A Jewish Pilgrimage to Sugihara Chiune’s Consulate

A Jewish Pilgrimage to Sugihara Chiune’s Consulate

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Sugihara Chiune's house
Photo: Noah Oskow
Author Noah Oskow travels to Lithuania to connect with his own Jewish past at Sugihara Chiune's consulate, now a memorial to the savior of 6000 Jews.

It was only 4 PM as my bus crossed the Neris River and pulled into the old city of Kaunas, Lithuania. Despite the early hour, the city was almost completely blanketed in the dark blue hue of dusk. At first sight, the deep shadows and deeper fog seemed to grant the city an ethereal quality. This slightly magical atmosphere felt appropriate, since I’d come to Kaunas on a sort of dual pilgrimage. I’d flown to the Baltics in part for the opportunity to see this city – a place I’d read and later written so much about. I’d come to connect with a piece of my distant past. I wanted to experience where Sugihara Chiune had risked his own future to save the lives of over 6000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Kaunas is Lithuania’s second city, often playing a subservient role to the capital Vilnius. At around 285,000 people, it’s also the fourth largest city in the Baltic States. While perhaps under-visited, Kaunas has a storied past — not least of all as “Kovno,” the name by which its past Jewish inhabitants knew it. Firmly within the former Pale of Settlement (the areas of the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to settle), Kovno was one of Eastern Europe’s great Jewish cities alongside Vilnius, the so-called “Jerusalem of the North.”

Growing up Jewish, “Kovno” was a name redolent with the airs of the Yiddish old country. It brought to mind the tales of Sholem Aleichem. It was the sort of Yiddish place name people would mention in the same breath as “Chelm,” “Minsk,” or “Vilna.” As far as I knew, my own family had traced our recent roots to a small shtetl in nearby Belarus. However, only a scant few days before arriving in Lithuania, my grandmother – our family matriarch and historian – had informed me of our Lithuanian connections. My great-great-grandfather, it turned out, had taken rabbinical training in the famed Vilnius Yeshiva. As for my grandmother’s own grandmother; she had been from Kaunas itself.

Such newfound genealogical origins added a layer of depth to being in Kaunas. Somehow, I felt closer to my Yiddish roots there than in other European cities with major Jewish histories. I experience a strange sense of connection to Kaunas. This, in turn, allowed me to feel even more connected to the story of Sugihara Chiune.

But as I stepped off the bus into the gloaming, Sugihara would have to wait. The museum to his heroism, enshrined in the consulate building from which he saved so many, wouldn’t open until the next morning. In the meantime, by fortuitous chance, I had arrived in Kaunas on the first night of Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights. Via a flurry of e-mails, I had managed to get an invitation to a menorah-lighting ceremony near the old town. I hastened my steps down the cobbled streets, cheered by the thought of a little communion with fellow Jews from a similar culture hearth.

The Tale of Sugihara Chiune

The only remaining synagogue in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
The only remaining synagogue in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

I have written elsewhere in more detail about Sugihara Chiune’s life. Indeed, his story is deserving of greater scope than I can recount here. The general gist of his incredible narrative is as follows.


A Russophile and Orthodox Christian diplomat of the Japanese Empire, Sugihara Chiune arrived in Kaunas in the summer of 1939 with his young family in tow. Sugihara had been dispatched to serve as the Japanese consul to Lithuania just as war was breaking out across Europe. He had materialized in Kaunas as the country entered a period of great precariousness. Little Lithuania had gained its independence from the Russian Empire some twenty-one years prior. It was surrounded by giants. To the east lay the massive Soviet Union, the successor state to the Russian Empire. To the west, Nazi Germany had already begun its rapacious gobbling up of neighbor states. With such neighbors, Lithuania’s continued existence was far from a foregone conclusion.

