The “Schindler” of Japan
Reprinted with Permission
The Hawai‘i Herald (Oct. 7, 1994)
Millions of people who have viewed the epic movie “Schindler’s List” (Universal Pictures, 1993) have come away deeply moved and inspired by this story of a Nazi who saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews from a Polish death camp during World War II. They should also be made aware of the story of a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of visas against the orders of his own government to save the lives of some 6,000-8,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi pogrom (an organized massacre of helpless people – merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pogrom) in Poland in 1940. Here is that story of Chiune Sugihara, truly a “Schindler” from Japan.
One day in August 1968, a foreigner called upon a trading firm in Tökyö, asking to see “a Mr. Sugihara.” A silver-haired man answered, “I am Sugihara.”
The stranger asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“I am sorry, I don’t,” answered Sugihara.
“My name is Yehoshua Nishri. You may not know me, but I know you very well. Never a day goes by that I do not think of you.” Then he took out a yellowed piece of paper and showed it to Sugihara.
In surprise, Sugihara remarked, “This is a visa I issued in Kaunas!”
With tears streaming down his face, Nishri said, “We have been looking for you for a long time. At last we have found you!”
Back in September 1939, when Hitler’s Nazi troops invaded Poland, Chiune Sugihara, who was better known as Sempo Sugihara, had been assigned as Japanese Consul to Lithuania, in the city of Kaunas (also known as “Kovno” in Russian and “Vilnius” in Lithuanian). In the early morning of July 27, 1940, Consul Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko, were awakened to the sight and sound of hundreds of people — men, women and children — gathered outside the consulate gates.
“They are Jews from Poland,” the Sugiharas were told by the staff. Word had quickly spread that, a few days earlier, Consul Sugihara had issued a transit visa via Japan to permit a Jew to escape to the Dutch possession of Caracas in the Caribbean Sea.
When the crowd caught a glimpse of Sugihara, many put their palms together in prayerful entreaty. Peeking out from behind the curtains, Yukiko Sugihara saw a small boy, about the same age as their 5-year-old son Hiroki, with a dirty frightened face, clinging tightly to his father’s hand. [For the rest of her life], Yukiko [could] not erase from her memory the sight of those weary refugees and their frightened, desperate, bloodshot eyes. Standing in that crowd was 20-year-old Yehoshua Nishri.
When the gates were opened, the crowd surged in toward the consular offices. Sugihara asked them to choose five representatives to speak for them. Among the five admitted into the Consul’s office was a young lawyer named Zorach Warhaftig. His earnest appeal was, “We are Jews escaping from the Nazis in Poland. There are no countries in Europe we can flee to. We want to go to free countries by way of Japan with transit visas. If we do not leave here, they will kill us for sure. Please help us!”
That night, Consul Sugihara could not sleep. His government had signed an alliance with Germany and Italy, and he fully realized that Japan could not offend Germany by permitting thousands of Jews to pass through Japanese territory to escape the Nazi persecution. Still he remained tortured by the desperate appeals of the Jewish refugees. The next morning, Sugihara told his wife, “This is too big an issue for me to decide; I will ask Tökyö to grant me permission to issue these visas.”
Yukiko Sugihara responded, “Yes please do that for the sake of the people out there.”
On July 28, 1940, Sugihara sent his first telegram to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, requesting permission to issue visas to the Jews. Predictably, the reply came back negative. Undaunted, Sugihara sent another telegram, but the answer was still the same. During this time, Sugihara spent more sleepless nights, and Yukiko, who was still nursing her infant son, Haruki, had her milk dry up.
On Aug. 3, Russia annexed Lithuania and ordered all foreign consulates to be closed. The Japanese Foreign Ministry also recommended Sugihara close the Consulate and leave Lithuania.
Sugihara thus had good reason to leave the Jews to their own fate. He even suggested to Yukiko, “Why don’t we just get out of here, and that will be the end of it?” But Yukiko knew her husband was a man of principle and could never do that. After all, hadn’t he previously resigned from an assignment in Manchuria because he could not stomach the atrocities being committed by the Japanese army on the Chinese civilians? It was during his Manchurian sojourn that Sugihara had converted to becoming a Christian with the Greek Orthodox Church. She said, “We can’t leave so many of them in danger.” Sugihara agreed and sent off a third telegram. Again however, he received the same negative answer.
