Heroes are often born unexpectedly from dire circumstances. Confronted with an intolerable situation, they choose to act with humanity, rather than meekly back down, or join the angry mob. Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, and his wife Yukiko, when confronted with the Nazi Holocaust rapidly encroaching upon Lithuania, followed their hearts in direct defiance of their government. In 1940, in the early years of World War II, they risked their livelihood to urgently issue Travel Visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees. Though it would cost him his diplomatic career, this Holocaust Hero managed to save the lives of more than 6,000 souls, the second largest number of Jews rescued from the Nazis.
Who was this humble, unassuming hero?
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara was born in 1900 to a middle-class family on the Japanese Island of Honshu. His mother came from a long line of samurai and he grew up as the Japanese Empire was flexing its global military power. Sugihara was raised in the strict Japanese code of ethics – love of the family and children, duty and responsibility, strength and resourcefulness, and NOT bringing shame on one’s family. He graduated school at the top of his class and his father insisted he become a doctor. But Chiune’s dream was to study literature, live abroad and experience other cultures. He attended Tokyo’s Waseda University and paid for his own college with odd jobs.
Sugihara was interested in foreign religions, philosophy, cultures and languages. He a won a scholarship from the Japanese Foreign Service to study Russian in Manchuria, China. He graduated with honors from Harbin Gakuin as an expert on the Soviet Union. He returned to Tokyo to train for his first assignment as a diplomat. It was there he met and married his wife, Yukiko Kikuchi.
He first served in Japanese-controlled Manchuria and was soon promoted to Deputy Minister of China Foreign Affairs. But Sugihara was disturbed by his government’s cruel treatment of the Chinese people and resigned his post. Because he was now fluent in Russian, Tokyo sent him to the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas in 1939 to open a one-man consulate. Though officially a diplomat, he was also ordered to provide intelligence on both Soviet and German troop movements.
During his time in Lithuania, the Sugiharas became acquainted with many local residents. This included some Jews, who shared with him their fears of the growing Nazi menace in Germany. Sugihara observed the closeness of Jewish families and it reminded him of his own family, customs and festivals.
Six months later, Hitler’s Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.
Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. As Nazi forces rapidly overtook Poland, a wave of desperate Jewish refugees flooded into Lithuania. They brought with them chilling tales of German atrocities against Polish Jews. Some 15,000 arrived. Caught between the Nazis and the Soviets, they were desperately seeking ways to emigrate away from Europe. Sugihara recognized the urgency of their situation and exchanged information with friends in the Polish underground. He realized that, with western Europe engulfed in war, the best Jewish avenue for escape was an eastern route through the Soviet Union.
The population of Kaunas was also one-quarter Jewish. Lithuanian Jews did not realize the extent the Nazi Holocaust was being perpetrated against Polish Jews – murders by the tens of thousands. Then in June 1940, the Soviets invaded, occupied and annexed Lithuania, making it difficult for Jews to emigrate out through the Soviet Union. Sadly, the rest of the free world, including the United States, also limited the immigration of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Against this terrible backdrop, Consul Sugihara suddenly became a key player in Jewish survival. The fate of thousands of families would depend on a glimmer of hope … and his humanity. The two Dutch colonial islands of Curacao and Guiana in the Caribbean, did not require formal entrance visas. The Dutch consul had gotten permission to stamp their passports with entrance permits. There was one problem though. The refugees would have to pass through the Soviet Union. The Soviet consul agreed – on one condition. They’d also have to obtain a transit visa from Japan, as they’d have to pass through Japan on their way to the Caribbean.
Then Sugihara’s situation in Lithuania went from bad to worse.
In July 1940, the Soviet Union ordered all foreign embassies to evacuate Kaunas immediately. Sugihara and the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, urgently requested and received a 20-day extension from Moscow. In a matter of days, Sugihara and Zwartendijk were the only foreign diplomats left in Lithuania.
On a hot summer morning in July 1940, Consul Sugihara awakened to find a crowd of desperate Jewish refugees standing outside his consulate. As his wife was packing their belongings, Sugihara agreed to briefly meet with a delegation. They had come pleading with an urgent request for help.
If Consul Sugihara would grant them Japanese transit visas, they could obtain Russian exit visas and escape to freedom through the Soviet Union. Chiune Sugihara was sympathetic and moved by their plight, but he did not have the authority to issue thousands of such visas without permission. And he doubted the Japanese Foreign Ministry would agree to this very unusual request. However, he was troubled by the refugees’ plight and agreed to telegram Tokyo.
