Sugihara and I
Many moons ago, when I was but a 5th grader at the Minneapolis Jewish Day School, a light but richly illustrated book caught my eye from the picture book rack in the school library.
My mother was the librarian at the school, and I would spend hours every week holed up in that small library, glancing through book after book as I waited for my mother to finish up her work so we could head home. I had recently developed an interest in Japanese culture (like many in my generation thanks in no small part to the films of Miyazaki Hayao) and had already made quick work of the scant few books in the library that pertained to Japan – a short book in a series on kids’ daily lives in foreign countries being one of the few I can still recall today.
What set this library apart from other school book repositories was the impressive collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that related to Jewish culture and history. While this category contained many fascinating titles, it held little to satisfy my then-blossoming curiosity towards a culture that was admittedly as unrelated to my own as any on the planet. There simply seemed to be nothing to relate my interest in Japan with my own Jewish culture, and the library was a reflection on how far away my broader interests were, compared to the reality of my life at the time. That’s why the book I had suddenly come across had caught me so off guard.
This book was entitled Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. On the foreground of the sepia-tinged illustration on the cover stood a middle-aged Japanese man with slicked-back hair and a slight, compassionate smile on his face, his style of dress signifying to my younger self that he belonged to some time in the earlier 20th century. Next to him stood a small Japanese boy, presumably his son. Behind the pair was a long line of anxious-looking families, their backs bent, staring onwards towards the right side of the cover in supposed anticipation of something they were unsure would arrive.
The picture presented here spoke to me immediately, my Jewish elementary school experience with World War II imagery already being enough to grasp what this tale might be about. The bedraggled line in the background must have been a group of Jews, trying to escape from the all-encompassing darkness of the Holocaust. And here was a World War II-era Japanese man, ostensibly an ally of Hitler, not the Jews, but who must have helped them nonetheless.
I opened to the first page, and had the story of humanitarian bravery of Sugihara Chiune – who would later go on to become well-known as the “Japanese Schindler” – forever burned into my memory.
A Young Prodigy
Sugihara Chiune (杉原千畝) was born in the now-defunct town of Kozuchi, Gifu Prefecture, on what was, by Western reckoning, the very first day of the 20th century. On the Japanese calendar he had been born on the 33rd year of the Meiji era, a period which had seen the accelerated modernization of Japan and the emergence of the nation from a 260 year-long self-imposed isolation.
The increasing militarism in Japan of those days had subtle effects on Sugihara, even at a young age – when he was only six years old, many of the men from his town died fighting in the Russo-Japanese War. Sugihara’s father worked as a tax administrator, and the family followed their father from post to post around the central regions of Japan.He knew that every visa represented a person who might escape an unutterably horrific fate. If his work were cut off, many would suffer horribly for it. Click To Tweet
Despite transferring schools multiple times throughout his primary education, Sugihara still managed to excel in his studies. His father, who finally left his family behind for a position in the Japanese colony of Korea, continually made it clear to Sugihara via their correspondences that he wished for his son to use his talents in order to become a doctor. By high school, however, Sugihara knew his ambitions lay elsewhere. He hoped to become a teacher, something his father disdained – the two would argue over this for many years.
Eventually, Sugihara sat a medical school admissions test, as per his father’s directions, but Sugihara defied his father by simply affixing his name to the test paper and leaving the rest blank. This final insult to his father’s authority over his son served as the last straw, and his father saw that Sugihara’s allowance was revoked. Determined as ever to do what he believed was the right choice, Sugihara headed to the capital, Tokyo, and was admitted to the prestigious Waseda University to study English.
But life was difficult for a young man with no steady income or family support. Sugihara was forced to drop out of Waseda after a year, and began searching around for a way to satisfy his intellectual curiosity while still putting food on his table. The opportunity arrived in the form of a Foreign Ministry training program that would send abroad those who passed an intense exam to study languages and diplomacy, all while providing a viable stipend. Sugihara put his back into his studies and passed the test, and chose Russian as his language of future study because of an interest in Russian literature (popular in Japan in the early 20th century – including with a man ten years Sugihara’s junior who would go on to be one of history’s greatest film directors) and, he would admit, a partiality towards vodka.
