Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat during World War II, didn’t have to issue an estimated 6,000 visas to Jewish refugees, allowing them to escape the Nazis — but he did anyway.
Sugihara could have followed directives from Tokyo, which effectively prohibited him from issuing the papers. Under the current regulations, the refugees would have needed to prove that they had sufficient travel money and a final destination outside of Japan, which many of them did not possess.
But for about five weeks in the summer of 1940, Sugihara did what he felt was right. He worked tirelessly — 16-hour days by some accounts — handwriting the transit visas that would allow the Jews, many of whom had already escaped from Hitler’s advances in Poland and Austria, onward passage to Japan via Russia. Many of the refugees who made it east then moved elsewhere, to the Dutch colony of Curacao, for example, since it was one of the only places that Jews could enter relatively easily.
The visas that Sugihara issued went to heads of households, thereby allowing those visa holders to bring along family members and children. In all, Sugihara issued at least 6,000 “false” visas, ignoring when refuge-seekers did not have all of the necessary documents. (Many refugees, in fleeing the Nazis, had lost their passports, for example.) Today it is estimated that at least 40,000 people owe their existence to the diplomat.
Sugihara, who was vice-consul for Japan in Kovno, Lithuania, was born on January 1, 1900. In the year before he died, in 1985, he explained why he had undertaken such a risky endeavor to historian Hillel Levine:
“It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes… Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.”
“People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
In issuing the visas, Sugihara not only risked his career for flagrantly violating Tokyo’s policy, but also his safety. In Soviet-controlled Lithuania, it was considered a capital defense to emigrate or help others to do so. In addition, the Nazis were approaching Lithuania from the west and it was unsure at the time whether they would ultimately take control. This could be catastrophic for anyone found to be helping Jews, which Sugihara was well aware of.
In a 2000 PBS documentary about Sugihara, his wife Yukiko said that she was frightened by her family’s prospects if her husband’s actions were discovered.
“If we were in Germany and we did something like that, my husband, myself, my children could all be taken away by the Nazis,” she said. “I didn’t know what they would do to us… maybe they’d kill us.”
But if Sugihara was scared, he didn’t seem to show it. Instead, he continued to write out the visas, even as he and his family were leaving Lithuania. He was scheduled to move to Berlin, but Yukiko said that he was so exhausted from writing the visas that he decided to take his family to rest at a hotel before leaving. Yukiko related what happened next to PBS:
“When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.”
“The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.”
After the war, the Soviets imprisoned Sugihara and his family (including his children) in an internment in camp in Romania for 18 months. He returned to Japan in 1947 — ironically on the same Trans-Siberian Railway that his Jewish survivors took in escaping Europe — but was asked to resign by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
There is disagreement, however, on why the ministry asked for his resignation. According to “Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story,” the ministry told Sugihara’s family in October 1991 that the resignation was part of the ministry’s shakeup in personnel at that time. In 2006, the ministry issued a position paper that there was no evidence that the decision had been a disciplinary action on Sugihara. However, some sources, including Yukiko, have said that the Foreign Ministry asked Sugihara to resign because of “that incident” in Lithuania.
At the time of his resignation, Sugihara was nearing 50, making it hard for him to find a new job. To support his family, he began selling light bulbs door-to-door. Eventually, he worked as a part-time translator and interpreter — he spoke Russian, German and English — before returning to Moscow for a managerial position at a Japanese trading company. For over 15 years, he worked there, visiting his family back in Japan once or twice a year.
Sugihara’s diplomatic deeds during WWII remained relatively unknown — he didn’t tell anyone what he had done — until 1968, when he was located by Joshua Nishri, one of his survivors who had become the Economic Attaché to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. It was the first time Sugihara had met anyone he had saved; up until then, he could not be certain that his tactic had worked.
The Jewish Post explains the outpouring of support and honor that followed:
“The next year, Sugihara visited Israel and was greeted by the Israeli Government, which included another one of his survivors: Zerach Warheftig, the Israeli Minister of Religion. In 1985, after gathering testimonials from all over the world, Sugihara was granted Israel’s highest honor. He was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. The ceremony was held at the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, but Sugihara was too sick to attend, so his wife Yukiko and his son Hiroki accepted the honor on his behalf. Later that year, a monument was erected on a hill in Jerusalem, a cedar grove was planted in Sugihara’s name at Yad Vashem, and a park in Jerusalem was named in his honor. Sugihara and his descendants were given an everlasting Israeli citizenship. His son Nobuki graduated from the Hebrew University, speaking Hebrew fluently.”
It may never be fully understood why the vast majority of people did not act to stop the targeted, systematic destruction of the Jewish people during World War II. Most people, both those with diplomatic power as well as ordinary civilians, acted indifferently.
But Sugihara does not fit the mold. In fact, his rebellion to official government policy seems to have begun few years prior to the Holocaust.
In 1935, on assignment in Harbin, Manchuria, Sugihara unexpectedly resigned out of protest of the Japanese military’s brutality toward Chinese civilians. According to Visas for Life, a foundation set up in memory of Sugihara, the Japanese Foreign Ministry chose to overlook this act and, after several reassignments, Sugihara was selected to open the consulate in Lithuania.
The foundation also notes that Sugihara’s acts would not have succeeded without the help of several other people, namely the Dutch interim consul Jan Zwartendijk, who was “crucial in creating an end destination required to make the visas valid” in the Dutch colony of Curacao, and Zorach Warhaftig, a Jewish leader in Lithuania, who “was another key element in the life-saving action.”
Sugihara had also worked to sabotage the Nazis in exchanging information with members of the Polish underground in Lithuania, issuing them visas for transit through Japan in 1940. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sugihara “recognized the urgency of the situation in Lithuania following the occupation by Soviet forces in June 1940 and the accompanying wave of arrests by Soviet secret police. Sugihara may also have realized that, with Western Europe engulfed in war, the most likely avenue for escape for refugees in Lithuania was an eastern route through the Soviet Union to Japan.”
In other words, Sugihara is one of the few that we remember today for not losing his humanity during a time when it was all the more common — and personally convenient — to do so.