Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1st, 1900, and lived to make his mark on the twentieth century. Thousands of people owe their lives in part to his willingness to buck authority. For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Soviets and fired from his job by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
That’s not the way Japanese children of his generation were raised. Sugihara walked to the beat of a different drummer even before the events that made him famous, when he went against his father’s wishes and failed a medical school entrance exam -on purpose. Instead, he enrolled in a Tokyo university where he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Sugihara was assigned to Japanese-occupied Harbin, in Machuria, where he perfected his English, learned Russian, and joined the Greek Orthodox Christian church. As his career was taking off, Sugihara’s sense of justice led him to protest the way the Japanese military treated Chinese citizens. Instead of getting rid of the talented diplomat, the Foreign Ministry transferred him several times. He was eventually reassigned to Europe.
Sugihara was sent to Lithuania (with his wife and children) to open a new Japanese consulate in March of 1939. Only a few months later, Hitler’s forces invaded Poland and thousands of Jews fled to Lithuania to escape persecution. In 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania ahead of the Germans, who were also advancing on the small nation. The Russians ordered all foreign diplomats out of the country, but Sugihara and Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk stayed behind. Zwartendijk came up with a plan to help the Jewish refugees get out and emigrate to a couple of Dutch islands in the Caribbean, but any travel visa would also have to be approved by the Soviet consul and by Sugihara, as the refugees would have to travel through Russia and Japan.
Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to get approval for the plan, but he was denied several times. The consul in Tokyo told him to issue no travel visas at all!
Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again.
Sugihara discussed the plan with his wife Yukiko and decided to risk his career and his entire future by defying his superiors. The couple then spent 29 days issuing travel visas, up to 300 a day, as thousands of refugees stood in line at his office. Yukiko would prepare and register the visas while Chiune Sugihara would sign and stamp them, hour after hour, without breaking for meals. They would work late into the night until Yukiko would massage her husband’s weary hands in preparation for the next day. Sugihara was under orders to leave, which he could no longer delay. The family departed on September 1st, but he kept signing visas even as he boarded the train. Sugihara then tossed his official stamp out to the crowd, as he hadn’t time to stamp them all. Watch a video account with commentary from a survivor and Yukiko Sugihara.
The Japanese government was quite unhappy with Sugihara’s disobedience, but they postponed his punishment because they needed his talents during the war. Sugihara was reassigned to the consul in Germany and then to Romania. He was arrested by the Soviets at the end of the war and the entire family spent 18 months in a POW camp in Romania. On his release, Sugihara returned to Japan, where he was fired from the Foreign Ministry. The family fell into poverty as Sugihara worked as a door-to-door salesman, a translator, and eventually a manager for a Japanese trading company office in Moscow. He kept a low profile and only visited his wife and children in Japan about once a year. Saugihara never spoke of his deeds during the war. The Foreign Ministry acted as if he never existed when Jewish refugees inquired as to his whereabouts.
It is estimated that 6,000 Jews were able to leave Lithuania for the east because of the travel documents Sugihara prepared. The became known as the Sugihara Survivors. The refugees traveled through the Soviet Union to Japan, where they stayed for months. Some traveled on to the United States, others to Shanghai, China, and some to the Caribbean islands they had originally planned to escape to.
One of the Sugihara Survivors was Joshua Nishri, who later became the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. In this position he was able to track down Sugihara and let him know, after almost 30 years, that his efforts during the war paid off for many thousands of refugees. Sugihara visited Israel the next year and spoke to many more Sugihara Survivors. In 1985 he was given the country’s highest honor, as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem named him Righteous Among the Nations.
Sugihara died in 1986. He wasn’t well known in Japan until his funeral drew interest because of the many foreigner visitors who came to pay tribute, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan. When his countrymen learned of his heroism, a memorial park was built in Yaotsu-cho, Sugihara’s birthplace. The Sugihara Memorial Garden stands at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A statue of Sugihara was erected in 2002 in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. The memorial shown in a picture by Alma Pater is in Vilnius, Lithuania. In the 21st century, some estimate that the original visa holders have 80,000 descendants. That is the greatest memorial of all.
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