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.
A movie about Sugihara, titled Persona Non Grata, premiered in the United States on January 31, 2015, during the Atlanta Jewish Films Festival. Directed by Japanese-American director Cellin Gluck, it is a biographical film in Japanese based on the real-life heroic actions of Sugihara.
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 fourth 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.
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 Jan Zwartendijk, the acting Dutch consul, Chiune Sugihara was the only foreign consul left in Lithuania’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 hand, 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 future.
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.
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 1939
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).
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 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 Sugihara who 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, Colorado.
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 world was.
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 Russians.
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 other peoples.
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
There may be more than 40,000 who owe their lives to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. 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, 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. 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 an 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.”
A street in Netanya, Israel was named after Sugihara in June 2016, in a ceremony attended by one of Sugihara’s sons, Nobuki. Prior to the ceremony, Nobuki Sugihara met with Holocaust survivors from the local communities that had been saved by his father.
Consul Chiune Sugihara, age 86, died on July 31, 1986. 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 Office Japan.