Sugihara was sent to distant Harbin, Manchuria, a northern Chinese town with an extensive Russian population, to conduct his new studies. His future as a teacher was over, but he saw a new, intriguing future as a diplomat emerging in its wake.
The Jews and Japan
Sugihara thrived in the cosmopolitan railroad town of Harbin. He found he took to languages like a (babel) fish to water and was soon fluent in Russian. He was gaining an affinity towards Russia that would stay with him for life, and he would often venture into the Russian part of town to drink and chat with the locals.
Along with the town’s huge Russian population, there was another community he had never before encountered personally and which he knew little about: Jews. Many of those he encountered in the city were fleeing Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution, trying to venture through neutral Chinese territory to make their way onwards to the United States, and hopefully away from war and persecution.
The concept of the Jewish people first entered Japan through two sources – Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, and the Christian bible. Both were prone to give Japanese who encountered them a somewhat negative view of Jews, but neither work greatly penetrated Japanese popular knowledge during the era. Some people, both foreign and Japanese, who worked in Japan during the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on the Jews for a more outlandish reason: as a potential origin of the Japanese people. For those who wished to associate the Japanese with the seemingly more developed West rather than what was seen as “backwards” Asia, spurious similarities between Shinto practices and Jewish ritual, as well as between certain Japanese and Hebrew words, proved fertile ground for fantastical theories of the Japanese secretly being the descendants of one of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.
Another, more dubious source proved to have a somewhat more lasting, insidious effect – the falsified, anti-Semitic documents known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Purporting to be the minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders as they plot world domination, the screed, first published in the Russian Empire in 1903, eventually made its way into the Japanese language, in large part circulated by Japanese military elite. Responsible for untold conspiratorial hatred towards Jews, the forged documents had an interesting effect in Japan, where the insidious and economically devious Jews portrayed therein were viewed almost positively. If these people could be so powerful within the West, surely they would make for favorable allies, rather than enemies.
The idea of Jews as rich, powerful, highly intelligent, and working behind the scenes for control still remains in Japan to some degree. I experienced coworkers telling me it was my Jewish genes that allowed me to be smart enough to learn Japanese, and engaged in conversation with local twenty-something roughnecks at my local village watering hole who discussed how the Rothchilds and the Jews made up a shadow government in Europe and the USA (when I mentioned that these were ideas lifted from a fake Russian document from the early 20th Century, they said they had ever heard of the Protocols – despite still clearly being influenced by similar ideas).
Despite all this, the general image of Jews in Japan, then and now, is very limited. In many ways, Jews simply blend in with so many other vaguely Caucasian foreigners, just another permutation of gaikokujin.
Sugihara Chiune would likely have encountered a deeper knowledge of Jews from another source, however. Beyond meeting bedraggled Jews in Harbin (who he reportedly pitied for what he viewed as a tough lot, being beset on all sides for seeming no reason) and often walking past the local synagogue in the Russian sector of town, Chiune likely became more acquainted with Judaism through what would soon be his adopted religion.
The Road to Lithuania
Sugihara’s affinity for Russian culture continued to grow throughout the nearly 16 years Sugihara would live in Harbin. He even married a Russian woman during this period, Klaudia Semionova Apollonova. They remained together throughout his time in Harbin, where he was eventually assigned to the important post of Vice Chief of the Foreign Ministry of Manchukuo – the puppet state Japan had recently created in Manchuria. Despite some impressive accomplishments, in 1935 Sugihara would quit his position in protest of the horrendous treatment of the local Chinese by the Japanese puppet government he had been a part of.
