Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986), a Japanese diplomat, risked his job and reputation in order to save thousands of people. Sugihara’s deeds took place not in Asia but on the other side of the world, in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania. There, as vice-consul of Imperial Japan and during a period of less than one month during the summer of 1940, he defied direct orders and enabled an estimated 6,000 Jews to escape the Holocaust.
But Sugihara’s defiant streak was evident much earlier. In his late teens he deliberately failed the exam to enter medical school, contrary to his father’s wishes, so that he could pursue his love of languages and literature.
His desire to travel the world later led him to a career in diplomacy, and after he had passed the Foreign Ministry entrance exam in 1919, he was sent to Harbin, Manchuria, where he studied Russian and German and became an expert in Russian affairs. He spent some 15 years in the Japanese puppet state (which it had invaded in 1931), working some of the time for the Manchurian Foreign Ministry, but resigned in 1934-35 in protest over his country’s mistreatment of the local population.
When World War II broke out, thousands of Jews fled from the German part of Poland to Lithuania. But the Soviet takeover of Lithuania in summer 1940 created a new set of Jewish victims with its purge of liberals, intellectuals and Russian Mensheviks. All sought to flee Europe for the New World, but because they could not go south or west through the Nazi-occupied areas, the only way out for the refugees was to traverse the USSR by trans-Siberian railway to the Far East and try to get to the Americas from there.
It was during this period that Sugihara was assigned to open a Japanese consulate in Kaunas, the temporary capital of ‘neutral’ Lithuania. In summer 1940, the Soviets annexed Lithuania and the communist authorities ordered all consulates in Kaunas to be closed.
Sugihara sought an extension to stay and immediately found himself inundated with pleas from desperate refugees begging for transit visas to Japan. Thousands of them besieged the consulate day and night. When Sugihara sought instructions from Japan, he was told that the applicants must hold a valid visa for a final destination and sufficient funds for the journey. Most had neither of these requirements. But the Soviet authorities still demanded bribes and charged them five times the normal rate for crossing the Soviet Union.
After consulting with his wife Yukiko, Sugihara reached a difficult decision. By disregarding the instructions of his superiors he knew he faced possible dismissal and disgrace for his family. Nevertheless, his humanitarian instincts won out. ‘I may have to disobey my government,’ he said, ‘but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.’
Working for more than 18 hours, day after day, between July 31 and August 28, 1940, Chiune manually filled out some 300 visas a day – more than he would normally do in a month. People queuing outside the consulate started climbing over the fences, at which point Chiune promised them that as long as there was a single person left, he would not abandon them.
Even as they boarded the train to leave Kaunas, Chiune and Yukiko were still handing out visas. As he prepared to depart, Chiune flung blank sheets of paper from the train windows, with just the consulate seal and his signature, leaving the stamp so that the refugees could forge these vital documents themselves.
In total, Sugihara issued 2,140 visas. But since those holding a visa could bring their families with them, thousands more were able to escape almost certain death or incarceration in a ghetto or concentration camp.
Those who could left for Moscow, took the trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok and from there crossed the straits to Kobe, Japan. Some of them spent the rest of the war in Shanghai, while others continued to destinations in the Western Hemisphere. Although Japan was an ally of Germany, it rejected Nazi demands to implement an anti-Semitic policy, including extermination of the Jews of Japanese-occupied Shanghai. When the refugees began arriving in Kobe, they were encouraged to move to the Shanghai ghetto, where they were concentrated under the benign protection of Japan.
After the Sugiharas left Kaunas, Chiune moved on to hold posts in Berlin, Prague, and Bucharest, among others. After the Soviets marched through the Balkans in 1944, Sugihara and his family were arrested and interned for three years with diplomats from other enemy countries.
On his return to Japan in 1947, Sugihara was retired from the Foreign Ministry with a small pension. Some sources say he was dismissed because of his insubordination in Kaunas. Following the unceremonious dismissal, he held a variety of part-time jobs as an interpreter and translator, and finally found a position for 15 years in a Japanese export company that did business with Moscow.
Since the Sugiharas never spoke about what they did, it was only in 1969 that their story began to emerge. An Israeli diplomat posted to Tokyo launched a search for the man who had saved his life by issuing his family with a visa. Eventually, more survivors came forward and testified to the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
In 1985, Sugihara was awarded Yad Vashem’s highest honor as a ‘Righteous among the Nations.’ Many other tributes followed his death in 1986. The Chiune Sugihara memorial park, ‘The Hill of Humanities,’ in his birthplace of Yaotsu, was built by the people of the town in his honour. In 1999, the Lithuanian government inaugurated Sugihara House in the old consulate building in Kaunas. In April 2000, the United Nations held a ceremony honouring 65 diplomats from 22 countries who risked their careers and lives by helping Jews escape from the Nazis. Among the names was Chiune Sugihara.
According to some estimates, 100,000 descendants of Jewish refugees owe their lives to Sugihara’s bureaucratic heroics. Almost 45 years after signing the life-saving visas, Chiune was asked what motivated him to help. He said, ‘They were human beings and they needed help. I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them.’