Wednesday, May 30, 2007
from The Independent: 'Japanese Schindler' who saved Lithuanian Jews is honoured
When Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the
monument of Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania last weekend, many television
programmes back in Japan had to run stories explaining who this obscure
It's obvious why the Emperor would be in London yesterday to dine with the Queen but who was Chiune Sugihara?
For years, few Japanese knew the incredible story of how the man
dubbed "Japan's Schindler" saved about 6,000 Jews from the Nazis during
the Second World War despite working for an ally of Germany. Unlike
Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who turned against the Nazis
and rescued almost 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust, Sugihara had to wait
until just seven years ago for his bravery to be officially recognised.
Sugihara was the acting consul in Lithuania's temporary wartime
capital when he was ordered to abandon his post as the Germans advanced
in 1940. A fourth of the city's population was Jewish, mostly
prosperous and well integrated, and few were ready to believe the
horror stories from nearby Poland until it was too late to flee. By an
accident of history the mild-mannered diplomat - one of just two left
in the city - became their last hope for survival.
The crossroads in Sugihara's life came one night in July 1940 when
he woke up to find a group of desperate refugees outside his window
demanding visas to the Soviet Union. He decided to help but his
repeated requests to Tokyo for permission to issue the visas were
denied. Despite facing disgrace or worse for his family, Sugihara
decided to follow his conscience and sign as many visas as he could, in
defiance of his government.
Sugihara's courageous decision was all the more remarkable given his
background. From solid middle-class stock, he graduated from Tokyo's
elite Waseda University and served under the Foreign Ministry in
Japan's puppet state of Manchuria, one of the more brutal military
occupations of the war. A gifted linguist, he was once tipped for an
Yet this is the man who sat for almost a month from 31 July to 28
August 1940 painstakingly writing out 10-day transit visas by hand,
even enlisting his wife, Yukiko, to help him. By the time they boarded
a Berlin-bound train on 1 September 1940, still scribbling out the last
visa, they had saved about 6,000 people, including hundreds of
children. Sugihara's final act in the besieged city was to hand his
consular stamp to a refugee, who went on issuing passes.
Sugihara's reward for his heroism was dismissal from the Foreign
Ministry immediately after the war. Disgraced in Japan, he was forced
to eke out a living as a part-time translator and ended his life
working for a trading company with connections to Russia. He died in
1986 and his family had to wait until 14 years later for the then
Foreign Minister Yohei Kono to formally apologise.