Sugihara and Claudia eventually divorced. Returning to Tokyo, Sugihara quickly found himself entranced by another woman – a 21-year- old beauty with wavy hair and kindly eyes named Kikuchi Yukiko, whose traditional tanka poetry impressed him. Soon the two had married, and Yukiko had even converted to Russian Orthodoxy. While their first son was still very young, Sugihara received his first posting abroad with his new family. The three headed to Russia so that Sugihara could serve at the Japanese Embassy there.
The onset of World War II led to turmoil and shifting alliances, and Sugihara found himself assigned to various posts around the world as a result. Yukiko continued her duties as society host until she became pregnant with her second son, Chiaki.
Then, in 1939, a new posting came through. Sugihara would be sent to the small independent nation of Lithuania, where he would run the Japanese consulate in the second-largest city in the country, Kaunas. Neither of the couple knew much about the Baltic state, but began preparing to shift their lives to this new nation nonetheless. Little did they know that it would be at the consulate in Lithuania that Sugihara would carry out the actions that would, much later, immortalize him as a humanist hero.
The War Encroaches
By the summer of 1939, as the Sugiharas arrived at their white-stucco house on the eastern outskirts of Kaunas, the continent of Europe had already erupted into war. Hitler had annexed the fellow Germanic nation of Austria in an act that is now known as the Anschluss. Next, despite promising British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that he would only annex the German-speaking Sudetenland in independent Czechoslovakia, Hitler instead invaded and occupied that country. Poland, one of Lithuania’s neighbors, looked to be next. Within the ever-expanding lands controlled by Nazi Germany, Jews faced increasing curtailments of their rights, as well as brutal state-sponsored violence.
Nazi Germany finally invaded Poland in September, with the USSR jointly invading from the East, splitting the country in two. Poland’s massive Jewish population of more than three million was in desperate danger, and many Jews fled on foot towards any possible safe harbor. Still-independent Lithuania, which itself had a large and historical Jewish population, was the temporary destination for tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. Local Jewish communities in Kaunas and the capital of Vilnius set about providing for these new weary among them, setting up food kitchens and housing with local families. Sugihara felt pity for these Jews who flooded Kaunas, whose numbers now dwarfed those of the Jewish refugees he had seen in Harbin.
Sugihara befriended some within the large Jewish community in Kaunas. By December, Sugihara had become acquainted with a young Jewish boy named Solly Ganor. He and Yukiko accepted an invitation from the young lad to join his family for Hanukkah. They appeared at the Jewish home in their finest attire to celebrate the festival of lights. After the story of Judah Maccabee has been told and the assembled guests sat down to partake of latkes and a Japanese-style duck prepared especially for the eminent Japanese guests, things suddenly turned grim.
A refugee the Ganors were hosting, Mr. Rosenblatt, began to speak of the horrors he’d seen in Poland. His wife had been killed in the bombing of Warsaw, and he had seen the invading Germans assault Jews, rounding them up to be sent to camps. The panicked man turned to Sugihara, tears in his eyes, and begged him for a visa that would allow him to flee Europe through the Soviet Union and to Japan. Sugihara, concerned but regretful, told Mr. Rosenblatt that he doubted that the Japanese government would approve the issuance of such a visa, but told him to come visit his consulate anyway. He also encouraged Mr. Ganor to come as well, but the latter said his business was too tied up in Kaunas to risk flight just yet.
What went unsaid was that Mr. Ganor still doubted Hitler would dare invade a neutral and independent state like Lithuania. He assumed his family was still safe.
A Deepening Crisis
In January of 1940, Soviet Troops advanced into Lithuania, unchallenged by a cowed Lithuanian legislature. While the Soviets at first claimed they were only there to protect independent Lithuanian interests, few were fooled.
Despite the tenuous situation this new administration presented to foreign diplomats in an increasingly less-independent Lithuania, Sugihara, with his mastery of Russian language and culture, found few difficulties dealing with the new Soviet occupiers. He continued his consular duties, as well as what has now often been suggested as his real mission in Europe – tacit spying on the Soviet and German militaries and the related political situation for his own government.
