Monday, February 11, 2019

The Samurai Who Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis

Often, when tragedy strikes, many seek to uncover a silver lining by searching for heroes and their selflessness. On the pantheon of such heroes during the Shoah (the Holocaust) is Chiune Sugihara, who served as Japanese Consul-General to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno). Sugihara assumed his post in March 1939, six months prior to the German invasion of neighboring Poland. Polish and German Jews flooded Lithuania. But Lithuania’s status as a haven ended abruptly on June 15, 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania. The Soviets did allow Polish Jews to leave Lithuania through the Soviet Union. However, in July, 1940, with the Germans advancing on Lithuania, the Soviets ordered all foreign diplomatic posts to leave Kaunas. Sugihara requested and received an extension. The only other diplomat left in Kaunas was Jan Zwartendijk, the acting consul of the Netherlands.

Some astute Jewish refugees noticed that two Dutch islands in the Caribbean, Curacao and Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname), did not require formal entrance visas. Consul Zwartendijk was authorized to stamp passports with entrance permits. In order to get to the Caribbean, however, passage through the U.S.S.R. was required. As a condition to obtain Soviet exit visas, the Soviet consul required Japanese transit visas, since passage through Japan would be required in order to arrive in the Dutch Islands a world away.

Upon learning this news, desperate Jewish refugees arrived at the gate of Kaunas’ Japanese consulate. Chiune Sugihara’s request to the Japanese foreign ministry to dispatch transit visas was unconditionally rejected. Sugihara had to make a gut-wrenching decision. He had to balance his disciplined traditional Japanese obedience with his Samurai calling to help those in need. Sugihara and his family chose to defy their government and help as many people as humanly possible.

For the next 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, the Sugiharas spent all their waking hours writing visas by hand, averaging 300 visas per day, which equaled the monthly average for the Kaunas consulate. Chiune himself refused to take lunch breaks, subsisting on sandwiches, and Yukiko, Mrs. Sugihara, would massage her husband’s aching hands each evening. Even during his last moments as Japanese consul in Kaunas, while aboard the Berlin-bound train on September 1, 1940, Chiune was writing visas and handing them to those pleading for them outside his train window. As the train was pulling away, he threw the consul visa stamp to a refugee who was able to “write” even more transit visas. As a direct result of Sugihara’s heroism, 6,000 refugees’ lives were spared from Nazi barbarism, as they were able to board the Trans-Siberian railroad bound for Kobe, Japan.

After World War II, Sugihara was fired from the Japanese diplomatic corps for his insubordination. He attempted to support his family by functioning as a translator, or an interpreter, and eventually worked as a businessman. It was not until 1969 that Sugihara’s incredible heroism and sacrifice was discovered by a survivor whom he saved. Chiune never spoke of his selfless actions. Chiune Sugihara died on July 31, 1986, at the age of 86.

According to tradition, Japan was founded in 660 BCE on February 11. How appropriate to learn about one of its greatest sons, one who was acclaimed as “Righteous Among the Gentiles” by Yad Vashem.

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