In September of 1939, mere months after the Sugiharas’ arrival, Nazi and Soviet tanks rolled into nearby Poland. That state ceased to exist as the two invaders split its territory amongst themselves. Poland had been one of the largest Jewish population centers of all time, with over 3 million Jews living within its borders. As the Nazis began implementing their horrific anti-Jewish laws in their new territory, these millions were now in desperate danger. Tens of thousands attempted to flee, but most roads were closed to them. The Nazis controlled the territories to the West; the Soviets to the East. Thousands of Polish Jews streamed into still-independent Lithuania, hoping to find safety or ways to get farther from Hitler’s murderous grasp. The streets of Kaunas and Vilnius filled with refugees, the local Jewish community attempting to help them.

Most Jews realized that Lithuania could not long remain a safe haven. The small country’s situation was simply too precarious. In January of 1940, the local sense of crisis deepened as Soviet forces marched across the border, supposedly at the “invitation” of the Lithuanian parliament. The country’s days as an independent nation were sadly numbered. Many knew the window for escape was closing; yet, without a visa granting passage through the Soviet Union, the routes for such escape would be perilously dangerous. It was here that Sugihara Chiune stepped into the spotlight of history.

Sugihara had befriended many in the Kaunas Jewish community — and his orthodox faith and experience in Russia had made him more conscious of Jews than the average Japanese official. He also held a deep sense of humanism and hated to see others suffer. Still, he had his consular duties to consider, and could not simply issue visas to those without forward destinations or the proper funds. Despite feeling for these terrified, bedraggled humans, he felt there was little he could do.

Sugihara Chiune: Righteous Among the Nations

The story of how a WWII-era Japanese diplomat went against the dictates of his own government in order to issue Jewish refugees with visas to Japan, saving t…

Watch our video detailing the story of Sugihara Chiune.

Righteous Among the Nations

There were others already at work trying to save Jews in Kaunas. Jan Zwartendijk, Dutch part-time consul, had come upon a way to allow Jews to escape Europe. Although authorities had closed almost all international ports to Jewish refugees, he created visas granting Jews entry to the small Dutch Carribean holding of Curaçao. Zwartendijk was unsure if such an insignificant colony would even have a customs office – which was all the better for his purposes. Zwartendijk began the long process of writing out visas to those Jews who approached him, hoping for salvation.

Even if Zwartendijk’s plan was to work, most of those attempting flight to “Curaçao” would still need transit visas through the Soviet Union. Rumors flowed of an unlikely source from whence such transit rights might be secured: the Japanese consulate.

So it came to be that on the morning of July 27th, 1940, Sugihara Chiune awoke to find hundreds of refugees waiting outside the gates to his consulate on 30, Vaižganto Street. The ever-growing mass of needy humanity outside his walls presented Sugihara with a major moral quandary. These people clearly needed his help; their very lives were likely on the line. Sugihara, however, was certain that the Imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not give approval for granting the necessary visas. He asked his wife, Yukiko, for advice – and she immediately told him to act upon his consciousness. Sugihara got to work.

Over the next month, Sugihara Chiune would work tirelessly to provide the endless crowd outside his gate with life-saving visas. Despite his own government thrice denying him approval for his acts; despite the Soviet Government (which had finally annexed Lithuania) ordering the closing of his consulate; even when ordered by his government to a new post in Berlin; he kept working. The consulate on Vaižganto Street was transformed into a well-ordered visa-printing machine. Sugihara interviewed and granted visas for hundreds each day; fathers, mothers, single men and women, the elderly, whole families, those who had lost everything and everyone. He would work from early morning until late at night. Each visa he issued meant a chance at survival; at life.

Sugihara only stopped when the pressure to shutter the consulate became too great; even then, he wrote out more visas to those who followed him to the hotel he stayed at his last night in Kaunas. More followed the Sugihara family to the train station the next day. There, it is said, Sugihara even scribbled out visas standing on the train platform. As his train pulled away, leaving the last hopeless refugees behind, Sugihara threw out his consular stationery towards them — hoping that perhaps they could create more documents on their own. Soon, Kaunas was far behind him.

