Chiune Sugihara, The “Japanese Schindler”
I came across this by accident - a Japanese Diplomat in Lithuania wrote hundreds upon hundreds of visas for Jews (without the acknowledgement of the Japanese government), saving thousands of lives.
In 1938, Sugihara was posted as a diplomat in Helsinki, Finland. In March 1939 – as Europe stood on the brink of World War II - he was appointed by the Japanese Government to open a Consulate in Kaunas, Lituania.
Sugihara had barely settled down in his new post when the German army invaded Poland, and a wave of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania, bringing terrifying stories of German atrocities against the Polish Jews. Desperate to flee the approaching Nazis, these refugees escaped from Poland with no possessions or money. Because the Germans were rapidly advancing, the only escape was to go further east. However, the Soviets only allowed Jews to pass through Russia if they had a transit visa – and so, obtaining a Japanese visa became a matter of life and death.
One morning in July 1940, Consul Sugihara and his family were awakened by a crowd of hundreds Jewish refugees standing outside the Consulate, all desperately hoping for visas. Facing these women, children, and elderly people with pleading eyes made Sugihara feel helpless. He wanted to help, but had no authority to issue visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. He wired his government three times requesting to issue these visas, and all three times he was denied.
Time was running out for the refugees, and Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He knew he might be fired and disgraced if he defied government orders, but he also knew that he could not allow these people to die. “I may have to disobey my Government, but if I do not, I will be disobeying God,” Sugihara said to his wife, Yukiko. “I know I should follow my conscience.”
Guided by the strength of his morality, Sugihara began issuing the transit visas. For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, he sat for endless hours composing them. Hour after hour, day after day, he wrote and signed - 300 visas a day all written entirely by hand. He did not even pause for meals - Yukiko would prepare him sandwiches and leave them by his side. At the end of the day, she would massage his aching hands.
Hundreds of applicants became thousands. Day and night, desperate people lined up outside the Consulate begging for visas; when some of them attempted to climb the compound wall, Sugihara came out to calm them, promising not to abandon them. And he did not: when he was forced to close the Consulate and leave Lithuania, Sugihara continued writing visas on his way to the train station, in his car, and in his hotel. After boarding the train, he kept signing visas as fast as he could, handing them down from his window. Even while pulling out of the station, Sugihara was seen throwing visas to refugees running alongside the speeding train. Because many passports had been left unstamped, Sugihara also tossed his visa stamp into the crowd, so that it could be used to save even more Jews. “We will never forget you:” those were the last words he heard from the refugees.
With Sugihara`s visas, as many as 6,000 refugees were able to flee, making their way to Japan, China, and numerous other countries in safety. They had escaped the Holocaust, and would become known as Sugihara Survivors.
At the end of the war, the Soviets imprisoned Sugihara, Yukiko, and their son in an internment camp in Rumania for 18 months. When he returned to Japan in 1947, the Japanese Foreign Ministry dismissed him from the diplomatic service. With his career as diplomat shattered, Sugihara became depressed and withdrawn. Not only had he suffered the indignity of losing his career, but approaching the age of 50 made it hard for him to get a job. Sugihara and his family therefore entered into a life of extreme poverty and hunger.
To survive, Sugihara was forced to take a job selling light bulbs door-to-door. Eventually, he worked as a part-time translator and interpreter, before returning to Moscow to accept a managerial position with a Japanese trading company. Sugihara worked there for over 15 years in complete obscurity, visiting his family in Japan only once or twice a year. After the war, many of Sugihara`s survivors tried to trace him, seeking information at the Japanese Foreign Ministry – but to no avail. The Japanese Government refused to cooperate; no one seemed to remember or recognize the name Sugihara.