(1900 - 1986)
Chiune Sugihara, and his wife Yukiko, are honored as "Righteous Gentiles" for their efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In the course of human existence, many people are
tested. Only a few soar as eagles and achieve greatness by simple
acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and humanity. This is the story of a
man and his wife who, when confronted with evil, obeyed the kindness
of their hearts and conscience in defiance of the orders of an
indifferent government. These people were Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara
who, at the beginning of World War II, by an ultimate act of altruism
and self-sacrifice, risked their careers, their livelihood and their
future to save the lives of more than 6,000 Jews. This selfless act
resulted in the second largest number of Jews rescued from the Nazis.
The Compassion of
Consul-General Sempo Sugihara
In March 1939, Japanese Consul-General Chiune
Sugihara was sent to Kaunas to open a consulate service. Kaunas was
the temporary capital of Lithuania at the time and was strategically
situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. After Hitler's
invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared
war on Germany. Chiune Sugihara had barely settled down in his new
post when Nazi armies invaded Poland and a wave of Jewish refugees
streamed into Lithuania. They brought with them chilling tales of
German atrocities against the Jewish population. They escaped from
Poland without possessions or money, and the local Jewish population
did their utmost to help with money, clothing and shelter.
Before the war, the population of Kaunas consisted
of 120,000 inhabitants, one forth of which were Jews. Lithuania, at
the time, had been an enclave of peace and prosperity for Jews. Most
Lithuanian Jews did not fully realize or believe the extent of the
Nazi Holocaust that was being perpetrated against the Jews in Poland.
The Jewish refugees tried to explain that they were being murdered by
the tens of thousands. No one could quite believe them. The
Lithuanian Jews continued living normal lives. Things began to change
for the very worst on June 15, 1940, when the Soviets invaded
Lithuania. It was now too late for the Lithuanian Jews to leave for
the East. Ironically, the Soviets would allow Polish Jews to continue
to emigrate out of Lithuania through the Soviet Union if they could
obtain certain travel documents.
Jewish refugees at the gate, July 1940. Thousands
of Jews lined up in front of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, hoping to
receive transit visas allowing them to escape to the Far East and to America
By 1940, most of Western Europe had been conquered
by the Nazis, with Britain standing alone. The rest of the free
world, with very few exceptions, barred the immigration of Jewish
refugees from Poland or anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Against this terrible backdrop, the Japanese
Consul Chiune Sugihara suddenly became the linchpin in a desperate
plan for survival. The fate of thousands of families depended on his
humanity. The Germans were rapidly advancing east. In July 1940, the
Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassies to leave Kaunas.
Almost all left immediately, but Chiune Sugihara requested and
received a 20-day extension.
Except for Mr. Jan Zwartendijk, the acting Dutch
consul, Chiune Sugihara was now the only foreign consul left in
Lithuanania's capital city. They had much work to do.
The Dutch Connection
Now into summer, time was running out for the
refugees. Hitler rapidly tightened his net around Eastern Europe. It
was then that some of the Polish refugees came up with a plan that
offered one last chance for freedom. They discovered that two Dutch
colonial islands, Curacao and Dutch Guiana, (now known as Suriname)
situated in the Caribbean, did not require formal entrance visas.
Furthermore, the honorary Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, told them he
had gotten permission to stamp their passports with entrance permits.
There remained one major obstacle. To get to these
islands, the refugees needed to pass through the Soviet Union. The
Soviet consul, who was sympathetic to the plight of the refugees,
agreed to let them pass on one condition: In addition to the Dutch
entrance permit, they would also have to obtain a transit visa from
the Japanese, as they would have to pass through Japan on their way
to the Dutch islands.
On a summer morning in late July 1940, Consul
Sempo Sugihara and his family awakened to a crowd of Polish Jewish
refugees gathered outside the consulate. Desperate to flee the
approaching Nazis, the refugees knew that their only path lay to the
east. If Consul Sugihara would grant them Japanese transit visas,
they could obtain Soviet exit visas and race to possible freedom.
Sempo Sugihara was moved by their plight, but he did not have the
authority to issue hundreds of visas without permission from the
Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.
Chiune Sugihara wired his government three times
for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees. Three times he
was denied. The Japanese Consul in Tokyo wired:
CONCERNING TRANSIT VISAS REQUESTED PREVIOUSLY STOP ADVISE
ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE ISSUED ANY TRAVELER NOT HOLDING FIRM END VISA
WITH GUARANTEED DEPARTURE EX JAPAN STOP NO EXCEPTIONS STOP NO
FURTHER INQUIRIES EXPECTED STOP
(SIGNED) K TANAKA FOREIGN MINISTRY TOKYO
Visas For Life
After repeatedly receiving negative responses from
Tokyo, the Consul discussed the situation with his wife and children.
Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was
brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese.
He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult
choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had
been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had
been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied
the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and
would probably never work for the Japanese government again. This
would result in extreme financial hardship for his family in the
Chiune and his wife Yukiko even feared for their
lives and the lives of their children, but in the end, could only
follow their consciences. The visas would be signed.