The Tragedy of Lithuania

It is believed that Sugihara’s visas saved upwards of 6000 Jewish lives. Those who received his documents were able to cross into the Soviet Union proper, embarking on a two-week Trans-Siberian rail journey, eventually making their ways to the Japanese port city of Tsuruga. From there, most would make their way to countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Mandatory Palestine, or even the ghetto in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The eventual destination was immaterial; what mattered is that they had escaped. These 6000 would live. Had they remained in Lithuania, almost all would certainly have been murdered.

The Nazis invaded the following year. In Kaunas alone, 5000 Jews were murdered in an initial pogrom. Around 29,000 survivors were then herded into the new Kaunas Ghetto. Of these, almost all were later exterminated in concentration camps.

By war’s end, more than 95% of the over 200,000 Jews in Lithuania had been massacred – a greater percentage of a pre-war Jewish population than any other country in Europe. As much as 195,000 Jews had been murdered, the greatest single loss of life in such a short period of time in Lithuanian history. Fewer than 6,000 Jews remained alive in Lithuania at war’s end. These days, there are perhaps 5000 Jews living in the (once again independent) country.

It was such thoughts that filled my head as I hurried, on foot, towards the menorah-lighting ceremony. The city I was in had seen great heroism; it had also seen the vilest nature of humanity played out to its worst effect. Now, here I was, some eighty years onwards, heading to meet fellow Jews to celebrate a holiday of cultural survival in a space where we had nearly been eradicated. I felt my anticipation grow.

The First Night of Hanukkah

Lighting of the giant menorah in Kaunis.
Lighting of the giant menorah in Kaunas. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

After some twenty minutes of walking, I came upon the ceremony. It was hard to miss. On a small patch of grass near the main road, there stood a giant menorah some ten feet high, its eight branches adorned with festive lights. Around fifty people milled around the giant candelabra awaiting the beginning of the ceremony. Whether the people were fellow Jews or simply onlookers, I could not tell. Near the giant menorah, however, stood a more easily identifiable pair: the rabbi and his son. Both were Hassids of the Lebuvecher branch, outfitted in long overcoats, rounded black hats, and sporting lengthy beards — the elder’s a magisterial snowy white.

I settled into the expectant crowd. Finally, as the last color drained from the darkened sky, the younger rabbi stepped forward. After a few words about the holiday (in English, interpreted into Lithuanian by a nearby assistant), the young rabbi walked over to a boom lift behind the menorah.

He rose, elevated by the lift, until level with the branches of the tall menorah. Producing a fireplace lighter from his coat pockets, he proceeded to attempt to light a lantern affixed to the centermost part of the candelabra. Perhaps because of the wind or a lack of fuel, the lantern awkwardly refused to light. But the crowd continued to look on, unphased. Finally, the fire took. The rabbi passed the flame on another lantern on the rightmost branch – symbolizing the first night of Hanukkah.

The younger rabbi above and older rabbi below began the prayer over the lighting of the candles. Instinctively, I joined in, feeling the Hebrew words naturally course through me. Most of the crowd remained silent, listening, but I heard muffled Hebrew from some older men behind me.

…בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melach ha-olam… (the first words of the prayer over the lighting of candles on the first night of Hanukkah)!

No sooner had the younger rabbi descended from his precarious perch, wishing us all “Ah Freilichen Hanukkah!” (Yiddish for “Happy Hanukkah!”) when a real spectacle began to play out. In a short e-mail exchange about the event, the rabbi had mentioned a “fireshow”. I had assumed this meant some sort of display related to the Hanukkah theme of light.

It turns out the “fire” part was very literal.

Fireshow in Kaunas
Photo of the fireshow in Kaunas. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

Raucous religious Hebrew music began blasting out of concert speakers as two men bearing what can best be described as flaming morning stars stepped forward. They began swinging these blazing censors with reckless abandon, progressively switching up their burning instruments in order to encourage even larger conflagrations. The crowd watched with rapt attention.

The fire dancers finished their routine. But this wasn’t all the rabbis had prepared for us. A booming of mid-air explosions accompanied the Hebrew music’s deafening blast. From somewhere behind the menorah, a fairly impressive fireworks show began. The skies above Kaunas were filled with lights and colored fire.

