Chiune Sugihara – Lest We Forget

Nov 12th, 2008 | By | Category: History & Culture

It seems appropriate that as many countries celebrate their war veterans on November 11th that we look at other heroes that while not in uniform stood for the same values and lent their support and bravery to the fight against tyranny around the world.  One of those heroes is Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese national, who helped save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution.

Chiune Sugihara was the subject of a PBS documentary titled “Sugihara: Consipracy of Kindness” that first aired in May of 2005.  The story of Chiune Sugihara highlights the best of the human spirit and the willingness of man to put the greater good above self-interest.

As the embassy in the then Lithuanian capital of Kaunas faced closure by the invading Russians in the summer of 1940  Sugihara worked tirelessly.  He wrote and issued more than 2,000 transit visas by hand in just 29 days, against orders from his employer, the Government of Japan.  The visas went to Jewish refuges who faced certain persecution and whose supporting documentation was often lacking. Even after packing up and closing the embassy, Sugihara continued to write visas from his hotel room, the train station platform and ultimately gave the consul visa stamp to a refugee who was able use it to save even more Jews from certain death.  In his own words:

“Those people told me the kind of horror they would have to face if they didn’t get away from the Nazis and I believed them. There was no place else for them to go. They trusted me. If I had waited any longer, even if permission came it might have been too late.”

Source: PBS, Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness Partial Transcript

He was able to accomplish this enormous task with this support of his wife, Yukiko, his aide, a German named Wolfgang Gudze, and Moses Zupnik, a representative of Mir Yeshiva, who volunteered to help in this overwhelming task after Sugihara agreed to issue 300 visas to his group.

The recipients of Sugihara’s transit visas traveled via Siberia and Japan to eventual safety in the United States and other destinations.  The Jewish Virtual Library estimates that as of 1997 there were more than 40,000 people, of three generations, that owe their very existence to the transit visas issued by Chiune Sugihara.

After leaving Lithuania, Sugihara held posts in Prague, Czechoslovakia and in Bucharest, Romania where Soviet troops imprisoned Sugihara and his family in a POW camp for eighteen months. They were released in 1946 and returned to Japan.  In 1947 he was asked to resign his position with the Japanese Foreign Ministry which many believe was due to his insubordination in Lithuania.  In later years he worked as the General Manager of U.S. Military Post Exchange and went on to work and live in the Soviet Union for sixteen years.

In 1985 he received Israel’s highest honor. He was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.  On July 31, 1986 he died at the age of 86.

On October 8th of this year his widow, Yukiko, died at the age of 94 and was lauded by the Israeli government.

“She stood by her husband, assisted and supported him as he followed the voice of his conscience . . . in the face of what later became known as a tragedy of unprecedented magnitude.”

Source: The Japan Times, Memorial services honors widow of Chiune Sugihara

After reading about a memorial service for his widow in The Japan Times I wanted to learn more about this amazing man and his bravery.  I found transcripts and video segments from “Sugihara: Consipracy of Kindness” at the PBS page dedicated to Sugihara.  Today’s veterans are honored for their sacrifice and bravery in fighting for their counties.  In his own way Chiune Sugihara fought for the same rights and freedoms as the allied forces that we honor each November 11th.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia, Sugihara b

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  1. A wonderful idea to remind us that, as well as those who fought on the battlefield, many wonderful people displayed their bravery and saved thousands without putting on a uniform or picking up a gun. Many diplomats in Germany saw what was coming and acted against the official policy of their nations (many had the behind the scenes support, though I can’t speak about Japan) to save thousands of Jews, Gypsies and other targeted minorities. Tales of diplomats stopping trains and issuing visas to entire train loads of prisoners which were en route to Nazi camps are told around the world by those who survived thanks to them.

    The centre for Holocaust and Genocide studies has this list of diplomats who were known to have put their diplomatic status to work despite the grave risks.

  2. […] a look at a Japanese national who helped save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution. His name is Chiune Sugihara and his story highlights “the willingness of man to put the greater good above […]

  3. I was appalled by the heroism of Mr. Sugihara as he defied the risk at hand, and by the dictate of his conscience, he did what is impossible to make: save thousands of Jews from the Nazi tyranny. Little did Mr. Sugihara know that the Jews were the direct descendants of Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind and perhaps and I’m sure that Mr. Sugihara is now happy with our creator. Thank you Mr. Sugihara for your good deeds and may your tribe multiply.

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