For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr.
and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by
hand. Hour after hour, day after day, for these three weeks, they
wrote and signed visas. They wrote over 300 visas a day, which would
normally be one month's worth of work for the consul. Yukiko also
helped him register these visas. At the end of the day, she would
massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife
supplied him with sandwiches. Sugihara chose not to lose a minute
because people were standing in line in front of his consulate day
and night for these visas. When some began climbing the compound
wall, he came out to calm them down and assure them that he would do
is best to help them all. Hundreds of applicants became thousands as
he worked to grant as many visas as possible before being forced to
close the consulate and leave Lithuania. Consul Sugihara continued
issuing documents from his train window until the moment the train
departed Kovno for Berlin on September 1, 1940. And as the train
pulled out of the station, Sugihara gave the consul visa stamp to a
refugee who was able use it to save even more Jews.
After receiving their visas, the refugees lost no
time in getting on trains that took them to Moscow, and then by
trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok. From there, most of them
continued to Kobe, Japan. They were allowed to stay in Kobe for
several months, and were then sent to Shanghai, China. Thousands of
Polish Jews with Sugihara visas survived in safety under the benign
protection of the Japanese government in Shanghai. As many as six
thousand refugees made their way to Japan, China and other countries
in the following months. They had escaped the Holocaust. Through a
strange twist of history, they owed their lives to a Japanese man and
his family. They had become Sugihara Survivors.
Despite his disobedience, his government found
Sugihara's vast skills useful for the remainder of the war. But in
1945, the Japanese government unceremoniously dismissed Chiune
Sugihara from the diplomatic service. His career as a diplomat was
shattered. He had to start his life over. Once a rising star in the
Japanese foreign service, Chiune Sugihara could at first only find
work as a part-time translator and interpreter. For the last two
decades of his life, he worked as a manager for an export company
with business in Moscow. This was his fate because he dared to save
thousands of human beings from certain death.
The Miracle of Chanukah
The makings of a hero are many and complex, but
Sugihara's fateful decision to risk his career may have been
influenced by a simple act of kindness from an 11-year-old boy. He
lived with his family in Lithuania, and his name was Zalke Jenkins
Solly Ganor was the son of a menshevik refugee
from the Russian revolution in the early 1920s. After the Russian
revolution the family moved to Kaunas, Lithuania. The family
prospered for years before World War II in textile import and export.
Young Solly Ganor, concerned about Polish Jews entering Kaunas, gave
most of his allowance and savings to the Jewish refugee boards.
Having given away all of his money, he went to his aunt Annushka's
gourmet food shop in Kaunas. He went there to borrow a Lithuania lit
(Lithuanian dollar) to see the latest Laurel and Hardy movie. In his
aunt's store he met Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Consul Sugihara
overheard the conversation and gave young Solly two shiny lit.
Impulsively, the young boy invited the Consul with the kind eyes to
his family celebration of the first night of Chanukah 1939.
The surprised and delighted Consul gratefully
accepted the young boy's offer, and he and his wife Yukiko attended
their first Jewish Chanukah celebration.
Mr. Sugihara commented on the closeness of the
Jewish families and how it reminded him of his family, and of similar
Japanese festivals. Fifty-four years later, Mrs. Sugihara remembers
with delight the cakes and cookies and desserts offered to them
during this Jewish festival of lights.
Solly Ganor and his father were soon friends with
the Consul-General and they conversed in Russian. Later Solly Ganor
and his father witnessed Consul Sugihara in his office calling the
Russian officials to get permission to issue visas across the Russian
borders. Solly Ganor and his father later received Sugihara visas but
were unable to use them because they were Soviet citizens.
Most of the Ganor family were murdered in the
Holocaust. Solly's sister Fanny and Aunt Anushka survived the war.
Aunt Anushka returned to Lithuania and died in 1969. Fanny married
Sam Skutelsky from Riga and eventually settled in the United States.
Their son Robert, Solly's only living nephew, now lives in Boulder,
Solly and his father spent over two years in the
Kaunas ghetto before being deported to the Landsberg-Kaufering outer
camps of Dachau in late 1944. They survived the war and moved to
Israel. The older Ganor died peacefully in Tel Aviv in 1966.
Ironically, in May 1945, Solly Ganor was liberated
by Japanese American soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion,
men who had been interned in their own country.
To Solly, the Japanese face has come to symbolize
kindness and liberation.
Who Was Chiune Sugihara?
For the last half century people have asked,
"Who was Chiune Sugihara?"
They have also asked, "Why did he risk his
career, his family fortune, and the lives of his family to issue
visas to Jewish refugees in Lithuania?" These are not easy
questions to answer, and there may be no single set of answers that
will satisfy our curiosity or inquiry.
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara always did things his own
way. He was born on January 1, 1900. He graduated from high school
with top marks and his father insisted that he become a medical
doctor. But Chiune's dream was to study literature and live abroad.
Sugihara attended Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University to study
English. He paid for his own education with part-time work as a
longshoreman and tutor.
