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A man of great moral character, Chiune Sugihara was moved by compassion after witnessing the dire needs of the Jewish population during World War II. Chiune risked his own safety and career to save the lives of thousands. Along the way he inspired others to conspire for good, even prompting an unlikely alliance between a German spy, a Jewish refugee and his own Japanese family.
Born to a Samurai class family in rural Yaotsu, Japan, Chuine was the second oldest out of six. He was a brilliant student earning top honors in school, giving him the opportunity to follow his father’s passion of becoming a doctor. Instead, Chiune raised his own funds so he could pursue his dream of majoring in English and earning a position with the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
He was first assigned to a diplomatic school in China where he committed himself to becoming an expert in Russian and German. Chiune would take to heart the school’s moral creed: “not to be served by others; to be of service; and not to seek reward.” His first position in the Foreign Ministry was in Manchuria, where the Japanese were cruelly mistreating the Chinese population. Chiune personally managed efforts to provide food and medical aid to the villages in need after a flood added to their woes. Eventually, he made the decision to resign from his position to publicly condemn the Japanese actions. Instead of facing a harsh punishment for his protest, Chiune found himself demoted and reassigned to Europe.
“I resigned from my post in the Foreign Ministry because the Japanese dealt with the Chinese cruelly. They didn’t consider them human. I couldn’t bear that.” – Chiune Sugihara, 1934
Ten years later in 1939, he became head of the Japanese Consulate in Kanaus, Lithuania. Because of his unique language skills, he was tasked with secretly providing information on German and Russian troop movements to the Japanese and the Polish.
During World War II Lithuania was caught in between the relentless German forces on one side and on the other an equally forceful Soviet Union taking over the smaller baltic nations. As a result, many Jews from Lithuania and nearby countries found themselves trapped with no way to escape the coming atrocities. Large numbers of Jews turned to the foreign consulates in hopes of acquiring exit visas to distant countries.
As hundreds amass outside of the Japanese consulate’s gates, Chiune Sugihara took the time to hear their stories personally and was moved to action by his heart of compassion. Over the next few days he urgently contacted the Japanese government multiple times, determined to find a solution. Each time Tokyo replied by reminding him of the rules and procedures requiring that each emigrant needed to follow all of the appropriate steps: have an exit visa, pay the required fees, have money to sustain their travel, and hold a visa to a final destination beyond Japan.
The problem was that it was nearly impossible for the refugee Jews to meet all of the requirements and the other consulates were already evacuating. Realizing this, Sugihara met with his wife Yukiko and two children, discussing the situation and the risks. The Soviets would charged him with a capital offense for aiding and assisting immigrants. Nazis would likely punish him by death. Either way, the Japanese government would certainly reprimand him for disobeying and he would lose his dream career. In spite of the risks, the Sugiharas decided to be bold and violate official protocol in order to grant Jewish families visas to transit through Japan.
“I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t, I would have been disobeying God.”- Chiune Sugihara
For the next two months Chiune spent 16 or more hours a day personally interviewing applicants over tea, giving them encouragement and hand writing the visas in Japanese. Meanwhile his secretary, a German named Wolfgang Gudze managed the logbook, organized and duplicated the documents. A young Jewish man named Moshe Zupnik was in the office trying to acquire visas for 300 of his fellow students. Zupnik noticed their efforts and offered to help create the documents. Chiune handed him the official stamp and told him to join in. In addition to taking care of the children, Yokiko Sugihara supported the men with meals and helped write some of the visas. Together, the Sugiharas, Gudze and Zupnik were able to produce more visas each day than were normally granted in a month’s time.
Zupnik would stay to help even after his fellow students received their visas. He made it safely to Japan and on to the United States. It turns out that Gudze was planted at the consulate as a German spy. However, Gudze’s efforts to support the Jewish refugees along with his friendships with Zupnik and the Sugihara family suggest his true allegiance was not with the Nazis. Little is known about Gudze’s life after he teared up while saying goodbye and urged them not to lose hope.
By August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania and Sugihara’s Consul was given orders to be closed. Sugihara also received a letter from Japan suggesting that many of the refugees with his visas did not have the appropriate paperwork or funds to continue their journey. The official ordered Sugihara to cease writing invalid visas. Chiune ignored the order and stayed up all night filling out unnamed visas. He continued to write more visas as they rode to the train station where he threw all of the remaining visas and papers to the crowd of Jewish refugees.
Sugihara issued over 2,200 visas; many were used to help entire families escape to safety. Within a year the Nazi’s invaded Lithuania and exterminated over 91% of the remaining Jewish population. The exact number of those who were able to escape is unknown, but thousands of refugees ended up in Japan from Lithuania without proper paperwork to continue, they were allowed to stay until the war ended.
The Japanese government continued to use Chiune as a spy at multiple consulates throughout Europe until the Nazi’s surrendered in 1945. While returning to Japan, the Sugihara family was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned in internment camps for two years. Upon his return, Chiune was pressured to resign and notified that there would be no position remaining for him in post-war Japan.
For years Chiune was unsure that his visas had even worked or that anyone was saved by his sacrifice. He continued working menial jobs to care for his family after losing his career and one of his sons to an illness from the internment camp. His heroic deeds would go unnoticed and unmentioned for three decades until one of the Jewish survivors he helped save was able to track him down and thank him. Soon many other survivors wrote and visited Chiune to express their thanks. A year before his death in 1986, Sugihara was honored by Israel as “Righteous Among Nations”.
“I didn’t do anything special. I followed my own conscience and listened to it.” – Chiune Sugihara
Chiune Sugihara lived a bold and heroic life. He inspired those around him to collaborate in saving the lives of thousands. He continually chose to give of himself and risk his own dreams to help others in need. He gave dignity and hope to those who were scared and hurting, never once seeking fame or notice. Tens of thousands are alive today because they or their predecessors survived the Holocaust because of the selfless acts of Chiune Sugihara.