Then Sugihara reached his decision. He was risking his own career and safety to help these people, but he felt compelled to do whatever he could. Facing his wife, he said, “Yukiko, I will disobey the order and issue visas to these people on my own. Is it all right with you?”
His wife replied, “Please do so.”
After securing the Soviet Embassy’s clearance of transit visas through Russia, on July 31, 1940, Sugihara went out to announce his decision to the waiting Jews. Many years later, Yukiko described the reaction of the crowd to Sugihara’s decision: “It was as if an electrical shock ran through the crowd. People hugged and kissed each other and screamed and stretched their arms to the sky. Mothers gathered their children and hugged them tight. Some said prayers. They had found hope to live!”
Sugihara started to issue visas, each a tedious process. Each person had to be personally interviewed to assure that they had tickets, destination visas and money. Each visa was written by hand, stamped and numbered. He wrote out visas from the morning through night, hardly taking time for meals. Day after day, for the next 29 days in August 1940, Sugihara continued to write. His eyes grew redder, his body thinner. Yukiko had to massage his aching arm each night as he tumbled into bed, exhausted. Early next morning, he would continue writing visas. The crowd of waiting Jews never thinned, most of them sleeping out in the bitter cold, awaiting their turn. Those that received visas were overjoyed and grateful — some even kissed Sugihara’s feet. Their emotions heartened him to keep on writing visas.
Several times the Soviet authorities ordered Sugihara to close the consulate and leave Lithuania, but he ignored them. When visa forms ran out, he wrote on blank sheets of paper. To save time, he stopped numbering and recording in the registry after the first 2,000 visas. He even stopped collecting the visa fees.
Near the end of August, he collapsed from mental stress and exhaustion. He told Yukiko, “Maybe we have to quit.”
But his wife answered, “There are still so many of them out there. Let’s try to help as many of them as we can,” which is what Sugihara wanted to hear.
Finally on Aug. 28, he received a telegram from the Japanese Foreign Ministry ordering him to leave for Berlin immediately. Sugihara closed the consulate and moved his family to the Hotel Metropolis in Kaunas, where he might get some rest. But the refugees followed him to the hotel where he continued to write out unofficial visa permits.
Early morning, Sept. 1, 1940, the Sugihara family boarded the train for Berlin at the Kaunas railroad station. Still, desperate Jews followed them to the platform crowding around Sugihara’s coach. He kept on writing visas and handing them out the train window. When the train whistle blew, the refugees shouted, “Don’t go! Don’t leave us please!” Sugihara bowed deeply to the crowd outside the train window and said, “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I pray for your safety!”
As the train pulled out, someone shouted, “Banzai, Nippon!” One man ran alongside the moving train crying out, “Sugihara, we will never forget you! We shall meet you again someday!” Years later in an interview, Yukiko could not recall that scene without crying, saying it was the saddest, most painful moment of her life. She composed a poem recapturing that poignant scene:
“Hashiri izuru ressha no mado ni sugarikuru
Te ni watasaruru inochi no visa wa.”
[From the wind of the moving train, life-saving visas were passed out to pleading outstretched hands.]
Originally it was estimated that the visas issued by Sugihara (each visa covered a family) had saved at least 6,000 Jews from the advancing Nazi pogrom. However, a Jewish scholar from Boston University, Hillel Levin, discovered in the Japanese Foreign Ministry archives an additional 31-page registry listing 1,944 names of Jews to whom visas were issued (a virtual “Sugihara’s List”). This discovery raised the estimate of those refugees who escaped with Sugihara’s visas to 8,000. These survivors now proudly refer to themselves as “Sugihara’s Jews.”
From September 1940 through the remaining years of World War II, Sugihara was assigned to consular posts and duties in Berlin, Prague, Koenigsberg and a two-year term in Bucharest, Romania. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviets arrested Sugihara in August 1945 and imprisoned him and his family in a Romanian POW camp for 16 months.
