledgment or description of the pivotal role played by the government of independent Lithuania from October 1939 to June 1940.

Tens of thousands of desperate and traumatized Polish and Jewish war refugees poured into the Lithuanian territory after the sudden defeat of Poland in September of 1939 - a human tragedy that had resulted from the secret protocol agreement signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939 by Ribbentrop and Molotov, the respective foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

The Lithuanian Government provided food, shelter and medical assistance to all these refugees. In addition, the Lithuanian authorities issued them with internationally valid travel documents: an essential prerequisite in saving the homeless refugees subsequently. Since acknowledgments of Lithuania's help toward Jewish and Polish refugees are exceptionally rare, it is worthwhile to quote Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

"The old, liberal element of the Lithuanian government was friendly and understanding. Contrary to Western countries, they did not intern the refugees, although they themselves were in a most precarious situation vis-a-vis the 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 leaving the country for a haven abroad."1

The exact number of refugees will never be known. As various sources indicate, a considerable number of refugees, fearing they would be returned to Poland, did not register with the Lithuanian authorities. As well, there was a period of twenty years of mutual hostility between Lithuanians and Poles over the possession of Vilnius and its region, both at societal and governmental levels. This may also have deterred some of the Polish refugees from registering.

Since there are widely varying reports of the numbers of refugees, both the lowest and the highest figures will be given here. The lowest figure was 50,000. The highest was "not less than 200,000." This was reported by the British envoy to Lithuania Thomas Preston who, after the collapse of Poland, took over the interests of the Polish legation in Kaunas.2 Preston's figure is probably closer to the truth. Beside the two important positions he held at that time, he was also closely involved with the Lithuanian Red Cross and mandated by the government to co-ordinate local and international relief work among the refugees.

Another eight months of independence remained, before Lithuania, like Poland, forcibly disappeared from the map of Europe, Lithuania's central government contributed 66,000,000 Litas to help Polish refugees. The government agreed to add 50 cents to every dollar received by the Lithuanian Red Cross from international welfare bodies (such as the International Red Cross, as well as Christian and Jewish relief organizations) for the upkeep of the war refugees.

The two most senior executives responsible for the welfare and security of the refugees were Dr. Jurgis Alekna, the Head of the Lithuanian Red Cross, and Colonel Brunonas Stencelis, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of the Interior.


* 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 German and Russian celebrations of their joint victory in Poland. The officer at left is Russian, the other two are Germans.

The large numbers and the different kinds of refugees in Lithuania resulted directly from 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 of its local population. Another goal was the complete destruction of the Polish intelligentsia and aristocracy. Poland was to disappear in its historical, political and ethnic sense and to be completely Germanized. This fitted with Stalin's plans to absorb the parts of Poland inhabited by Byelorussians and Ukrainians into the USSR. Hence, the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939 and its secret protocols of dividing Poland and the Baltic States.

Just before the attack on Poland, Hitler told the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen (special killing troops) that "whatever we can find in the shape of an 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 "of the Polish upper classes in the occupied territories, only a maximum of 3 per cent is still present."3  The mass murder of the Jewish population of Poland came considerably later.

Thus, most of the refugees from the former Poland consisted of the two socio-economic and ethnic groups who were threatened the most by Nazi extermination. However, there were also among them, about 10,000 ethnic Lithuanians, Byelorussians and other nationalities, as well as thousands of "ordinary" Poles. All of them, irrespective of social class, economic standing, education, ethni­city, religion or politics, shared one thing in common. The country they inhabited was destroyed by the design of two totalitarian superpowers — they were made stateless. Their personal identity documents and passports were not only worthless, they had become a dangerous political liability, identifying them. If caught by the Nazis or by the Soviets, their identity could lead to arrest, 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 all countries.

With this Lithuanian document, the refugees gained greater psychological security and regained some of their international rights. A lucky 20,000 of them, including about 10,000 Jews, managed to get visas and left Lithuania before it was absorbed into the USSR in June 1940. A year later, Lithuania was occupied by Hitler's Germany.

Among Poland's Jews who fled to Lithuania, many of their political and religious leaders obtained these documents in Vilnius, notably Menachem Begin who later went on to become Israel's prime minister. So did the young poet Czeslaw Milosz who in 1980 was to become the Nobel laureate for literature. A high functionary of the Centrist Zionists in Warsaw, Moshe Kleinbaum, attested to the international validity and worthiness of this document. "I obtained a Lithuanian sauf-conduit which allowed me to embark upon my journey via Riga, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris to Geneva, and from there via Trieste to Palestine."

There is 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 for a more permanent home for the refugees, in a most secure manner. Mindful that the Nazi-Soviet collaboration had destroyed and occupied Poland, they tried to minimize the potential of either German or Soviet authorities of laying claim to the persons carrying Lithuanian sauf-conduit papers.

There appear to have been instructions from the very top of the Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior as to how the document was to be filled in, especially the lines about citizenship/nationality and the place of birth. Almost all the war refugees who received this document were born in Poland, but this fact was not revealed. For example, in the actual sauf-conduit for Izaak Levin (Series A. No. 07308) the line for nationality says 'undetermined'. The line for the place of birth says Vielicka, but Poland is left out. Even the line for profession is filled in very cautiously. He was most probably a journalist. But in times of war, some regimes were suspicious of the journalists crossing borders, so Mr. Levin's profession was given in a more neutral manner as "homme de lettres."

This information has been taken from a facsimile photograph of Mr. Levin's sauf-conduit issued by the Lithuanian government in Vilnius. It shows the Lithuanian state insignia and bears the seal and signature of the Vilnius City and District chief administrative officer. Clearly marked at the top in capital letters is LIETUVOS RESPUBLIKA/REPUBLIQUE DE LITUANIE.

This was published in the New York Times on its op-ed page on Tuesday, September 20, 1994. Yet the caption beside the reproduced [sauf-conduit] document reads incorrectly, "The safe-conduct passes for Isaac, Peppy and Nathan Lewin, issued by the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940."

Why would the New York Times do that?

Ginutis 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.


EDITOR'S NOTE [from Lithuanian Papers]: After Germany and the Soviet Union jointly conquered Poland in 1939, thousands of Polish and Jewish asylum seekers found refuge in Lithuania. Many wanted to keep moving on to more distant destinations, but they had no acceptable travel documents. Poland had ceased to exist as a sovereign state and Polish passports were no longer valid.

    The 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 foreign consulates for visas. Japanese consul Ch. Sugihara and the Dutch honorary consul J. Zwartendijk were particularly helpful.

    This important historical background is re-iterated here, because several writers have since claimed that Japanese consul Sugihara, and possibly one or two others, had single-handedly saved thousands of refugees. As shown in the above factual report, such claims are misleading. Before applying for any visas, the refugees had to obtain a replacement personal document, the Lithuanian safe-conduct pass (as described, and pictured, above) from the Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior. Only then could the consuls step in and proceed with their contribution, by attaching their countries' visas to this essential Lithuanian certificate.

    Even when the refugees' papers were complete and in order, the Soviet authorities did not allow them at first to travel across the USSR territory, from Vilnius to Vladivostok. Once again, the Lithuanian Government came to the refugees' aid and negotiated an easement of this Soviet restriction.  



1 BAUER, Yehuda (1982). A history of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, p.283.

2 PRESTON, Thomas (1950). Before the curtain. London: John Murray, p.265.

3 HOHNE, Heinz (2000). The order of the Death's Head: The story of Hitler's SS. London: Penguin Books, p.299.