A smile crept to my face as I noticed that some of the fireworks had been positioned so as to fire off nine blazing trails. Each individual firework mimicked the branch of the menorah they seemed to emanate from. Being here, in Kaunas, the site of such Jewish tragedy — somehow, hearing kitschy Hebrew music and watching firework menorahs arc into the sky filled me with a strange happiness.

After the fireworks, as the assembled crowded into a tent for latkes and spiced gluhwein, I approached the old rabbi. He smiled, shook my hand, and asked the usual questions: Where are you from? Do you have a menorah? Will you be keeping the holiday? What brings you to Lithuania? I told him that I’d come to see the consulate where Sugihara had saved so many.

“Ah, the Sugihara House, yes,” he said. Then, his eyes taking on a concerned look, he said, “you know that the museum’s director recently passed away?” I replied in the affirmative, saying that I had been sad to hear it. “Did you know him well?” I asked. He seemed to be looking far into the distance as he replied, “For twenty-five years.”

Lithuanian Ramen

Ramen in Lithuania
A pit stop for second dinner. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

The Hanukkah gathering wound down, and I started to bid the rabbis my farewells; the older rabbi, however, insisted quite seriously that he give me a small travel menorah and candles before I leave. So it goes with Lubavitcher rabbis – no matter what sort of Jew you are or your degree of practice, their greatest concern is that you have access to community and participation in Jewish rituals. Thus did I end up walking towards my hostel, menorah in hand.

I strode down the darkened avenue of Laisvės alėja, Eastern Europe’s longest pedestrian street. Seeing a distant forested hill to the east, I knew I was getting closer to that portentous consulate. My thoughts were still on Sugihara as I spotted the red sun of Japan on its white field blowing in the night wind on a small doorway. Stooping to take a look at the storefront, I noticed laminated signs written in Lithuanian and English near the door – “Real Japanese ramen sold here!” Curious, but already full of latkes, I prepared to turn back towards the hostel. That’s when I noticed the sign also advertised Asahi Beer.

I walked through the door.

The interior was draped in wall scrolls of ukiyo-e paintings. In the background, Haru Yo, Koi by Matsutoya Yumi was playing softly. Seated, I flipped through the laminated menu, which proudly announced the name of the Japanese owner. His ramen – which claimed to be real, authentic ramen – was incredibly cheap. Bowing to curiosity, I ordered a tonkotsu ramen along with my beer.

When I asked the Lithuanian waiter if they had any edamame (perfect with beer, after all) he arched an eyebrow, shook his head, and walked into the kitchen. A cloth barrier swung closed behind him, from which I could clearly hear him discussing with the chef in English how a customer had asked for edamame for the first time. The two began an in-depth discussion on if soybeans could be grown economically in the Baltics (the decisive answer was no).

After finishing their lengthy soybean debate, the chef stepped outside to hand me a piping hot bowl of ramen. The aroma was mouth-watering. Looking at the chef – a man with a widow’s peak in perhaps his mid-60s – I could tell this was likely the owner. Gripped by curiosity about life as a Japanese ramen chef in Kaunas, I gave in to the temptation 2nd language-learners know all too well, and, unbidden, broke out my Japanese.


Excuse me, I happen to have overheard, but I take it soybeans don’t grow in this region?

The chef’s eyes opened almost imperceptibly wider, but he didn’t miss a beat. 「ああ、そうですよ、」he replied, taking a seat at my table. We quickly went through the usual “why do you speak Japanese?” part of such conversations and moved on to more interesting topics.

My host, it turned out, was the only Japanese full-time resident in Kaunas. He was also a fellow northerner (he, from Hokkaido, and I from Minnesota). A retiree with a life’s worth of experience in international finance, he spoke wonderful English. Nor was his historical and cultural knowledge anything to scoff at. He seemed happy to be able to have a conversation in Japanese, and we quickly found ourselves moving from topic to topic: life in Lithuania, Japanese perceptions of Europe, Japanese cultural minorities like the Ainu and Ryukuans, and so on. Of course, we also spoke about Sugihara.

