|"The Jews, who passed through Kaunas, still treasure the visas which my husband issued. They didn't forget what they shouted when we were leaving Kaunas station. 'We will never forget you. We will see you again.' I've heard that, as a people, the Jews never forget a promise."
- Yukiko Sugihara
Chiune and Yukiko agonized over their dilemma. Finally, he made the decision to issue thousands of transit visas. "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't, I will be disobeying God", he would later recall. For one month, Chiune Sugihara sat for endless hours hand-writing visas.
In July 1940, the Soviets instructed all consulates and embassies to close down. Chiune requested and received permission from the Soviets for an extension that would allow the Japanese consulate to remain open for an additional twenty days. Chiune wanted to issue visas to as many refugees as possible. One entire school, the world famous Mir Yeshiva, was saved when Chiune wrote three hundred visas for its students and faculty. By the end of August, Sugihara was the only foreign consul left in Kaunas.
As for the refugees, after receiving visas, thousands of Jews took the trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, where they continued on by ship to Kobe, Japan. They initially stayed in Kobe and other cities for several months. From Japan, most of the Jews went on to Shanghai, China, where they survived the war - saved from the grasp of the Nazis' genocidal policies which took the lives of 6 million of their brethren. Ironically, the refugees in Shanghai were under the protection of the occupying Japanese military government.
On September 1, 1940, the Sugiharas traveled to Berlin to await their new assignment, and in the next several years he was stationed in Prague, Konigsberg, and Bucharest.
In 1945, after the war, the Sugihara family was imprisoned in a Soviet internment camp in Romania for a year and a half When the family finally returned to Japan in 1947, the Japanese government unceremoniously dismissed Mr. Sugihara from diplomatic service. Once a rising star in the Japanese foreign service, Sugihara's career as a diplomat was shattered.
After the war, the Sugiharas never spoke about their wartime deeds. Nearly thirty years later, in 1969, Chiune was found by Yehoshua Nishri, a man whom he had helped save. Soon, many other survivors came forward to testify to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) in Israel about Mr. Sugihara's humanitarian initiative. In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashern Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Sugihara was too ill to travel, so his wife and son received the honor on his behalf. Forty-five years after the fact, Chiune Sugihara was finally recognized for his great act of humanity. Chiune said, "I think that my decision was humanely correct. A year later, he died.
Recently, Professor Hillel Levine of Boston University found an official Japanese government document listing 2,139 names of people issued visas in Kaunas by Consul Sugihara. Scholars believe that one visa could be used for an entire family.
WHO WAS CHIUNE SUGIHARA?
Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1, 1900. He graduated from secondary school with top marks, and his father insisted he become a doctor. But Chiune's dream was to study literature and live abroad. He attended Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University and studied English. Making his own way in the world, he paid for his education with part-time work as a longshoreman and tutor.
One day, Chiune saw an ad in a newspaper asking for people who were interested in a diplomatic career to contact the Foreign Ministry. After passing a difficult entrance exam, Sugihara was sent to Harbin Gakuln, National University in Harbin, China, where he studied Russian. He graduated with honors. He later converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity, and married a White Russian woman (they were later divorced). The cosmopolitan nature of Harbin opened his eyes to how diverse and interesting the world was.
Sugihara then served with the Japanese military government in Manchuria, in northeastern China. He was later promoted to Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was soon in line to become Minister of Foreign Affairs.
While in Manchuria, Sugihara negotiated the purchase of the Soviet-owned Northern Manchurian railroad, saving the Japanese government millions of dollars. This infuriated the Soviets.
In 1934, Chiune Sugihara resigned his post in protest of Japan's cruel and racist treatment of the Chinese people. In 1935, he returned to Japan where he would meet and marry Yukiko Kikuchi, to whom he would be married for fifty years.
In 1938, Sugihara was posted to the Japanese diplomatic office in Helsinki, Finland. The next year, on the eve of World War II, the Japanese government sent Sugihara to Kaunas, Lithuania, to open a one-person consulate. He was to report on Soviet and German activities. It was here that Sugihara would meet his destiny.
Sugihara's personal history and temperament may provide clues to why he defied his government's orders and issued the visas. People thought of him as kind, nurturing and artistic. He was curious about foreigners, their religions, philosophies and languages. He wanted to travel the world. He also had a strong sense of the value of all human life. His language skills - in Japanese, Russian, German, English, French and Chinese - demonstrated his worldly view and his curiosity about other people.
It took enormous courage for Sugihara to defy the wishes of his father and not become a doctor, and to follow his own path. It took courage to leave Japan and study overseas. It took even more courage to openly oppose the Japanese military policies of expansion in the 1930s. Then, in 1940, Chiune Sugihara became one of the most important rescuers of our time.
Chiune Sugihara was no ordinary man.
Forty-five years after signing the visas, Sugihara was asked why he did it. He replied: "They were human beings and they needed help. I'm glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."