Rescue Operations through Vilna
Some 14,000 Jews found refuge in Vilna; most had fled from the Germans and the remainder from the Soviets. Local Lithuanian Jewish organizations attempted to aid the refugees. In December 1939, the Interior Ministry issued a statute limiting the demographic and cultural supremacy of the Poles in Vilna. The Jews had no objection to such measures. In their efforts to alleviate the suffering of the refugees, the Vilna Jews were aided by the Joint, which provided $742,000 for this undertaking. Between September 1939 and June 1940, during the time of Lithuanian independence, a serious attempt was made to extricate Jews and to find refuge for them in any part of the world. About 500 reached the US and far fewer arrived in Palestine. After the Soviet invasion, the Lithuanian Red Cross continued to transfer money to the refugees. The Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, without his superiors’ permission, began issuing transit visas to Japan and thence to Curacao to Jews who held any kind of relevant document. A similar endeavor permitted 1,200 Jews to travel via Istanbul to Palestine using both genuine and false British immigration certificates. Dr. Zerach Wahrhaftig, surprisingly, persuaded the Soviet Lithuanian government to permit exit visas to be bought. Some 2,180 Jews eventually reached Kobe in Japan, where the police chief had been bribed to allow Jews to remain in the city until the end of the war. The Joint underwrote the Kobe refugees’ expenses. Very few refugees gained admission to the US, where the Jewish leaders were afraid the influx would increase antisemitism. Of 250,000 Jews in Lithuania, only 4,000 were saved.