One day he saw an item in the classified ads. The
Foreign Ministry was seeking people who wished to study abroad and
might be interested in a diplomatic career. He passed the difficult
entrance exam and was sent to the Japanese language institute in
Harbin, China. He studied Russian and graduated with honors. He also
converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity. The cosmopolitan nature of
Harbin, China opened his eyes to how diverse and interesting the
He then served with the Japanese-controlled
government in Manchuria, in northeastern China. He was later promoted
to Vice Minister of the Foreign Affairs Department. He was soon in
line to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Manchuria.
While in Manchuria he negotiated the purchase of
the Russian-owned Manchurian railroad system by the Japanese. This
saved the Japanese government millions of dollars, and infuriated the
Sugihara was disturbed by his government's policy
and the cruel treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese government. He
resigned his post in protest in 1934.
In 1938 Sugihara was posted to the Japanese
diplomatic office in Helsinki, Finland. With World War II looming on
the horizon, the Japanese government sent Sugihara to Lithuania to
open a one-man consulate in 1939. There he would report on Soviet and
German war plans. Six months later, war broke out and the Soviet
Union annexed Lithuania. The Soviets ordered all consulates to be
closed. It was in this context that Sugihara was confronted with the
requests of thousands of Polish Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland.
Sugihara, the Man
Sugihara's personal history and temperament may
contain the key to why he defied his government's orders and issued
the visas. Sugihara favored his mother's personality. He thought of
himself as kind and nurturing and artistic. He was interested in
foreign ideas, religion, philosophy and language. He wanted to travel
the world and see everything there was, and experience the world. He
had a strong sense of the value of all human life. His language
skills show that he was always interested in learning more about
Sugihara was a humble and understated man. He was
self-sacrificing, self-effacing and had a very good sense of humor.
Yukiko, his wife, said he found it very difficult to discipline the
children when they misbehaved. He never lost his temper.
Sugihara was also raised in the strict Japanese
code of ethics of a turn-of-the-century samurai family. The cardinal
virtues of this society were oya koko (love of the family), kodomo
no tameni (for the sake of the children), having giri and on (duty and responsibility, or obligation to repay a debt), gaman (withholding of emotions on the surface), gambatte (internal
strength and resourcefulness), and haji wo kakete (don't bring
shame on the family). These virtues were strongly inculcated by
Chiune's middle-class rural samurai family.
It took enormous courage for Sugihara to defy the
order of his father to become a doctor, and instead follow his own
academic path. It took courage to leave Japan and study overseas. It
took a very modern liberal Japanese man to marry a Caucasian woman
(his first wife; Yukiko was his second wife) and convert to
Christianity. It took even more courage to openly oppose the Japanese
military policies of expansion in the 1930s.
Thus Sempo Sugihara was no ordinary Japanese man
and may have been no ordinary man. At the time that he and his wife
Yukiko thought of the plight of the Jewish refugees, he was haunted
by the words of an old samurai maxim: "Even a hunter cannot kill
a bird which flies to him for refuge."
A Final Tribute:
Righteous Among the Nations
Today, more than 50 years after
those 29 fateful days in July and August of
1940, there may be more than 40,000 who owe
their lives to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara.
Two generations have come after the original
Sugihara survivors, all owing their existence
to one modest man and his family. After the
war, Mr. Sugihara never mentioned or spoke
to anyone about his extraordinary deeds. It
was not until 1969 that Sugihara was found
by a man he had helped save, Mr. Yehoshua
Nishri. Soon, hundreds of others whom he had
saved came forward and testified to the Yad
Vashem (Holocaust Memorial) in Israel
about his life saving acts of courage. After
gathering testimonies from all over the world,
Yad Vashem realized the enormity of this man's
self-sacrifice in saving Jews. And so it came
to pass that in 1985 he received Israel's
highest honor. He was recognized as "Righteous
Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem
Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
By then a old man near death, he was too ill to
travel to Israel. His wife and son received the honor on his behalf.
Further, a tree was planted in his name at Yad Vashem, and a park in
Jerusalem was named in his honor.
Forty-five years after he signed the visas, Chiune
was asked why he did it. He liked to give two reasons: "They
were human beings and they needed help," he said. "I'm glad
I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."
Sugihara was a religious man and believed in a universal God of all
people. He was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my
government, but if I don't I would be disobeying God."
Consul Chiune Sugihara, age
86, died on July 31, 1986. Mrs.Yukiko Sugihara, age 94, passed away on October 8, 2008.
Sources: Copyright © 1995-1997 Ron Greene. VISAS
FOR LIFE: The Remarkable Story of Chiune and
Yukiko Sugihara. Photographs Copyright © 1995-1996
Eric Saul and the Sugihara Family Trust. All
Rights Reserved. Mrs. Sugihara's autobiography,
written in 1990, has now been translated into
English by her oldest son, Hiroki. The book
is available through Mr. Hiroki Sugihara at
2056 Bush Street, #1, San Francisco, CA 94115,
USA. Tel.(415) 776-6745 Fax. (415) 776-6775.
Also see Sugihara