“Sugihara is a big deal here,” said my host. “At the very least, he’s the reason Japanese people come to Kaunas.”

I asked him if he’d been to the museum yet.

“Of course. I know everyone involved with that place. Busloads of Japanese come through all the time. It’s sort of weird, though – you know they sell Sugihara chocolates and other omiyage [お土産, travel souvenirs] there?”

I hadn’t known, but I wasn’t shocked, by this revelation. After all, Sugihara’s name has become a bit of a commodity in Japan (and what good is a Japanese travel destination without omiyage to distribute amongst your coworkers?). Indeed, Sugihara Chiune’s legacy is experiencing a bit of a boom in his native country. For decades a virtual unknown outside of the Jewish community, he’s now the subject of manga, articles, a new museum in his (quasi) native Gunma Prefecture, and even a major 2015 Japanese film (of sadly midling quality).

“I know his son, in fact,” continued my host. “Nobuki.” I replied that’d I’d read interviews with Nobuki, Chiune’s youngest and only surviving son (and sole Sugihara child born after their return to Japan post-WWII). “You know,” he continued, “he doesn’t think his father did all that out of any great humanism. He was just doing his duty as a consular officer. I think he may be a bit uncomfortable with all this lionizing of his father – not to mention those omiyage.”

I replied that I’d read as much regarding Nobuki’s opinions on his father. Conversely, it is Chiune’s wife, Yukiko’s, autobiography which has become a major part of what we know about Sugihara’s thoughts during his time in Kaunas and his decision to save so many lives. It is also she who insisted that Chiune believed he had lost his job as a diplomat upon return to Japan because higher-ups were unhappy that he had ignored orders not to give the Jews visas.

Nobuki, however, denies that any punishments of the sort occurred. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is hard at work ensuring that Sugihara’s narrative is something Japan can be proud of. One could even say they have a vested interest in doing so.

My host and I turned to discussing the issue of historical figures – how their narratives can move beyond their realities, merging into mythmaking. For Sugihara Nobuki, who knew his father as just that – his father – such tales of Chiune as an almost beatific human must be hard to accept. How could such imagery match the reality?

“I will say this, though,” continued the ramen master of Kaunas. “A while ago, Prime Minister Abe came to Kaunas to see the museum. And you know what? He was so moved, he ended up crying right then and there.”

The Consulate

Plaque at the Sugihara Chiune Museum.
The plaque on the Museum commemorating Sugihara Chiune’s meritorious deeds. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

The next day dawned overcast and a balmy 41° Fahrenheit. By noon I had checked out of my hostel and trudged off down Laisvės Avenue towards the former consulate. The further I progressed, the more the commercial buildings of the touristic boulevard gave way to residential streets. I passed beautiful wooden homes, decaying Soviet-style apartments, and dilapidated two-story abodes.

After some twenty minutes I found myself at the base of a wooded hill, its steep steps reaching intimidatingly upwards for someone burdened with a full travel backpack. A sign planted next to the steps read “The Sugihara House, 400 meters” with an arrow pointing directly up the stairs. With nothing else for it, I began the climb. Soon, the city of Kaunas stretched out behind me.

Cresting the hill, I saw the steps had taken me directly onto Vaižganto Street. A shiver went through me as I realized I now stood on the same road thousands of Jews before me had taken. As I turned down Vaižganto, the thought that I was walking in their very footsteps filled my mind. I had come to satisfy a personal connection to Sugihara’s narrative and to honor his good deeds, while they came down this same path out of mortal desperation.

Houses lined this road like any other. Just as it was in the past, Vaižganto is a simple neighborhood street. All that sets this historical building apart is a small entrance gate, unattached to the long-since-demolished walls against which needy people once pressed. On the gate posts are two signs, one in Lithuanian, the other in Japanese, reading:


Gate of Hope: Visa of Life

Otherwise, besides a small plaque that briefly details the historical nature of the building, its white-stuccoed facade is unremarkable.

As I rounded the corner of the house in search of the entrance to the museum, I passed by a window – and there it was.

