This weekend marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Asia. This war claimed millions of lives and destroyed families, cities, and cultures. For all the pain and suffering it wrought, however, it revealed some extraordinary heroes. One of those was a simple Japanese government bureaucrat named Chiune Sugihara.
In March 1939, Japanese Consul-General Chiune Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to open a consulate service. Lithuania was strategically situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. After Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany and a wave of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania. They brought with them chilling tales of German atrocities against the Jewish population.
When Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, all foreign diplomats were asked to leave Lithuania by the end of August. But as he was packing his belongings, Sugihara was informed that a Jewish delegation was waiting in front of his consulate, asking to see him. Outside, he saw a crowd of hundreds of Jewish refugees, standing outside the Consulate, all desperately hoping for visas. They were headed by Zerach Warhaftig – a Jewish refugee who was to become years later a minister in the government of the State of Israel. They desperately needed transit visas to leave Lithuania, across the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would not permit them to escape, but with a Japanese visa, they could travel across Russia to Vladivostok, and from there escape to free territory.
Consul Sugihara wanted to help, but had no authority to issue visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. He wired his government three times begging to issue these visas and save the refugees, and all three times he was denied. So he made a choice. Chiune Sugihara decided that he would stay as long as he could, issuing transit visas in direct violation of his orders, to save as many lives as possible. He requested and obtained permission to stay in Lithuania for one more month. For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, he sat for endless hours composing transit visas. Hour after hour, day after day, he wrote and signed - 300 visas a day all written entirely by hand.
Hundreds of applicants became thousands. Day and night, desperate people lined up outside the Consulate begging for visas; when some of them attempted to climb the compound wall, Sugihara came out to calm them, promising not to abandon them. And he did not: when he was forced to close the Consulate and leave Lithuania, Sugihara continued writing visas on his way to the train station, in his car, and in his hotel. After boarding the train, he kept signing visas as fast as he could, handing them down from his window. Even while pulling out of the station, Sugihara was seen throwing visas to refugees running alongside the speeding train. Because many passports had been left unstamped, Sugihara also tossed his visa stamp into the crowd, so that it could be used to save even more refugees.
Within a brief span of time before the consulate was closed down and Sugihara had to leave Kaunas, he provided approximately 3,500 individual and family transit visas, allowing roughly 6,000 people to escape. He had also enlisted the help of some of the Jews to stamp the passports; with no knowledge of Japanese, some of the stamps were put in upside down. All the while, Sugihara was receiving dispatches from Tokyo warning him against issuing visas without due process.
From Lithuania, the Japanese government sent Sugihara to open a consulate in Koenigsberg (today Kaliningrad) and then to Bucharest. At the end of the war, the Soviets imprisoned Sugihara, his wife Yukiko, and their son in an internment camp in Rumania for 18 months. Upon his return to his country in 1946, due to his insubordination, Sugihara was dismissed from the Japanese Foreign Service. With no way to make a living, Sugihara lived in poverty and was forced to take a job selling light bulbs door-to-door. Eventually, he worked as a part-time translator and interpreter, before returning to Moscow to accept a managerial position with a Japanese trading company. Sugihara worked there for over 15 years in complete obscurity, visiting his family in Japan only once or twice a year.
The Nazis had invaded Lithuania in June 1941, killing countless Jewish refugees and other innocent civilians. For the next 25 years, Sugihara never knew whether any of his visas had actually saved anyone. Ashamed of his dismissal, Sugihara never mentioned his wartime deeds to anyone, and the world knew little of him until almost 30 years later, in 1968, when he was located by Joshua Nishri, the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of his survivors. 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, and the man who had first brought the refugees to Sugihara in the summer of 1940.
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. Chiune Sugihara died the following year, on July 31,1986. Only when a large Jewish delegation from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, showed up at his funeral, did his neighbors find out what he had done. He had never said anything to anyone.
As of today it is estimated that more than 80.000 descendants owe their existance to Sugihara.
Jewish Virtual Library