The Story Of Chiune Sugihara: The “Japanese Schindler”

March 20, 2018 | No Comments » | Topics: Interesting

On July 31 1986, Chiune Sugihara passed away peacefully in a Japanese hospital.  This quiet, unassuming family man single-handedly saved the lives of at least 6,000 Jews during World War II, and while he is one of many hundreds of people that could not reconcile their own code of morality with that of their governments at that time, his efforts to rescue people have gone largely unnoticed by the world.

Born at the turn of the 20th century, Sugihara joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry as a young man and learned Russian (he also knew Chinese, English, French and German). In August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, he arrived in the then-capital of Lithuania, Kaunas, to serve as a vice consul at the Japanese Consulate-General there.

One morning in July 1940, a group of Polish Jews who had fled eastward after Germany invaded their home country gathered outside the Japanese diplomatic facility in Kaunas. Sugihara noticed the refugees and inquired about their situation. He was told they were seeking transit visas to enable them to pass through Japan on the way to other countries that were willing to take them in. At the time, a rail journey across the Soviet Union followed by a sea crossing to Japan was one of the few potential paths of escape from the expanding Nazi empire for these Jews.

Sugihara consulted with the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which informed him the refugees did not meet the visa requirements. However, Sugihara decided he could not abandon the Jews to their fate.

“It was a humanitarian issue,” Sugihara said in an interview later in life. “I did not care then if I would be fired.”

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.

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.’