During the collapse of Poland in August 1939 a considerable number of refugees sought shelter in the still neutral Lithuania. While the Polish military were accommodated in internment facilities, civilians had to make their own arrangements.
When after Poland’s demise Lithuania, in turn, lost her independence and was incorporated into the Soviet Union, many Jewish refugees from Poland, as well as some in Lithuania, were anxiously seeking to emigrate by obtaining foreign entry permits. It is in this context that Chiune Sugihara, who in 1939 had become a vice-consul in the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, provided an exit route to some applicants by issuing Japanese transit visas. Formally, transit visas were granted by Japan only if the applicant had a visa to a third destination. Although some arrangements to this effect were being made by the Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk in respect of certain Dutch colonies in South America, the war-time problem of finding a “third country” was becoming increasingly difficult. Thus, to have a Japanese transit visa was a very valuable start.
In geographical terms, making use of a Japanese transit visa involved, first of all, train travel to Vladivostok. (Unofficial price of a ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway was said to be about five-fold). The rail trip was then followed by a boat passage to Kobe, Japan, where there was a Russian Jewish community and an organisation by the name of The Jewish Committee for Refugees. One of its activists was an engineer, Alexander Silberfeld. He seems to have become a significant mediator and the addressee for mail from persons who sought assistance.
The following are examples of this type of mail from Lithuania or, more exactly, from Soviet Lithuania, for by August 1940 she had become part of the Soviet Union.
Illustration below shows a cover addressed to the Jewish Committee for Refugees in Kobe, Japan, which was to have been conveyed by airmail and was prepaid correctly 1 rb. 50 kop. As in reality there was no airmail link between the Soviet Union and Japan, the nearest fastest mode was “Express”, and probably the cover was indeed treated as “Express”. On the back there is a cachet in French to the effect that the item was received in Moscow in a damaged state, but as there is no apparent damage, the cover may have been opened for inspection and then neatly resealed.
Cover addressed to the Jewish Committee for Refugees in Kobe.
The cover shown below was in fact posted as “Express”, as shown by the franking of 2 rb. 40 kop., which is made up of 50 kop. for a foreign letter, 80 kop. for foreign registration and 1 rb. 10 kop. as “Express” charge. It seems that one or two labels possibly indicating this category have been removed or fallen off.
Cover to Japan franked as “Express” (label is missing).
Illustration below shows a registered cover clearly marked as “Express”. As in the above example, the prepayment of 2 rb. 40 kop. is made up of 50 kop. for a foreign letter, 80 kop. for foreign registration and 1 rb. 10 kop. as charge for “Express”.
Registered cover clearly marked as “Express”.
Example below shows a cover from Vilnius to Tokyo franked 50 kop. which is a regular charge for a foreign letter. Very likely, its contents also related to stay or transit via Japan.
Cover from Vilnius to Tokyo posted as a regular mail.
Apparently, Mr Silberstein was known as a mediator not only by applicants in Lithuania. Illustration below shows a letter addressed to him and posted from Odessa (Ukraine). Note that it was posted on June 21, 1941, that is, on the eve of the start of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union which began on June 22.
A letter from Odessa (Ukraine) addressed to Mr Silberstein.
Much rarer is refugees’ mail from Japan to Lithuania. The message on a viewcard of Yokohama shown below mentions a trip from Kobe to Yokohama and so implies that the author’s travel to Japan (Kobe) was successful. Successful was also the viewcard’s journey to Lithuania: having been posted on May 6, 1941 it arrived in Kaunas not long before the start of the German – Soviet war on June 22, 1941.
A refugees’ mail from Japan to Lithuania.
Generally, the overall background to the above correspondence presupposes the work that was being done, or had been done, by Consul Chiune Sugihara. Although his practice of issuing insufficiently documented transit visas to refugees contravened Japan’s official policy, he did not spare himself to work at top speed and in a short time produced some 3,400 hand-written visas before the Consulate was shut down. More recently, as an appreciation of his actions in difficult times, streets have been named after him in Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuania, and there are memorials elsewhere. Lithuania also honoured him by issuing a postage stamp on June 19, 2004.
Lithuanian stamp featuring a portrait of Chiune Sugihara
(Literature on Consul Sugihara and his activity in Kaunas is not scarce. A useful summary with a short biography is provided by Wikipedia.)