More and more Jewish refugees crowded the streets of Kaunas, the Jewish agencies of the city straining to care for them. As various foreign consulates, now lacking purpose in the secondary city of what was soon to be simply another state within the USSR, began closing their doors, the Jews of Kaunas fretted over the best means of escaping Europe. Almost all countries worldwide were closed to them, and illegal entry across the border into Russia could be a hazardous, potentially deadly affair. But a rumor had begun to circulate that one local consulate, belonging to a faraway Asian country, might be able to offer them a whiff of hope.
Strangers in Their Time of Need
On the morning of July 27th, 1940, Sugihara Chiune looked out his window towards the front gate of his consulate. What he saw surprised and agitated him. A medium-sized crowd of desperate, disheveled looking people were milling about in front of the gate, waiting for the consulate to open. Sugihara sent his assistant, Borislav, out to inquire as to what these people wanted, and then went to alert Yukiko to the presence of the crowd.
Borislav returned, telling the couple that these people were Jews, and that there were more than a hundred outside the gates. Many more would soon be arriving. They had heard that the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, was to allow Jewish refugees to settle in distant Curaçao, an island possession of the Netherlands in the faraway Caribbean. This was one of the few places they now knew of that would allow in Jews. But travel westward through Nazi territory was impossible, and travel through the USSR would be just as unachievable without official transit documents.
And yet a rumor had gone around that the Japanese consul was prepared to give out transit visas to Jews that would allow them to traverse Russia towards Japan, from whence they could book passage to America, or even to Japanese-controlled Shanghai, one of the few other places that allowed Jews to enter.
Sugihara and Yukiko were greatly conflicted. Surely Sugihara, in his empathy, had been considering helping those Jews he had personally encountered, like the Ganors and Mr. Rosenblatt. And yet he knew that the Japanese government would never agree to issuing hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of visas to fleeing Jews. Outside, the ever-increasing crowd seemed more agitated than ever, some people even trying to climb the gates while other more comported refugees held them back.
Sugihara and Yukiko went upstairs to explain what was going on to their sons. The boys, having seen the anxious faces of fellow children in the crowd, entreated their father to help them. Meanwhile, Borislav and Gudze, Sugihara’s German-born assistant, were being forced to physically push back members of the crowd who were attempting to climb the gate. Sugihara, knowing he needed to act soon, as much for the safety of his family as that of the desperate crowd outside, decided he would meet with five representatives from amongst the refugees.
The crowd having been placated by the selection of the representatives, Sugihara soon found himself sitting in his office with five Jewish men. The head of the group was one Zerach Warhaftig, a refugee from Poland who was had become the leader of the Palestine Committee for Polish Refugees upon his arrival in Lithuania. Others included a Polish Rabbi, Samuel Graudenz, who had fled his country with every single student of the Mir Yeshiva, and a man named Yehoshua Nishri. Warhaftig pulled out a map and explained the desperate situation they found themselves in, and then each man told his own harrowing story of death and close escape to Kaunas.
Sugihara grappled with what he was hearing, but told the weary men there was no possible way he could draft so many visas on his own authority. He would wire the Foreign Ministry for permission. In the meantime, he asked the men to wait one more day.
As the five Jewish men returned to the restless crowd to tell of what had been discussed, Sugihara received disturbing news that greatly exasperated the urgency of the situation. The Soviet Union had messaged the Japanese consulate with demands that it be closed. Sugihara now had a ticking clock to contend with in addition to the ever-expanding press of desperate humanity that stood in wait outside his home.
Thousands of Lives on the Line
Early the next morning, Sugihara called the five Jewish representatives back into his office, this time to meet with the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk. Jan asserted that he would indeed issue visas for entrance to Curaçao, although he followed this proclamation with a chuckle, admitting that he doubted the small island even had a customs office. With all eyes now on him, Sugihara said he would request his ministry to allow the creation of transit visas for Japan to Curaçao, provided that his wife agreed.
Approaching Yukiko after the meeting, he received an immediate affirmative. They would help these people in any way they could.
