When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Polish Jewry was trapped between two beasts, the Nazis to the West and the Communists to the East. On one side was certain death, on the other was spiritual destruction. There was nowhere to turn. As darkness set upon the European continent, the sun began to dawn in a far away land, where no one ever would have expected – Japan, the land of the rising sun.
Polish and Lithuanian Jews sought to escape across the barren Soviet wasteland to the Far East. Underneath the Nazis' very nose, thousands of Jews took refuge in Japan, amongst the Nazis' own allies. How did they make it through the iron curtain to safety? As many as 10,000 Jews owe their salvation to the actions of one man and his wife, who defied everything but their own morals to save lives.
Rebel with a Cause
Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1, 1900, in Yaotsu, a rural area in Japan, into a middle class samurai family. Although the samurai clans put great emphasis on honor and tradition, Chiune was a rebel for most of his life. Instead of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a doctor, he deliberately failed the medical school entrance examination and instead pursued a degree in English literature with a hope to someday travel abroad. The Japanese Foreign Ministry eventually recruited him to serve as Foreign Minister in Manchuria in 1918 where he met with great success.
While in Manchuria, Chiune became fluent in Russian and German and ended up converting to Orthodox Christianity. Despite his success, Chiune quit his post in Manchuria in protest over Japanese mistreatment of Chinese locals. In 1935, he returned to Japan, where he married Yukiko Kikuchi and together they had four sons.
In 1939, he became a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. When Russia took over Lithuania in 1940, annexing it to the Soviet Union, thousands of Jewish refugees attempted to obtain exit visas to escape the iron grip of Communism; they knew full well that if they remained behind, they would either be forced to give up their Torah lifestyle or be shipped off to the dreaded Siberia. Furthermore, everyone knew that it was just a matter of time before Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and began his conquest of the Soviet Union. The refugees included several of the most prestigious yeshivas of Europe as well as many of the leading Rabbis of the time.
Leaving the Soviet grasp was not easy. The Soviets would only issue an exit visa to people possessing an entrance visa to a foreign country however it was almost impossible to find a foreign consulate who would grant such a visa. It was now Chiune Sugihara's moment to enter the stage.
Saving Lives Every Moment
Despite the refusal of the Japanese government in Tokyo to grant visas to anyone lacking the proper funds, Sugihara chose to defy official orders. From July 31 to August 28, 1940, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative. During this time, he would spend 18 hours a day hand writing over 300 visas daily, more than one month's regular quota. He refused to take breaks to eat, knowing that every moment was a chance to save another life. At the end of each day, his wife recalled massaging his swollen hands.
He refused to take breaks to eat, knowing that every moment was a chance to save another life.
He promised the crowds of refugees gathered outside the walls of the consulate that he would not abandon them. He would keep writing until every single person had a visa. "It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes," he said. "He cannot just 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." (Hillel Levine: In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust).
Sugihara continued to issue visas until he was forced to leave his post on September 4 when his consulate was dissolved due to the impending Nazi invasion. He continued to write visas while in transit, throwing them into the crowd of desperate refugees while he boarded his train. When the train began to depart from the station, he allegedly threw his visa stamp into the crowd, enabling the Jews to continue to write their own visas. If he was humanly capable of doing more he would have. He was forced to leave so many behind, and it broke his heart that he was unable to save more.
From Obscurity to Honor
Between 6000-10,000 Jews were rescued by his heroic efforts, second only in numbers to the Jews saved by Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg. Many of the refugees made it safely to Japan with no intention of continuing to another destination. Some 20,000 Jews survived the war in the Shanghai ghetto despite German pressure for the Japanese government to liquidate the Jewish refugees. In a legendary meeting between the Amshinover Rebbe and several Japanese generals, the question was posed as to why the German's hated the Jews so much. Without missing a beat the Amshinover Rebbe responded, "Because we are not Aryan like them, we are Asians."
His heroic efforts were second only in numbers those saved by Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg.
In 1945, the Japanese government unceremoniously dismissed Sugihara from his diplomatic service and to this day they deny that it was related to his behavior in Lithuania. From then on, he lived a low key existence for the rest of his life, working hard to make a living to support his family. He lived a quiet, humble life, and his story remained virtually unknown. He felt no need to talk about his accomplishments because he saw nothing extraordinary about them.
In 1968, Sugihara was discovered by one of his beneficiaries, a diplomat to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. He was granted the honor of Righteous among the Nations by the State of Israel in 1985. He passed away one year later and only when a large delegation of Jews from around the world appeared at his funeral, did his story become known to the Japanese people.
When asked about his motivations, Sugihara replied by quoting an old samurai saying, Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge. "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't I would be disobeying God," he said. "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." (Levine, ibid)
Visas for Life
Chiune Sugihara's widow, Yukiko, passed away last month at 94. In her book, "Visas for Life," Yukiko describes her own feelings as she watched the crowds of Jews waiting outside the Japanese consulate in Lithuania: "We saw a little child standing behind his mother hiding himself in his mother's coat, and a girl with an expression of hunger and terror which made her look like an adult and some others crouching in fatigue." She had just given birth to her third child and recalled thinking that if those mothers loved their children as much as she loved hers, she must try to help them.
She stood firmly behind her husband and was the driving force to keep him going despite all odds. "The Jews who passed through Kaunas still treasure the visas which my husband issued," she said. "They didn't forget what they shouted when we were leaving Kaunas station. ‘We will never forget you. We will see you again.' I've heard that, as a people, the Jews never forget a promise."
Today, over half a century and two generations later, there are over 40,000 people who owe their lives to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. We will never forget.