In December 1946, all Japanese prisoners were ordered back to Japan, and the Sugiharas endured a torturous, 15-month journey through Siberia to finally reach Japan in 1947.
Sugihara reported to the Foreign Ministry, hoping for an ambassadorship appointment, but instead he was summarily terminated, and was denied even the customary letters of recommendation. The Foreign Ministry had not forgotten the visas he had issued in Lithuania! Then the Sugiharas suffered the cruel blow of death, losing their 7-year-old son, Haruki, to leukemia.
To support his family, this former career diplomat was forced to take a job as a door-to-door salesman. For two years he used his knowledge of English to work for the American Occupation Forces, and, finally, utilizing his proficiency in Russian, he was employed by a trading company in Moscow where he spent the next 15 years separated from his family. He never mentioned his Lithuanian experience to anyone, but he and his wife often wondered what happened to those people to whom he had issued visas.
During all those years, the Jews Sugihara had saved back in 1940 kept the promise they had made at the Kaunas railroad station. They never forgot him.
Over the years, several of them inquired at the Foreign Ministry about Sugihara, but were always met with cold indifference or a curt, “We don’t know.” When Yehoshua Nishri was assigned to the Israeli Embassy in Japan, his relentless search for his benefactor finally led to his tearful reunion with Chiune Sugihara in August 1968, when Sugihara was shocked to be confronted with a ghost from his past, a Jew who showed him a yellowed, tattered transit visa bearing his signature. For years, many of “Sugihara’s Jews” had treasured their lifesaving visas, hoping someday to personally thank the man who had courageously granted them life at the cost of his career. That day had finally come!
In 1968, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem offered a full scholarship to Sugihara’s fourth son, Nobuki. In 1969, Sugihara was invited to visit Israel, where he was greeted as a hero and feted by many of the “Sugihara’s Jews” who had escaped to Israel, some of whom had played important roles in the building of the Israel nation.
Among the first to greet Sugihara with an emotional embrace was Zorach Warhaftig, one of the five spokesmen at the Kaunas consulate. Warhaftig had helped to draft Israel’s declaration of independence and served as Minister of Religion. In 1985, Sugihara was honored with the Yad Vashem Award (“Righteous Among Nations”) at the Israeli Embassy in Tökyö, the first Japanese to be so honored. In November of that year, a tree-planting ceremony on Beit Shemesh hill in Jerusalem inaugurated a memorial park in Sugihara’s honor. In July 1986, Chiune Sugihara passed away peacefully in his sleep. Although a cascade of tribute and praise poured in from grateful Jews from around the world, Sugihara’s passing was hardly noticed by his own country and people.
Finally, in October 1991, after reading Yukiko Sugihara’s book, “Visas for Six Thousand Lives,” and reviewing Sugihara’s official files, Japan’s Foreign Ministry apologized to Yukiko “with regrets” for terminating Sugihara’s diplomatic career back in 1947.
In August 1991, the newly independent nation of Lithuania remembered Sugihara’s deeds of 50 prior years and offered this eulogy: “Everyone is talking about Schindler, but he used people as slave labor and made money off of them. I’m not minimizing what he did, but I feel we are forgetting the people who did acts for pure good. Mr. Sugihara didn’t get any money for what he did, and he suffered greatly for it. If it were not for his generosity and humanity, I would not be here today.”
Answering Warhaftig’s question as to why he did what he did. Sugihara is reported to have simply said, “I just did what we as human beings should do.”
“Visas for Six-Thousand Lives,” by Yukiko Sugihara (Taisho Publishing Co., 1991).
“The Story of Chiune Sugihara” (Sanyusha Publishing Co., 1992).
“Visas for Life,” by David Tracey, Reader’s Digest (January, 1994).
Military and community historian Ted Tsukiyama (1921-2019), who was granted the Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays, from the Japanese government, was born in Honolulu. He served in the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard, Varsity Victory Volunteers, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service. After the war, Tsukiyama became the first Japanese American to enroll in Yale Law School and became one of Hawai‘i’s most respected experts in alternative dispute resolution as well as a knowledgeable bonsai expert.
For more on Tsukiyama, see his autobiography “My Life’s Journey: A Memoir” (Watermark Publishing, 2017).