Site of Pilgrimage

Guest book in the Sugihara Chiune museum.
Guest book in the Sugihara Chiune museum. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

Against the window sat four small flags – Israeli, Japanese, Lithuanian, and Dutch. And beyond them, a single desk topped with green felt. I could make out writing utensils, framed pictures, and hanging behind the desk, an age-weathered Japanese flag. I immediately ascertained that I was looking at the room where Sugihara Chiune had written hundreds upon hundreds of visas.

Shaking myself out of my trance, I entered what had once been an Imperial Japanese consulate. As I stepped out of the cold, one of the museum staff members greeted me. She ushered me into a side room, which proved to house the much-discussed omiyage. (While perhaps slightly tacky, they were not as numerous or as terrible as I’d feared).

My ticket purchased, she guided me to the 2nd floor to begin my visit with the viewing of a twenty-minute long documentary. The video, produced by Fukui Television Broadcasting, focused on the short time those holding Sugihara’s visas had spent in their first port of call in Japan, Tsuruga (敦賀市, in Fukui Prefecture). While suffering a bit from the usual schmaltzy Japanese TV production, the video proved a good chance to hear survivors recount the joy with which they reached Japan, and safety.

The documentary finished, and I moved to examine the rest of the second floor. These rooms had once served as the Sugihara family’s private quarters, although the plain white walls and floors belied that any such habitation had ever occurred. The museum had lined the walls with displays discussing interwar Kaunas as the “Casablanca of the North,” a site of espionage where diplomats from rival nations rubbed shoulders. Sugihara only figured minimally here – the exhibit rightly focused on a number of diplomats who had tried to save refugees in the lead up to the war. This part of the museum made an important point: Sugihara was a hero, but not the only hero. Despite being one of the most disastrous eras in human history, WWII still featured innumerable accounts of humanistic bravery.

I descended to the main floor, which in 1940 had housed the consular offices, maid’s room, and living room. Here, Sugihara’s family and those he had saved took center stage. Displays in one room focused on moving personal stories from individuals amongst the “Sugihara survivors;” in the former living room, displays detailed the lives of Chiune, Yukiko and their family before and after the moments that defined them. From every picture appeared Sugihara’s face, so familiar to me after my research – here a young lad, here a dapper diplomat, here a salt and pepper-haired older man.

Sugihara Chiune and his family
Sugihara Chiune and his family. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

There was a reading space in a back room that housed tomes focusing on every historical subject related to the museum. Here I chanced upon a copy of the children’s book entitled Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. This was the very book that had introduced me to Chiune’s narrative at such a young age. I hadn’t physically held a copy of the book since I was perhaps 11 or 12, and it felt meaningful to flip through it again in this space.

The Room Where it Happened

Sugihara Chiune's desk
The author standing behind the desk where Sugihara Chiune worked. (Photo: Noah Oskow)

At last, I turned towards the focal point of the museum: Sugihara’s office. I walked through a small hallway where an old-style map of Japan clung to the wall, its surface impaled by hundreds of Rising Sun flag pins. (It appeared that people from throughout the whole of Japan had visited the museum. Even visitors from small Okinawan islands and the distant Ogasawaras were represented.) Then, I entered the room.

In truth, none of the furniture in Sugihara’s office is original. Not his bookshelf, nor his stationary, nor even the desk, all set up to appear so much like that on which he scribbled out so many visas. As the helpful museum staff would tell me, none of the consulate’s furniture remains. The house had been private property in the war years; its Lithuanian owner had leased it to Sugihara. After Soviet annexation, the occupying state seized the building, as it had so many private structures. A fairly large home, its rooms became separate housing units. In the half a century that followed, any trace of the interior from Sugihara’s time disappeared. When Lithuania, reclaiming its independence, decided to memorialize Sugihara in the building, they found era-appropriate pieces to recreate this most important of spaces.

Standing in the room, that seemed to matter little. I stood, quietly meditating on what had happened here so long before. Whether the furniture was original was immaterial. The events that had occurred there were what mattered.