The coded letter Sugihara drafted read as so:
I request permission to issue visas to hundreds of Jewish people who have come to the consulate here in Kaunas seeking transit visas. They are suffering extremely. As a fellow human being, I cannot refuse their requests. Please permit me to issue visas to them. This request is a humanitarian plea. The refugees’ request for visas should not be denied.
Two days later, an answer came from the Foreign Ministry. It was an out-and-out refusal and instructed Sugihara in no uncertain terms to not issue any visas, nor to inquire as to his ability to do so again.
Sugihara sent another telegram.
As they waited for the second reply, Sugihara’s anxiety worsened. He doubted the response would be in the affirmative, and he knew he needed to begin closing down the consulate, as ordered by the Soviets. And still, the crowd outside grew. The response finally came. Again, he was denied, this time on the reasoning that such refugees would “compromise passenger safety” on the ferries across the Sea of Japan.
And yet Sugihara sent one more request.
Again, he was denied.
For the average Japanese bureaucrat, this would have been the end of it. His higher-ups had spoken, and he had been forbidden to help these people. To act further would be to risk his career as well as his status, perhaps even putting his family’s future at risk.
But in this moment, at this point in history, where thousands of lives might lay on the line, Sugihara Chiune was no average man.
With Yukiko’s agreement, Sugihara made his decision. Under his own authority as Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania, he would issue the Jewish refugees visas written by his own hand.
A Flurry of Visas
And so it began.
Like those seeking conversion to Judaism within the Orthodox Jewish tradition, Sugihara had asked three times, and been rejected three times. He had refused to take no for an answer. The next morning, Sugihara set out early to visit the Soviet consulate, his black Buick, with its twinned Japanese flags, gently pushing aside those gathered around the gate as he made he way out of his consulate. After impressing his Soviet counterpart with his masterful Russian, he managed to convince the man to allow the passage of the Jews through the USSR as long as they bore Japanese visas.
Back at his consulate, Sugihara stepped outside to announce to the gathered hundreds that he would now commence with the issuing of visas to every person there gathered. As the crowd ascertained what was occurring, the mass of humans broke out into a sudden joyous rapture. People danced for joy, embracing each other, while some began Hebrew prayers of gratitude. The press of grateful humanity surged towards Sugihara, who had to physically push himself away from his admirers to get back through the gate.
Soon Sugihara began the slow, arduous process of interviewing each visa seekers, letting them in one by one or in family groups, writing down their personal information both on the visas and in his records. As he talked with each person, Sugihara would gently tell them to call him Sempo – an easier to pronounce variant of the two kanji (千畝) that made up his name. Gudze, his German assistant, helped with the stamping and information gathering. The two worked through the day, nary taking a break to eat or rest. Before the sun had set, Sugihara was exhausted, his hands already beginning to cramp.
And yet the crowd outside had only gotten larger as more Jews, hearing that a source of relief had finally arrived, headed for the Japanese Consulate.
From July 18th, Sugihara’s work became an unending stream of interviews, writing, and the stamping of documents. Despite the urgency (and the fact that he was flagrantly ignoring ministry orders), he insisted on maintaining proper etiquette in his records process. Most days he would work a near-unceasing 18 or even 20 hours, issuing a usual month’s worth of visas in a single day, and joining Yukiko in bed, late at night, in a state of almost catatonic exhaustion.
On August 2nd, after over two weeks of ceaseless stamping, Sugihara received another message from the Soviet government ordering the immediate cessation of consular activities and the shuttering of the Kaunas consulate. Sugihara wrote to the Soviet consulate, this time making an impassioned plea for the extension of his consular activities. The Soviet side responded that they would consider it. In the meantime, Sugihara quickened the pace of visa interviews. He knew that every visa represented a person who might escape an unutterably horrific fate. If his work were cut off, many would suffer horribly for it.
