It was 1939 when Chiune Sugihara was appointed Japanese vice consul in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. As the Nazis stepped up their persecution of Jews during WWII, thousands of Jews fled from Poland to Lithuania, the Baltic country just to the north of Poland. Many hoped to escape Europe altogether but did not have the necessary visas. Visas to Japan would do, but Sugihara’s hands were tied by red tape. Could he find a way to help these desperate refugees?
Hitler had never tried to hide his hatred of the Jews, and it wasn’t long after his Nazi Party had come to power in Germany in 1933 that the persecution of the Jews got under way. In 1935 German Jews were stripped of their citizenship and civil rights and were forbidden to marry “Aryans.”
In November 1938 Hitler’s S.S. organized Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. Synagogues and Jewish businesses were ransacked and put to the torch. That night saw the deaths of 91 Jews and the arrest and incarceration in concentration camps of some 30,000 others. And these events were just a foretaste of the horrors that were to come.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. A couple of weeks later, Russia joined in. The Nazis and the Communists carved up the country between them under the terms of a secret agreement they’d previously made – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Jews in the German sector had seen what had already happened to their co-religionists in Germany and watched with horror as things there got worse and worse.
So with every reason to believe that Nazi persecution would soon start – as it did – many Polish Jews now looked for escape routes. In 1939 Lithuania was still an independent nation, although very much under the sway of the Soviets, who proceeded to occupy the country in 1940. The Nazis invaded it in 1941, ousting the Soviet Union.
But it was this window when Lithuania was nominally free and then occupied by the Soviets that gave Jews in Poland, and indeed in Lithuania itself, an opportunity to escape the fate that the Nazis would bring. And that was the time that Chiune Sugihara held his position as Japanese vice consul in Kaunas.
Escaping Europe was no simple matter for Jews in 1939 and 1940. Few countries were willing to accept them as refugees, and visas for travel outside Europe were in many cases almost impossible to secure. One possible escape route involved getting a visa to Japan from Lithuania. The visa holders might not even travel to Japan, but they would be able to leave Lithuania. After that, they would have to find a way to reach the country of their choice; but it was start.
The person responsible for issuing visas for travel to Japan in Kaunas was none other than Sugihara. He was born on the largest Japanese island of Honshu in the Gifu Prefecture in 1900. He came from a comfortable background, and he excelled as student – but on his own terms.
Sugihara’s father had wanted his son to become a doctor, but Sugihara had other ideas. In what was an early sign of a person who sometimes played fast and loose with conventional rules, he deliberately flunked his medical school entrance exam so that he could study English. And he was a talented linguist, who also acquired fluent Russian.
And with this linguistic skill, it was only natural that the talented Sugihara would end up in Japan’s diplomatic service. After a couple of years in the Japanese Imperial Army stationed in Korea, then a Japanese colony, he joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry and was posted to China in 1923.
Sugihara resigned from his post in China in 1935, disenchanted with the way his fellow countrymen were treating the Chinese – another sign perhaps of what was to come. So in November 1939, just when Polish Jews were starting to arrive in the country, Sugihara was posted to Kaunas in Lithuania as vice consul.
In fact, like so many diplomats, Sugihara was involved in a bit of espionage on the side. He was charged by his Tokyo masters with keeping an eye on what both the German and Russian military were up to. But that is not what he is remembered for today.
Polish and Lithuanian Jews now began to approach the Japanese consulate hoping to get visas for travel to Japan. These visas would enable them to get out of Europe and escape Hitler. But Japan had strict rules about who could be granted a visa. These included stipulations that applicants must have sufficient funds and a visa to a third country so that they could guarantee they would leave Japan.
But very few of the refugees now arriving at the consulate could satisfy these rules. Consequently, Sugihara asked the authorities in Tokyo what he should do about all these desperate applicants. And desperate they certainly were. In his 1996 book In Search of Sugihara, Hillel Levine quoted Sugihara’s memory of the time.
“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,” Sugihara recalled.
And matters were coming to a head in 1940 as World War II rumbled on, and the Soviets occupied Lithuania in June. On July 18, Sugihara decided he must act on his own initiative. He started to hand-write visas himself, even for refugees who clearly did not meet the regulations. He issued ten-day transit visas and convinced the Soviets to allow the refugees to travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. This came at a price – five times the normal rail fare.
Sugihara worked up to 20 hours each day writing the visas. His deadline was September 4, 1940, when he had been ordered to leave Lithuania for Konigsberg in Germany, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad. As his train moved out of Kaunas Station, he was actually throwing sheets of paper blank but for his signature and the consulate stamp from the window of his carriage to frantic refugees.
The question of how many people Sugihara saved is difficult to answer. It seems that he issued about 1,800 visas. But some of those were for heads of households, meaning that they would enable an entire family to escape. The Simon Wiesenthal Center reckons that he likely saved about 6,000 Jews. If they had stayed in Lithuania, they would almost certainly have died. The Nazis marched into the country in June 1941, usurping the Russians. They murdered up to 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jews, the highest proportion of any country occupied by the Nazis.
By the end of the war in 1945, Sugihara was serving in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Romania had been an ally of the Germans and when the Russian invaded, they incarcerated Sugihara and his family for 18 months before they returned to Japan. His wartime exploits were largely forgotten, except of course by those whom he’d saved.
Then in 1968 one of the people who owed his life to Sugihara, a Polish Jew called Yehoshua Nishri, tracked him down. He visited Israel where he was officially welcomed by the Israeli government. In 1985 the State of Israel bestowed on Sugihara the title of “Righteous Among the Nations.” He is the only Japanese person to have been awarded this title, which recognizes non-Jews who rescued Jews from the Holocaust. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986 aged 86, a brave man who followed his conscience.