More than twenty years after Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania during the beginning of WWII, signed more than two thousand illegal exit visas for Jewish refugees from Poland, Sugihara, reluctant to grant an interview with the leader of the Jewish congregation in Tokyo, had a simple answer to the question of why he defied direct orders from the Japanese foreign office when he signed the visas: “Do what is right and forget about it. Do what is right because it is your duty.” Some resources about this story can be found at the PBS website here.
In short, Sugihara was assigned as the Japanese consul in Lithuania at the beginning of WWII. He interacted with some of the Jewish people living there and followed the development of Germany’s war and their actions against the Jews with interest. He even celebrated Hannukah with a random Jewish family in December 1939. The eleven year-old boy who invited him, Solly Ganor, recounts the story as follows:
It was a few days before Hanukkah, actually. … I walked into [my aunt’s] shop and she was speaking to a very elegant, well-dressed gentleman. … That was the first time I saw a Japanese person. And he looked kind of strange. I [had] never seen a person with slanted eyes.
He kind of smiled at me. And so my aunt called me over … and she said, “Don’t stare.” You know? And [then] she introduced me to “His Excellency.” She said, “This is Sugihara.” And he looked at me and … I felt very comfortable with him. … There was a certain aura of kindness about him; I don’t know how to explain. You know, as a child, I guess you feel these things more. Your senses are more acute. … So I liked him immediately.
And then … I told [my aunt], “I want to go to the movies.” She says, “Oh, okay.” So she went to get some money. And [Sugihara] whipped out this … money, and he said, “So you’re going to see a movie and this is your holiday, little boy? Well, I’ll be your uncle for the holiday.”
I was kind of surprised, obviously. … I didn’t know whether to accept or not, but, finally, I took it. … I [felt] comfortable with him. And I said, “Thank you very much.” But then I had this crazy idea. And I said — a very impulsive thought — I said, “You know, if you’re my uncle, why don’t you come to our Hanukkah party on Saturday?”
And my aunt heard it, and she was kind of embarrassed. And she said, “Oh, His Excellency, you know.” But the way he was speaking to me, he didn’t, you know, … usually when you’re a child, … people have a certain way of talking to you. I won’t say condescending, … but, you know, a grown-up to a child. He was talking to [me] as if I was … a small person. … So maybe [that’s why] I felt comfortable [with] him.
And he said, “No, no, that’s all right.” And she said, “Well, if you’re interested …” [And] then he said, “I would be interested, actually.” He [had] never been to a holiday like this, sort of [a] party, [a] Hanukkah party. [He had] probably heard of all these things before, because he was in Harbin and he was in touch with Jewish people, I assume. So that was that. She said, “All right, if you’d like to come, please do.”
… About 30 people were there, you know, aunts and my cousins and uncles. It was a big family. And it was my Aunt Anaska [who] walked in with this couple. Yukiko [Mrs. Sugihara] was well dressed, [with] a long dress, I remember, and she really looked radiant. … She was such an exotic-looking person, [and] I hadn’t seen [her] before; I [had] just seen him. So everybody went, “Ahhh … who are these people?” It was quite an event.
With them, [Sugihara spoke] Russian and German, and Mrs. Sugihara spoke German. … And so it was very successful, in this respect, that everybody was telling stories. And, of course, they offered him lots of food and cakes. And around 50 years later when I met Mrs. Sugihara in Yaotsu, she said, “Oh, I remember your family very well to this day.” … I said, “Why?” She says, “I was sick the whole night from the cakes that your aunts and mother fed me.” The Japanese don’t know how to say “No,” you know….
As 1940 wore on, the Germans were getting closer to Lithuania, pushing thousands of Jewish refugees ahead of them out of Poland. As the Germans pushed east towards Lithuania, the Russians approached from the East heading west. They ordered all foreign consuls closed in Kaunas, the Lithuanian city where Sugihara was stationed. This increased the difficulty for the Jewish refugees who had fled from Poland to Kaunas because gaining various transit, exit, and end visas was critical for them to be able to flee to safety across Russia (to avoid heading west into the advancing German armies).
Some of the Jews did some research and found out that no formal entry visa was required for the small Dutch colonial island of Curaçao (Dutch Suriname) in the Caribbean. The Dutch consul was willing to sign transit visas for Jews indicating that no formal visa was required to enter those colonies, but leaving off the other part of the formula, namely that the written consent of the Dutch territorial governor of Curacao was also necessary. That was the first miracle for these Jews. The second miracle involved Sugihara, consul to Lithuania of Germany’s ally in WWII. In July 1940, thousands of Jews sought Sugihara’s help, lining up in front of his consulate, to sign end visas for Japan. Sugihara wired Tokyo for permission to do so, but was denied. Knowing the immediate danger in which he was putting himself, his family consisting of his wife and three young children, and his career with the foreign office, Sugihara went ahead and signed the visas anyway. For nearly six weeks after that, Sugihara signed close to 2,500 visas for Jews to escape Lithuania via Russia and Japan with the end destination of Curaçao (not a single Jew ever actually went all the way to Curaçao). By the time he was forced to leave for Berlin in September 1940, Sugihara was exhausted but still fervently signing the visas. He was even signing visas from the train window as his train pulled out of Kaunas station. He was reassigned to Prague from Berlin and signed close to 100 more visas during his tenure in the consulate there. As the war drew to a close, he came into Russian captivity and he and his family suffered as Russian prisoners of war for over a year before being allowed to head back to Japan in 1946-47. When they finally arrived in Japan, they were greeted by the bombed wasteland that was once Tokyo. There they lived in squalor, Sugihara forced to work menial labor because they foreign office had terminated him, telling him that he knew why they had done so. Of course, they were referring to how he had singed the thousands of visas against the direct command of the foreign office. Eventually, Sugihara found a job with a Russian trade company in Moscow and he moved there and changed his name so that no Russian bureaucrat would recognize him as the one who signed the illegal visas to help Jews escape through Russia to Japan. In 1969, Sugihara was found by someone he had helped (although many people who survived because of him had sought for him earlier but hadn’t been able to find him because he was living in Russia under a different name). It wasn’t until 1985 that he was formally recognized by the Jews in America and Israel for his efforts during the war, as he was given Israel’s highest honor and named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem, the only Japanese person to carry that honor.
As for the Jews, those who had Sugihara visas who could finance the 6,000 mile train journey across Russia and on to Japan were able to escape the horrible fate of the European Jews in general and the Yiddish culture in particular. They congregated in Kobe, Japan, and were tolerated by the Japanese government despite demands by the Nazis to exterminate them. Eventually, the Japanese government relocated them all to a ghetto in occupied Shanghai, which helped them evade the efforts of Gestapo chief Josef Meissenger, the notorious Butcher of Warsaw, who was in Japan to address the Jewish problem there and other matters of interest to the Nazis. The Jews lived out the war in Shanhai and elsewhere and survived because of Sugihara. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 people are now alive because of his efforts. He signed approximately 2,400 of the Curaçao visas, and only perhaps half of those who got them actually escaped the Nazis and Russians through Russia (for example Jews who were Lithuanian citizens were denied passage through Russia by the Soviets to Vladivostok and from there to Japan; many were sent to Siberian gulags for even applying for exit visas based on the Curaçao and Japan transit visas.) But those who survived have had children and grandchildren, all of whom can be eternally grateful for the humanitarian efforts of one Japanese consul. The rest of us can also be grateful to him for his courageous example to us all to do good with no ulterior motive. We must do good simply because it is our duty; we must “do what is right and forget about it.”