Visas Thrown From the TrainSugihara stood on the train, hurriedly scribbling out visas, throwing them to the people below. Click To Tweet
Sugihara waited, bone-weary, for a response from the Soviets regarding his request for extension. He watched the crowd outside the consulate fail to become any smaller, despite the hundreds of visas he was issuing per day, and he realized he needed to do something. While most of the better-off Jews in Kaunas had managed to get in line early and had received their visas, the huddled masses that crowded Vaižganto street were the more impoverished, the more desperate. Sugihara resigned himself to forgo the usual procedures for these needy: many did not have valid documents or the funds necessary to travel. He would speed their way, providing them with documents no matter what their situation.
The days continued. Sugihara met hundreds per day – fathers, mothers, the elderly, single men and women, whole families, those who had lost everything and everyone. Each one was a person with their own lives and tragedies. Each one needed an escape as much as the last.
Finally, a response from the Soviets arrived. Miraculously, the consulate would be allowed open a few more weeks – all the way to August 28th. Sugihara breathed a deep sigh of relief and informed the overjoyed people outside from behind his gate.
Now it was the Japanese government that placed pressure on Sugihara. He had received multiple telegrams demanding he shut down the consulate and report to Berlin for his new posting.
This last telegram was the end, and Sugihara knew it. He could push back the advance of time no more. Telling Yukiko to begin packing and ordering Gudze to prepare to shut down the consulate, Sugihara returned to his work, hoping to get as many visas to the people who needed them as he could before the final moments came.
Eventually, time ran out. As if in a trance, Sugihara gathered with the children in the garage, clambering into the consular Buick. The gate opened, and Sugihara, Yukiko, and their sons stared out the window at the mass of people who remained, who stared back with looks of utmost despair. Yukiko fought back tears, wishing she could do something, wishing to apologize to those who they were leaving behind to uncertain fates.
They reached the hotel where they would be staying until their departure for Berlin, but before Sugihara could collapse in his room, he was told he had guests in the lobby. There, he found a line of Jews, who had followed a sign he had posted at the consulate gate that said where he could be found on the following days. Sugihara no longer had his consular stamps, but seeing these people, he still felt the need to act. He began writing visas on official consulate paper by hand, suggesting to the refugees that they yell out “Nihon, banzai!” if questioned by officials as to why their visas contained no stamps. He worked through the day in that lobby, refusing to retire to his hotel room for dinner.
For days, he continued to write handwritten, half-official visas for the growing line of people from his chair in the hotel lobby. Finally, Yukiko informed him that it was time to leave. He stood up in a daze, and for the second time, walked past a line of devastated people, waiting on him for deliverance.
Sugihara turned to the terrified refugees, begged their forgiveness, and wished them good luck. Finally, as he was about to exit the hotel, he turned around one last time and bowed deeply to those assembled before him. Yukiko would later remember someone from the crowd yelling out as they departed the hotel.
Sugihara, We’ll never forget you. We’ll surely see you again!
By the time the Sugiharas had boarded the train at Kaunas Station, the crowd of remaining Jews had caught up to them, standing on the platform. Sugihara stood on the train, hurriedly scribbling out visas, throwing them to the people below. At last, slowly, the train began to move. Sugihara continued his urgent writing, throwing out paper after paper, until finally the train was pulling away from the station. In a last, desperate move, he threw the last of his consular paper out the windows, hoping someone would copy his writing. Behind them, the family heard yells of “banzai, Nihon!” “Sempo!” “We’ll never forget you!”
Soon, the yelling had been quieted by distance, Kaunas fading behind them. The only sound was the telltale thump of the train speeding along its track, taking the Sugiharas far away.
The Sugiharas’ Scramble for Survival
Sugihara Chiune fell into a deep sleep, waking only as the train pulled into Berlin.
