In June of 1940, the Jews of Lithuania were in trouble. Trapped between the Nazis and the Soviets, with Britain and America unwilling to accept more Jewish immigrants, and time running out as the Soviets had ordered international consulates in Lithuania to close, there seemed to be no more ways to escape
the impending doom.
And so it was, on the morning of July 27, 1940, the Japanese Consul, Chiune Sugihara, looked out the consulate’s windows to see thousands of Jewish refugees pressed around the gate – men, women and children, all desperate for help. They had gone from consulate to consulate without success. Sugihara was their last resort.
Sugihara had a choice to make: obey his government, which turned down his repeated requests for permission to issue wholesale visas, or follow his conscience. He consulted with his wife and they made the decision to disobey his government’s orders, well knowing the potential consequences—from execution for insubordination to dismissal from his position and disgrace at home. The Soviets and Germans could retaliate against him and his family as well.
Sugihara issued as many visas a day as he could, but the crowds grew daily and yet Sugihara did not turn anyone away. For two months he and his wife worked 18-20 hours a day issuing visas, not even breaking for meals. It was a painstaking process: each one had to be written out in longhand and recorded in a log book. His secretary, a German named Wolfgang Gudze, managed the logbook, organizing and duplicating the documents.
A young Jewish man, Moshe Zupnik, who was seeking a visa, offered his help. Sugihara handed him the official stamp and told him to join in. Gudze had actually been planted in the consulate as a German spy. However, his friendship and bond with, and respect for the humanity and morality of, Sugihara and Zupnik caused Gudze to follow his conscience over his allegiance to his country. In addition to taking care of their children, Yukiko Sugihara supported the men with meals and helped write the visas. Together, the four of them were able to produce more visas each day than were normally granted in a month. Despite the great burden Sugihara labored under, the refugees all remember his kindness, how he looked at each of them in the eye and smiled as he handed them their visas.
When the Consulate was forcibly closed and Sugihara was finally forced to leave, he moved into a nearby hotel to rest and gather his strength for the trip out of Lithuania. But he left the refugees a note telling them at which hotel he would be staying. They followed him there, so instead of retiring to his room, he sat in the lobby and continued to issue visas. When he left for the train station, he asked those who remained for their forgiveness and bowed to them. The refugees followed him once more. As the train sat in the station, Sugihara wrote as many visas as he could, handing them out the train window to the many outstretched hands. As the train lurched forward, he threw his official stationery out the train window, hoping that it could be put to use.
The Soviets imprisoned the Sugihara family in a series of internment camps. After the war, he and his family were allowed to return to Japan, where he was dismissed from the Foreign Ministry in disgrace. His young son, weakened in the internment camps, took sick and died. Although his life was spared, for a Japanese man, the pain of losing face and being disgraced was devastating. He did what he could to support his family but jobs were few.
A year before he died, he was named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and was visited and thanked by some of the people whose lives he had saved. It was not until decades later that the Japanese government rehabilitated the reputation of Sugihara and hailed his moral virtue and dedication to humanity, recognizing him as a just man.
Sugihara’s mother had come from a long line of Samurai and his upbringing was influenced by the Bushido Code. He was taught to live with duty, honor and dignity and to live courageously. Because this one man chose to follow that code, it is estimated that 100,000 people are alive today.
“I did not do anything special. I made my own decisions, that is all. I followed my conscience. I listened to it. I may have disobeyed my government, but if I did not, I would have been disobeying God.”CHIUNE SUGIHARA