Oskar Schindler’s Contemporaries: Japanese Vice Consul in Lithuania
Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝, Sugihara Chiune, 1 January 1900 – 31 July 1986) was a Japanese diplomat, serving as Vice Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania. During World War II, he helped several thousand Jews leave the country by issuing transit visas to Jewish refugees so that they could travel to Japan. Most of the Jews who escaped were refugees from German-occupied Poland or residents of Lithuania. Sugihara wrote travel visas that facilitated the escape of more than 6,000 Jewish refugees to Japanese territory, risking his career and his family’s life. In 1985, Israel honored him as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions …
After the Soviet takeover of Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland (Polish Jews) as well as Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel and impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan … At the time, the Japanese government required that visas be issued only to those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds. Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria. Sugihara dutifully contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions. Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit Japan, with no exceptions.
From July 31 to August 28, 1940, aware that applicants were in danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his family. He ignored the requirements and arranged the Jews with a ten-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an extraordinary act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian railway at five times the standard ticket price.
Sugihara continued to hand-write visas, reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day, until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many whom were heads of household and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out the train’s window even as the train pulled out. In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. Sugihara himself wondered about official reaction to the thousands of visas he issued. Many years later, he recalled, “No one ever said anything about it. I remember thinking that they probably didn’t realize how many I actually issued.”
The total number of Jews saved by Sugihara is in dispute, ranging from 6,000 to 10,000; most likely, it was somewhere in the middle; family visas—which allowed several people to travel on one visa—were also issued, which would account for the much higher figure. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive today because of his actions …
In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was granted the honor of the Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel. Sugihara was too ill to travel to Israel, so his wife and son accepted the honor on his behalf. Sugihara and his descendants were given perpetual Israeli citizenship.
That same year, 45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he was asked his reasons for issuing visas to the Jews. Sugihara explained that the refugees were human beings, and that they simply needed help. As Sugihara stated in a conversation with a visitor to his home near Tokyo Bay that year:
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
When asked why he risked his career to save other people, he quoted an old samurai saying: “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.”
Sugihara died the following year, on July 31, 1986. In spite of the publicity given him in Israel and other nations, he remained virtually unknown in his home country. Only when a large Jewish delegation from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, showed up at his funeral did his neighbors find out what he had done.
Entry filed under: Inspiring.