In 1939, Chiune Sugihara went to Lithuania to open the first Japanese consulate. His job consisted of and gathering information and keep an eye out for to the German allies. Meantime, in Poland, Nazi tanks had started marching, causing terror among Jewish refugees so they fled to Lithuania.
After the Soviet invaded Lithuania in June of 1940, hundreds of Jews went to the Japanese consulate, seeking transit visas. He wasn’t sure what he could do at first so, Sugihara asked the foreign ministry in Tokyo for guidance. The ministry made it clear that no one without proper paperwork should get a visa. This limitation would have ruled out nearly all of the refugees seeking his help.
Sugihara had to make a life-altering choice. He could either obey the Government and abandon the Jews or, he could disobey orders, leading to disgrace and severe punishments.
According to Jewish Virtual Library, Sugihara said, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.” Sugihara decided it was worth risking his livelihood and good standing in Japan to help the Jews living near him. He began issuing Japanese transit visas for all refugees, regardless of their eligibility.
It started with 10 to 20 refugees seeking help but quickly grew into thousands. Sugihara signed and issued as many visas as possible during summer 1940. Working 18-hour a day, the final visa count was more than 2139. However, experts estimate that Sugihara saved 6,000 to 10,000 Jewish lives by accounting for spouses and children.
Sugihara also addressed the problem of refugees making it to Japan safely. Sugihara spoke fluent Russian and negotiated with Moscow to allow safe passage for Polish Jews through the Soviet Union.
Sugihara’s visas would become “visas of life,” and, according to the Washington Post, 40,000 to 100,000 people can trace their lives back to these visas. One survivor called Sugihara the Japanese Schindler. Oskar Shindler (German factory owner, who is also known as “Schindler’s List”) saved the lives of approximately 1,200 Jews.
Sugihara’s visas would become “visas of life,” and, according to the Washington Post, 40,000 to 100,000 people can trace their lives back to these visas. One survivor called Sugihara the Japanese Schindler. Oskar Shindler (German factory owner, also known as “Schindler’s List”) saved the lives of approximately 1,200 Jews.
According to The Guardian, who spoke with Sugihara’s son, Nobuki, various rumors and myths have been related to his father’s life. Some say he threw signed visas out of trains, and he signed so many visas, his hand would get sore. However, these rumors aren’t verified from sources, so we can be sure there’s much to be told about his life.
Nobuki stated that he didn’t know his father was a WWII war hero when he was younger. After the war, Government harshly expelled Sugihara from service. He had worked as a trader in a small Japanese coastal town throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t mention at all about the people he saved.
The discovery of Sugihara’s courage and sacrifice happened when an Israeli diplomat contacted the family in 1969. However, Nobuki was not able to grasp its significance. But in 1984, two years before he passed away, Sugihara was declared “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem. It is the Israeli state organization that commemorates the Holocaust, a title that given in honor of non-Jews who selflessly saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Many books and films have covered Sugihara’s story.
Although the Holocaust is full of horror stories and cruelty, there are still gems of humanity in it that stand out from that darkness and offer hope. Sugihara’s tale reminds us that humans always do not have to do what is expected of them and should also morally decide. When he was asked the reason for signing visas decades later ,He gave two reasons: “They were human beings, and they needed help,” he said, adding, “I am glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them.”
Also read more about the Nurses who survived three years in Japanese Prison Camps.