A Japanese diplomat during World War II, Chiune Sugihara issued visas to thousands of Jewish refugees in Lithuania, saving them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
A Career as a Consul
Born on the first day of the 20th century in Yaotsu, Japan, Chiune Sugihara planned to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a physician. Instead, he studied English literature in college and joined a Christian fraternity.
Going to work in the Japanese foreign ministry, Sugihara learned German and Russian and served in China, Manchuria, and Finland. In 1939, Sugihara became the vice-consul in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania.
Called to Do More
Stationed in Lithuania to report on the movements of both the Russian and German armies, Sugihara instead began to help the Lithuanian Jewish community – one-third of the country’s urban population – as well as the many Polish Jews who fled there from the Nazis.
Japan ordered Sugihara not to grant visas to the many Jews looking to escape. However, on his own initiative, the brave diplomat began to grant visas to all who needed them. Each day, Sugihara hand-wrote a month’s worth of visas, each one allowing passage out of danger. Each visa granted for a head of household also allowed an entire family to escape.
Sugihara saved at least 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust, a number surely higher as many of the 6,000 visas he issued saved multiple people. Today, it is estimated that 40,000 descendants are alive because of his actions.
With Redoubled Courage
After the war, “Sempo” – as he asked the refugees to call him – explained why he did what he did, saying:
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. 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 … I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. 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.
Chiune Sugihara, a true advocate and ally of the Jewish people, received the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in 1985 – the only Japanese person to be honored by Yad Vashem. Too ill to travel to Israel, his wife and son accepted on his behalf. A year later, when Sugihara passed away, the people of Japan didn’t know what he had done so many years before. They only learned of his kindness and bravery when a large Jewish delegation, including Israel’s ambassador to Japan, attended his funeral. A memorial to Sugihara in Los Angeles sums up the man’s life best, with this quote from the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.”Tags: Advocates and Allies Chiune Sugihara History Japan Righteous Gentiles World War II