Hero of History: Chiune Sugihara

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Jews


At the very edge of the Holocaust, while the world was starting to see yawning before it a chasm that would claim six million lives, a group of people who didn’t know each other and no doubt wouldn’t like each other collectively decided to open their hands and let thousands of innocent lives pass through. Just before the mass murder, there occurred in one small place a mass rescue. And it started with one man.


The Yeshiva

In the autumn of 1939, a pleasant Japanese man, a father of two, was posted to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. He was a spy. Lithuania at that moment was a place were time was ticking away slowly, a refuge in Europe where the war had yet to come. People were fleeing to Lithuania from the Nazis in the East and the Soviets in the West. That made Kaunas a good place to post spies, and Chiune Sugihara was a fruitful spy. He was fluent in Russian and friendly with Germans, Soviets, and Poles, not to mention the British, the Dutch, and the Lithuanians.

Scant months later, in the summer of 1940, Chiune Sugihara sat at a desk in his office with his secretary, a German man loyal to his fatherland, and a representative of a local yeshiva, or school for Jews. For two weeks the three of them sat at the desk, creating illegal visas to enable 300 yeshiva students to flee Lithuania as the Soviets took power. What is perhaps more extraordinary than that is what happened to many of the people who were issued Suighara visas: they made it to Japan. Somehow, all along the journey across Soviet territory and into Japan, on trains and ships, through countless checks of travel documents, people bearing clearly illegal documents were saved.

What made a man like Sugihara, raised as a traditional Japanese citizen, disobey direct orders and issue illegal documents? What made the Soviet guards allow Jews to travel through their territory and then leave it? Why did the Japanese bring people into the country who clearly were going to overstay their (illegal) ten-day transit visas, because they obviously had nowhere else to go? It is what one author has called “a conspiracy of goodness” (Levine, 196): goodness without payments or bribes, without political favors, without much notice at all. Just person after person allowing people to pass by them unchallenged, on their way to freedom.

About half of the people Chiune Sugihara and his compatriots tried to save survived the war, some in Japan, some in Shanghai, far fewer able to make it to Western countries who closed their borders. It is estimated that Sugihara issued ten thousand illegal visas, many of which were for entire families. The Mirrer yeshiva in Kaunas was the only yeshiva in Europe to survive the war without the loss of a single member. Chiune Sugihara is the only Japanese national ever honored by Israel as Righteous Among Nations.


Leaving Lithuania

In 1939, Lithuania was nominally independent, and in practice, quite clearly so. There were large Jewish communities in the country, untouched so far by war. You could afford to buy food in Kaunas, although housing was becoming scarcer and so less affordable. Refugees were pouring across the borders and then dusting themselves off and making themselves at home. For a few precious months, life was as normal in Kaunas as it could be on the edge of war.

People realized, of course, that it wasn’t going to last. Some people were prescient and sought to leave Europe as things began to heat up. Some who stayed laughed at the fear of those who left, saying they’d be back before too long, embarrassed at their overreaction. People had lives in Europe, lives that stretched back generations. They owned property, businesses. They lived with their families. But as time passed, no one who left came back. And those who had stayed started to realize that perhaps they too should leave. And if they were going to leave, they were going to have to do it soon. The problem was, once you became a traveler, nobody wanted you to visit them.

There were many embassies in Kaunas: Japanese, American, British, the Dutch in exile. Refugees from other places and native Lithuanians thronged them, trying to find precious pieces of paper that they could exchange for their own lives. First, you needed to have a destination, and it was not supposed to be just a hopeful “I’ve always wanted to visit Canada.” You had to have people in Toronto who would welcome you, pay your fees, take you in and support you. (It helped if you had some sort of skill that was needed somewhere else in the world. Most people did not.) If you could prove that you had (wealthy) connections in a certain place, you could possibly get an entry visa to that place. Step two was to get a transit visa through a distant country on your way to your final destination: for example, Japan. If you managed to get Japan to agree that you could spend a few days crossing their country, then you could get what you needed most at that moment in the Lithuania of 1940: a Soviet exit visa.


The Soviets

In 1939, the Nazis wanted to get rid of Jews. But in that early time period, they were content to let Jews simply leave their territories. So many Jews fled through Europe to places like Kaunas. The Soviets were less accommodating: they wanted the refugees for labor. Over the course of the war, thousands and thousands of people across Soviet territory were rounded up and sent to places like Siberia, and they were never seen again. On July 1, 1940, the Soviets officially took power in Lithuania.