Final Reflections

Finally exiting my reverie, I walked back to the ticketing room, hoping to have my last few questions answered. The staff member I’d met earlier seemed more than happy to answer even my most basic queries. (She also responded to potentially controversial questions without skipping a beat.)

I wondered if Japanese tour groups made up a large portion of visitors; yes, she replied. At this point, large tour groups seemed to make up 80% of those who came to the museum. This, I assumed, explained the Japanese text that accompanied every display. What about Hebrew, though? Did the museum not see as many Israeli or Jewish visitors? I was happy to hear that there was an Israeli translator on staff who was hard at work finishing up Hebrew placards for each room. While outnumbered by Japanese tourists, Jewish visitors still made up a significant part of the museum’s visitation.

Recalling the ramen master’s talk of a weeping Abe Shinzo, I asked if she had met the Prime Minister. No, she replied; she had seen him and his retinue come through, but he had sped through the exhibits. Abe had only been present for half an hour before hurrying out of Kaunas. There had been no chance for meet-and-greets. I added that this was intriguing since Abe’s government had done so much to spread Sugihara’s story in Japan. Here, she provided me with some very interesting information:

“Yes, and it’s quite the change. Did you know that the Japanese government actively suppressed Sugihara’s story for many years? It’s a story of defying the government and going against orders. Very much not the sort of story the Showa-era government wanted to popularize. Foreign researchers would reach out and receive no answers. They were told to go away. It was only recently that Japan has realized how useful this narrative is.”

Perhaps I arched an eyebrow. I knew Sugihara’s story had only become well-known recently; I could only have made educated guesses as to why. But in a world where memories of the war are fading, and where Japan lacks any war heroes of whom they can boast of on the world stage – of course, Sugihara is worth promoting. Sadly, he’s also a perfect shield for obscuring Imperial Japan’s connections to Nazi Germany. Sugihara, as someone who helped counteract the most evil designs of the Nazis, serves to distract from Japan’s role as a wartime oppressor in Asia. From the current government’s standpoint, the more he can come to symbolize wartime Japan, the better.

I implied that some might think ill of such blatant politizing of a historical figure. My interlocutor nodded, adding, “actually, we sometimes get messages in our guest book like that. The vast majority of comments are overwhelmingly positive, but occasionally we get something like ‘Japan, apologize for your war crimes against humanity!'” Some, she added, were so violently charged that she’d removed them from the guest book. The museum, however, did not throw such messages away. Even the most negative commentary had its value.

I had much to ponder. Before I left, she asked if I’d like my picture taken in Sugihara’s office. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity. When we went to take the photograph, she asked if I’d like to stand behind the desk. At first, I demurred. Who was I, to become Sugihara? Eighty years earlier and I would have been one of those seeking salvation – not the one with the power to grant it. For all my talk of the unreality of myth-making, I was still as in awe of Sugihara as ever.

Farewell to Kaunas

Later that evening, another bus took me away from Kaunas, bound further north. My time in the city was brief – hardly more than a full twenty-four hours. Still, I couldn’t help sensing the value of that short time. To return to the home of an ancestor, to grapple with Sugihara’s legacy, to celebrate Hanukkah in a city once made intentionally bereft of Jewish life – Kaunas had given me exactly what I needed from it.

As for Sugihara himself and all the questions Kaunas had to offer about him and those who seek to use his story — these bear reflection. The examination of the sources of our narratives, who uses them, and to what ends, will always be a worthy undertaking. But for me, the humanistic heroism Sugihara showed in Kaunas – even if bolstered by myth or post-facto addendums – will always be the true heart of this story. Sugihara’s heroism is what matters most.

In the end, though, the image from Kaunas I believe I’ll remember most will be one from that first Hanukkah night: the sight of a menorah, standing on high in a city where once Jews were nearly eradicated, exultant fireworks bursting into multicolored plumes behind it. That night, Jews celebrated the story of our freedom. We ate, drank, and made merry. And while I’ll never know Sugihara Chiune, no matter how much I read about him, no matter if I stand in the very place he once stood — I’d like to think that seeing all this, he would have been happy.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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