By Rex Niswander
Chiune Sugihara was appointed Japanese Vice Consul in Kaunas, Lithuania in July 1939. Shortly after he arrived at his post, the German army invaded Poland, sending waves of Jewish refugees into Lithuania. There was a large Jewish community in Lithuania and they offered shelter to the refugees, but the Nazis were moving east and time was running out. The only escape was to the east – the Soviet Union would allow Jews to pass through Russia, but only if they had transit visas. Thus, for thousands of Jews, getting a transit visa became a matter of life or death.
On the morning of July 18, 1940, Sugihara was confronted by hundreds of Jewish refugees waiting at the entrance of the Japanese Consulate. They wanted Japanese transit visas to allow them to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan to safety. Sugihara met with representatives of the refugees and heard their request.
He realized that Japanese transit visas would be the key for the survival of the hundreds of people waiting outside his door, and for thousands more like them. How could he help them? He did not have the authority to issues visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. To add to the difficulty, in July 1940 the Soviet Union had ordered all foreign diplomats to close their consulates and leave Kaunas.
Sugihara wanted to help, but what could he do? He decided to request a 20-day extension from the Soviet Union, which was approved. Then he wired his government asking for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees. His request was denied. Three times he requested permission, and three times he was denied. He knew that if he disobeyed orders from his government might be fired and disgraced. He and his family might even lose their lives. Sugihara and his wife Yukiko discussed the dangers they faced if he issued the visas, and the fate of the refugees if he did not. Finally, they made a decision.
On July 31, 1940 Sugihara started writing visas. It was a long and tedious process, for each visa had to be written out entirely by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week he wrote visas. Under normal circumstances he might write 300 visas in a month. Now he was writing 300 visas a day. His wife, Yukiko, brought him sandwiches so he could stay at his desk and continue working without a break for meals. At the end of each day she massaged his aching hands.
For three weeks he worked as fast as he could, but finally the Soviet authorities forced him to close the consulate and leave Lithuania. Even then, Sugihara wrote visas on the way to the train station. He wrote visas after boarding the train, handing them out through the window. As the train pulled out of the station, he threw the consulate’s visa stamp to a refugee on the platform, who was able to counterfeit visas and save even more Jews.
It is not known how many lives were saved by the visas, but the number is estimated at six thousand. Those who received visas from Sugihara were able to escape the Holocaust and continue their lives. They would become known as Sugihara Survivors.
Sugihara was dismissed from the Japanese diplomatic service. He managed to survive in Japan working as part-time translator and later as the manager of a trading company in Moscow, where he worked in obscurity for more than fifteen years. Over the years, Sugihara Survivors lobbied Israel for his inclusion in the Yad Vashem (“Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes”) memorial. In 1985, he was granted the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the Government of Israel and his descendants were given Israeli citizenship. That year, he was asked what had caused him to make his decision. He gave two reasons: One, the refugees were human beings; Two, they needed his help.
Sugihara died in 1986, virtually unknown in Japan. His neighbors only discovered what he had done when the Israeli ambassador to Japan and a large delegation of Jews from around the world attended his funeral. After his death, the Japanese Foreign Ministry placed a plaque in the Diplomatic Record Office to honor Sugihara’s memory, and the citizens of his home town of Yaotsu built the Chiune Sugihara Memorial.