It was dangerous, even in the months before July of 1940, to try to flee the supposedly independent country. The Soviets didn’t look kindly on people getting documents that stated that they wanted to enter Soviet territory and then leave. Having a document like that might mean you were disloyal to the Soviets and that was not a good thing. Sometimes they might overlook such an action–if you could pay. (It was very expensive to be a refugee. That was why you had to prove that you had someone at your final destination to cover your final fees–because whatever you had with you would likely be spent by the end of your journey.) It was also sometimes the case that the Soviets granted exit visas to refugees who had information that could be useful–both information already gathered, and what could be gathered in the future.

The Mirrer yeshiva flat-out lied to Sugihara about having relatives in America who would care for them. Sugihara knew it was a lie. It was most clearly a lie. He gave them Japanese transit visas anyway, and the Soviets let them go.


Chiune Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara was a linguist.  Among other things, of course.  He was smart, he was friendly.  People liked him, and they wanted to work with and for him, providing him with information.  But it was his flawless fluency in Russian that got him posted to Kaunas.  Lithuania was just one entry on a list of fruitful areas in which Sugihara had served or would serve across his career, places like Manchuria, Helsinki, and Berlin.

Sugihara was married twice and had four sons.  His first wife was Russian, his second, and the mother of his children, Japanese.  He was born at the very start of the century (or the very end of the last, depending on how you count): January 1, 1900.  He lived to be 86.  Sugihara was not wealthy.  He was raised slightly-upper-middle-class in Japan, where he excelled at school.  He was valued by the Japanese government, but it’s unlikely that he ever provided them with earth-shattering information from Kaunas, or anywhere else.  He raised his family, he did his job.  He was ordinary.

So why become a mass rescuer?  Why did he do things like pretend to believe lies about wealthy relatives in far-off places?  Why did he make up Japanese fathers for Polish women, or give people a pair of gloves as a gift for the Foreign Minister in Tokyo, granting them diplomatic courier status?  Why did he put his stamp on obviously counterfeit visas that other people had made themselves, or ignore the fact that many refugees had none of the legal documents required to get a Japanese transit visa?  When word spread that the Japanese consulate was handing out visas with no fuss, and the unassuming building became the center of a crowd nearly 24 hours a day, why did Sugihara just keep issuing visas, thousands of them, clearly enough to alert Tokyo and the Soviets to what he was doing?

Various historians have written of the Jewish friends that Sugihara made in Kaunas.  In December of 1939, Sugihara was invited to the home of Lithuanian native Solly Ganor for Hannukah.  Solly was eleven years old.  Sugihara enjoyed the party very much, and later Solly was one of the Jews who received a visa from Sugihara.  In this case, the Soviets did not grant the family an exit visa and eventually sent Solly to Dachau, where he managed to survive to the end of the war.

At that Hannukah party, Sugihara met a Jewish family who had fled the Nazis in Poland, and heard their terrible story.  It is also true that from the windows of his consulate, Sugihara could see the people who needed to leave Lithuania.  There were entire families there.  The elderly.  Children.  Sugihara had a wife and children.

In order to be named Righteous of Nations, it had to be shown that you saved others at possible cost to yourself.  The lives and livelihood of Sugihara and his own family were at risk due to his actions.  He was flaunting the rules of his own government.  Crossing lines with the Soviets.  Aiding those who had fled the Nazis.  It was a feat of balance, and clearly, Sugihara could have decided not to do it.  After all, almost everybody else did.


Japan and The Jews

The Tripartite Act was signed in September of 1940.  Japan, angry at the treatment of its citizens in the West, stung by the West’s hypocritical disapproval of Japan’s estabilishing colonies in China, allied itself with Germany and Italy.  Already there were hundreds of Jewish refugees streaming into Japan, some on Sugihara visas.  Even after signing the Act, Japan continued to let them in.

It is possible that Japan still wanted to curry favor with the West, and particularly wealthy Western Jews, by caring for Jewish refugees.  It is also possible that Japan wanted to show the West that the East was in fact more civilized than they were.  And Japan had its pride.  It would have been somewhat difficult for them to refuse refugees who held Japanese transit visas when the Soviets were trying to hand them off.  It would have been awkward for them to admit that those visas had been counterfeited by one of their own employees.  And yet they didn’t stop Sugihara from writing more of them.  Why?

For one, Sugihara was a good spy.  He was in a good place and brought back useful information.  He also did not inform Tokyo that he was mass-producing illegal visas.  They found that out when hundreds of terrified families rang their doorbell.  After that, they told him to stop.  He did not.  In fact, when he was later posted to Prague, he gave out illegal visas there.  They still did not fire him and bring him home.

