Righteous Among the Nations - Sugihara Chiune

Diplomat Sugihara Chiune at the time of his posting to Kaunas from 1939 to 1940
Credit: Courtesy of Taisho Shuppan and Sugihara Yukiko

"It seems I have defied my government's orders, but if had not done so, I would have defied God's order."

 

Chiune [Sempo] Sugihara

 

At the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, the consul Sugihara sits in his chamber. He hears the crowd gathering outside, and immediately returns to his work. His hand begins to shake, he lifts it a little bit, but the pain is very sharp. Yukiko, his wife, notices her husband’s struggle and brings him a hot cloth, which helps to calm the pain for a while. Sugihara grabs his pen again and goes back to his writing, while in his head there is only one thought: If I won’t provide the visas, this people will surely die. Outside the Consulate, there are thousands of Jewish refugees, standing, waiting for the consul they have never met before to grant them a visa that would save their lives.

 

 

Chiune [Sempo] Sugihara was the Japanese consul in Lithuania during World War II. In 1939, Sugihara was transferred from Helsinki to Kaunas, and became the first consul in the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania[1]. In an interview with the Survivors of The Shoah Visual History Foundation, his wife Yukiko recalls that during the Nazi occupation, a rising number of Jewish refugees began lining up outside the Consulate, waiting day and night, knowing that Sugihara's visas were their last hope of escaping from the Nazi’s occupation[2].


 

Sugihara sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Japan, to approve the Jewish refugees to pass through Japan and go on to different countries. However, the Foreign Ministry strongly refused to grant the visas due to Japan’s alliance with Germany. Sugihara tried again, but in response to his several requests, he was told not to issue the visas and drop the subject[3]. Nevertheless, Sugihara couldn’t ignore the refugees. He decided to disobey the Ministry’s decision and issue the visas by himself.[4]  Sugihara worked endlessly on issuing as many visas as he possibly could. However, despite his hard work, the number of refugees applying for visas didn’t decrease.


 

In 1940, the Soviet government ordered Sugihara to leave the country and close the Consulate[5]. When they found out that despite their orders, Sugihara was still there, he was given a two-day ultimatum[6]. Sugihara decided to spend the time he had been given, to grant as many visas as he could[7]. Sugihara’s hard work severely affected his hand, which started to swell and shake. His wife put hot compresses on his hand every night to reduce the pain[8]. Despite his condition, he continued to issue the visas, knowing it was the refugees’ only hope. On September 1st, 1940, on his last day in Kaunas, Sugihara continued to issue visas until his train left the platform[9]. Some say that Sugihara even left his stamp for the refugees on the train station, so they could issue their visas by themselves with his authorization[10].

 


 


Sugihara's ambition was to issue as many visas as he could and save as many lives as possible. The exact number of people saved by Sugihara is not known and is estimated between 4,500 to 6,000.

 

After the war [1947] Sugihara and his family returned to Japan. Sugihara lost his position, and his family lived in poverty[11]. During the post-war years, the people saved by Sugihara, searched for him and his family all over the world.
 

 

In 1984 the Yad Vashem institute declared Sugihara as a “Righteous among the nations” and he was invited to Israel to get the “Righteous among the nations” medal[12]. As part of that recognition, Sugihara was offered a grant, which he refused. Instead, he asked for his son Nobuki, to be granted a scholarship to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem[13].

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