For the Sugiharas, the nearly five remaining years of World War II would be at times intense, even terrifying, and at others surprisingly relaxed. Sugihara received various posts around German-controlled areas of Europe, consistently interacting with Nazis, whose government had recently joined in the Tripartite Pact with Japan. Everywhere they went, the streets were festooned with the emblems and banners of the Third Reich, the victims of which Sugihara had done so much to try to help back in Lithuania. The fear of the repercussions he knew must be waiting for him gnawed at Sugihara and Yukiko. They knew not whether it would be the Nazis or the Japanese Foreign Ministery that would first act to punish Sugihara for what he had done.
Surprisingly, no reprimand came during the war years. The Sugiharas suffered in other ways, as did so many in Europe during that time. The whole family witnessed intense bombings, and saw dead bodies littering European cities. Yukiko herself nearly died when caught in a bombardment while out for groceries, being saved by a retreating German unit. When the unit itself was attacked from above, Yukiko barely survived, and only managed to return to her family home outside of Bucharest eight days after she had left. Sugihara was beside himself when she returned home alive.
Only a scant few of the Jews who still remained in Lithuania when the Nazis invaded in 1941 would be so lucky. Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing forces of the Nazis, roamed the Baltic countryside and cities. The Jews of Kaunas were forced into a Ghetto; Sugihara’s young friend Solly Ganor and his family were among them. Solly’s father, hoping to first secure the proper funds to support his family, had failed to use the visa Sugihara had specially arranged for him in time. Amazingly, Solly, his father, and his sister would survive the unspeakable horrors that followed, although not without the loss of many of their family at the hands of the Nazis.
From 1943, the liquidation of the ghettos was put into effect, with the majority of the population being rounded up and summarily murdered. The survivors were sent to concentration camps, where most were mercilessly worked to death.
At the end of the war, 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.
Poland, the greatest pre-war Jewish population center, and original home of so many of those Sugihara Chiune helped, saw the murder of three million of its original population of 3.3 million. Today, only around 10,000 Jews live in that country.
The end of the war caught the Sugiharas still residing in his final posting in Romania, where the Red Army invaded and routed the Nazis holding the country. Sugihara, a diplomat of a nation that had become the USSR’s enemy, was put in detention with his family. There they lived a monotonous prisoner’s life for eighteen months until a Russian official Sugihara had befriended finally sent them onwards towards Japan. An arduous journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway saw many more periods of captivity in various prisoner camps along the way, until the family finally arrived at the Far Eastern Soviet port of Nakhodka. Here, they were forced to wait once again.
Finally, in April 1947, the family was allowed to sail for Japan. Like so many Japanese stuck behind Soviet lines at war’s end, whether in Manchuria, Sakhalin, or elsewhere, the Sugiharas had faced an extended, difficult repatriation. Finally, they were home – in a country only the eldest of their children had ever seen, and which now was under occupation by the United States.
That same year, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, defanged under the auspices of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers headed by Douglas MacArthur, let Sugihara go. While the official reasoning was occupation-era downsizing, Yukiko would later claim that Sugihara told her he had been informed his firing was a result of his actions during 1940 in his post in Lithuania.
His career ended, Sugihara, like so many in those years, had to scramble for work just to get by. The glamorous days of diplomatic life had ended for his family. Sugihara would eventually find himself called back to Russia, the place which had so fascinated him his entire life. He would work at a firm in Moscow for close to two decades. For some time, he wondered if his actions in Kaunas has indeed saved anyone.
The Generations Who Lived
Decades later, Sugihara Chiune would learn the truth.
He had indeed saved lives; thousands, even. Bearing with them the visas which contained the official seal of the Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania and the signature of Sugihara Chiune, whole families traversed the Soviet Union, making their way to Kobe, the Japanese city with the biggest Jewish population. Others found refuge in the Shanghai ghetto, where there was suffering, but where the Japanese government refused to carry out the mass killing of Jews Hitler demanded of them (such violence was, sadly, saved for the Chinese peoples themselves).
The Jewish refugees in Kobe would finally make their way towards North America, encountering more difficulty as the Pacific War broke out. Many would find permanent homes in adopted countries like the United States, Canada, and eventually the State of Israel, which gained its independence in 1948.