Chiune Sugihara wired his Foreign Ministry in Tokyo three separate times asking for permission. Three times he was denied. Japan did not want to accept Jewish refugees under such circumstances:
Concerning transit visas requested previously STOP advise absolutely not to be issued any traveler not holding firm end visa with guaranteed departure ex japan STOP no exceptions STOP no further inquiries expected STOPK Tanaka, Foreign Ministry, Tokyo
After the third rejection, and with the Jewish crowd still outside his door, he discussed the situation with his wife. Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. As a career diplomat, he was bound by the strict Japanese obedience he had been taught all his life. He was also a descendant of samurais, who helped those in need over the centuries. He knew that if he defied orders, he risked family disgrace and would probably never work as a diplomat again. This would result in serious hardship for his family.
Fifty years later, his wife Yukiko, described those days: “At first, there were maybe 300 people. They stood there from morning till night, day after day, their small children with them. They had risked their lives, their bodies exhausted, their clothes torn and their faces tired. I would see them from my window. It was so hard for me to watch … they were so miserable. We did not know what to do. We could not sleep at night. We had three young children ourselves. If my husband issues the visas contrary to the Foreign Office, he would lose his career … We were thinking and thinking what to do, and the refugees begged and begged ”Please give us visas“.
Sugihara was haunted by the words of the samurai proverb: “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.”
In the end, they could only follow their consciences. They would write the visas. In his response to the Tokyo cable, Sugihara admitted issuing visas to people who had not completed all required arrangements. He explained the extenuating circumstances: Japan was the only transit country available for those going to the Caribbean, and his visas were needed for departure from the Soviet Union. Once the Nazis arrived, all the Jews would be sent to concentration camps.
For 29 days in August, 1940, the Sugiharas sat for hours each day, writing and signing visas by hand. They wrote over 300 a day, normally a month’s worth. Each night, she would massage his tired and aching hands. He rarely stopped to eat but for sandwiches his wife made. Jews were standing in line day and night. He came out frequently to assure them that he was doing the best he could. Hundreds soon became thousands before finally, he was forced by Russia to close the consulate and leave Lithuania.
Within that brief span of time, he provided nearly 3,500 transit visas to Jewish refugees. Sugihara ultimately gave visas to those who lacked all the needed travel papers. He even continued issuing documents to Jews from his train window at the Kaunas station, until the moment it departed for Berlin in September, 1940.
What became of the Refugees with Sugihara visas?
They quickly got on trains to Moscow, then the trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok. From there, they continued by boat to Kobe, Japan, before eventually being sent to Shanghai. As many as six thousand refugees made their way to Japan in the following months. Thousands of Polish Jews with his visas survived the war in safety in China. They had escaped the Holocaust and become Sugihara Survivors. Back in Lithuania, Hitler and the Nazis invaded in June 1941, and the killing of Polish and Lithuanian Jews began.
From Kaunas, Sugihara was sent by Tokyo to a consulate in Kaliningrad and then to Bucharest for the rest of the war. In 1946, after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Chiune Sugihara and his family returned to Japan. There the government dismissed him from foreign service for disobeying direct orders – though the official reason was downsizing of the Japanese diplomatic corps post-war.
His career as a diplomat was over. Once a rising star, Sugihara could only find work as a translator and interpreter. For the last two decades of his life, he worked as a manager for an trading company with business in Russia. This was his fate, though he had saved thousands from certain death. It took courage to defy his father and not become a doctor. It took courage to take his family, leave his Japan home and work overseas. It took even more courage to openly defy his Japanese authorities.
Today, there may be more than 40,000 Jews who owe their lives to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. After the war, he never spoke about his extraordinary deeds, never actually knowing if it had done any good. He spent the latter half of his life in relative obscurity. Then in 1969, Sugihara was found by a Jewish man he had helped save in Lithuania. Soon, hundreds came forward and testified about his courage that summer.
In 1985, he received Israel’s highest honor – Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. By then an old man, he was too ill to travel to Israel. His wife and son went and received the honor on his behalf. Further, a park in Jerusalem was renamed in his honor.
Consul Chiune Sugihara died in 1986 at age 86. Yukiko Sugihara passed away at 94 in 2008. Since his death, Sugihara was further memorialized in his hometown of Yaotsu, Japan, as well as Kaunas (now Kovnos), Lithuania. In 2000, the nation of Japan officially celebrated the centenary of Chiune Sugihara’s birth. A biographical film about Sugihara, Persona Non Grata, premiered in the United States in 2015, directed by Japanese-American Cellin Gluck.
Upon receiving his award, this Holocaust Hero was asked by the press why he did it? Why did he disobey orders and risk his family’s livelihood? His answer was simple. “They were human beings and needed my help. I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying my God.”