Although there were fears that European Jews would spread communism to the East, Japan did not have the same levels of racial hatred that flourished in Europe.  Of course, Japan didn’t especially want the Jewish refugees there, especially when they had nowhere else to go.  They tried sending them to the West.  We all know how well that went.  (The Americans, for example, sometimes told Jewish visa applicants that they could go ahead and pick up their visas–in Nazi Berlin.  This sort of thing does cast doubt on the idea that Japan wanted to curry favor with the West by protecting Jews, because the West sure as hell did not go out of their way to protect Jews.)

For a while, a loophole on visas issued by the Dutch-in-exile embassy in Kaunas permitted thousands of people to list Curacao, an island in the lesser Antilles, as their final destination.  The loophole involved Curacao supposedly not needing entry visas.  This odd circumstance was created by a Dutch official in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, not-really-accidentally deleting that little fact from the regulations for a while.  But that avenue dried up as soon as Curacao realized what had happened–and started interning Jews.

Early in the war, there was a plan for a Jewish community in the Japanese colony of Manchuria.  This was an idea that the Soviets liked as well.  But it never really panned out.  Eventually, Japan kept some Jews for the duration of the war, and sent most of them on to Shanghai, where, in great numbers, they survived.


The Final Moments of a Mass Rescue

On September 4, 1940, Sugihara was forced by the Soviets to close his embassy and leave Kaunas.  With his family, he boarded a train to Berlin.  It was not a good day to be in Lithuania.  The Soviets were in charge.  The Nazis were not terribly far away, and they were building gas chambers.  Chiune Sugihara’s hands hurt.  He had been writing visas all day, every day, for weeks.  The time he had left in Kaunas was finite.  For many others, time being “finite” meant something else altogether.  Sugihara helped his family get settled for the trip.  People were everywhere.  They were all looking at him.

Sugihara had a supply of paper with him on the train.  It didn’t matter if his hands hurt, because there was no more time to write visas.  But along with paper, he had ink, a stamp, and a pen.  As the train began to move, Sugihara began signing blank pieces of paper and marking them with his official consulate stamp.  And then he threw them out the window.

There was no more time to invent Japanese fathers or wealthy relatives in the West.  There was no more time to even learn the names of those people he was trying to save.  They were as blank to him as the precious pieces of paper that he flung from the windows of a moving train.  Other people would have to write out the visas on those papers, and sometimes they would list entire families.  Sometimes they would list people who were only pretending to be families, or people who hastily married just to pass as families.  The refugees knew by now that there was no time to waste.  The world was closing to them.  People they didn’t know hated them.  Others didn’t really hate, but they turned away and refused to help.  The outcome for the Jews was the same.  But for a few months in Kaunas, Lithuania, there was an ordinary Japanese man who made another choice.



It is possible that all it took was one man.  That seems the most likely answer to the question of why so many people, Soviets and Japanese, accepted so many of the illegal Sugihara visas.  It was easy to do nothing, especially when everybody else was doing nothing.  But if one man did something, stepped out and took the lead in letting strangers try to find a place of safety, it made it easier to follow.  If a Soviet inspector came upon refugees who had made it halfway to freedom on forged documents, indicating that every other inspector down the line had taken pity on them, maybe he wouldn’t want to be the one that dashed their chances.  And so it would go, all the way to Shanghai.

The same was true for the other consulates.  Nobody at any of the embassies was supposed to issue visas.  Nobody wanted the refugees in their own countries.  But some of the other diplomats did work with Sugihara, especially the Dutch official Jan Zwartendijk, who pulled off a rescue of his own with the Curacao manouver.  In the final days before the Soviets took over on July 1, 1940, the British had a change of heart and began to issue their own illegal documents.  The Dutch, British, and Japanese invited refugees into their parlors, sometimes giving them potatoes carved into consulate stamps, forming assembly lines creating false documents.  Somehow Sugihara had a Nazi quite peacefully working at his.

And it made a difference that Sugihara was getting away with it.  Seeing Sugihara successfully create forged documents and witnessing the Soviets and the Japanese look the other way may have emboldened others, making them feel like a great many people besides themselves wanted these families to reach safety.

Some of the Jews thought that Sugihara was Elijah, who would appear in disguise to help those who needed it.  But he really was just an ordinary person.  It is unclear whether Sugihara thought that his visas would work.  It may be that he was just as surprised as everybody else that thousands of refugees ended up in Japan.  Why on earth did he do it?

Maybe it’s more important to ask ourselves if we would have done it.


Levine, Hillel. In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Sakamoto, Pamela Rotner. Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: A World War II Dilemma. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1998.

Photo:  Wikipedia Commons (public domain image)

Facebook Comments