28 years after his time in Lithuania, an older Sugihara Chiune received a sudden telephone call from the Israeli Embassy requesting a meeting. There, an elderly Israeli statesman greeted him and held out a weathered piece of paper. Looking over the page, Sugihara recognized his own writing and consular stamps. The Israeli man, tears welling in his eyes, told Sugihara his name: Yehoshua Nishri. He had been one of the five Jewish men who had represented the collected Jewish refugees and met with Sugihara all those years ago. He told Sugihara that many lived today who would have died if not for Sugihara’s help. The delay in finding him had only been because the survivors had searched the Japanese Foreign Office records for “Sempo” Sugihara – the name Sugihara had told them to call him.
The next year, Sugihara, Yukiko, and their family were invited to Israel, beginning a long connection between the Sugihara family and the Jewish state. They were greeted on arrival by Zerach Warhaftig, the man who had headed the five-man representation to the consulate. Warhaftig had become Israeli Minister of Religion, and had even been one of the signatories to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. He and Sugihara shared a tearful embrace, with Warhaftig calling Sugihara “our emissary of God.” He even told Sugihara that he had 25 grandchildren – all of whom lived because of Sugihara.
The Israeli government arranged for a scholarship for Sugihara’s youngest son, Nobuki, at the prestigious Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nobuki, who now speaks fluent Hebrew and lived in Israel for years, has maintained close ties to the Jewish people his entire life.
Righteous Among the Nations
In 1985, one year before his death, the Israeli government recognized Sugihara Chiune as a “Righteous Among the Nations” (חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם), a high honor granted to non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Sugihara was the only Japanese national to receive the award. The Dutch consul to Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, was also granted the title posthumously. At the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, perhaps the greatest home to Holocaust records and memory in the world, a tree was planted in Sugihara’s name.
The legend of Sugihara Chiune, so long obscure in his home country and most of the non-Jewish world, has gained more and more traction in recent years, resulting in numerous articles, books, documentaries, a major Japanese biopic (of debatable quality), and even speeches on the emergent Japanese hero by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Relatedly, a trend has even emerged of the right-wing in Japan using Sugihara Chiune as a mask by which they can claim Japanese heroism in World War II, downplaying the Japanese role of wartime oppressor (even though Sugihara acted against his own government’s express orders). Sugihara, though he did not live to hear it, is now often mentioned in the same breath as Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler.
This myth-making, for good or for ill, is beyond the point. The reality is that Sugihara Chiune, by issuing as many as 6,000 visas to desperate people fleeing the most heinous forms of oppression and violence, saved thousands of lives at his own personal expense. Today, more than 40,000 individuals – “Sugihara Survivors” – are alive because they descended from people Sugihara helped save, sitting there at his desk, feverishly scribbling out transit visas.
As a scholar of Japan, and as a Jew who had family who perished in the Holocaust – this story could not be more meaningful to me, and it has stuck with me ever since, as a young student, I picked up that illustrated children’s book all those years ago. The Sugihara family and their story continues to inspire and serve as a unique bridge between two disparate people groups. Sugihara Chiune, and indeed, Sugihara Yukiko, who urged her husband on to help those in most desperate need — in my heart, they truly are righteous among any nation.
Gold, Alison Leslie. A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara, Hero of the Holocaust. Scholastic Press, 2000. Print.
Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. Lee & Low Books, 1997. Print.
Barbasiewicz, Olga. Jews in Japan until 1945: A Case Study of Eidelberg and Shillony’s Research on Setsuzô Kotsuji. Hemispheres No. 28, 2013.
Liphshiz, Cnaan. “The son of Holocaust hero Chiune Sugihara is setting the record straight about his father’s story.” Jewish Telegraph Agency, May 16, 2019. https://www.jta.org/2019/05/16/global/the-son-of-holocaust-hero-chiune-sugihara-is-setting-the-record-straight-about-his-fathers-story
The Story of the Jewish Community of Mir. Yad Vashem. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, 2009.