Chiune Sugihara: “The Japanese Schindler”
I haven’t posted anything in a while, but last night I stumbled across a story so heroic (and so full of “feels,” as tumblr denizens would say) that it actually managed to make me hate the world a little bit less. I just had to share.
It’s 1940 in Lithuania. WWII is ramping up, the Nazis and the Soviets are closing in, and Lithuanian Jews (along with Jewish refugees from Poland) are desperate to get out of the country. Most Western countries have closed their borders, so the residents’ only means of escape is to hopscotch from the Soviet Union to Japan to the Dutch colonies of Surinam in South America and Curacao in the Carribbean. With the help of sympathetic Soviet and Dutch officials, many of them are able to acquire the proper visas for part of the journey, but without a transit visa for passage through the Japanese Empire, the other visas are useless. Their only hope is Chiune Sugihara, vice-consul for the Japanese Consulate in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. The Jewish residents line up by the hundreds outside the consulate in the hopes of getting a transit visa, but Sugihara soon discovers that most of them don’t meet the Japanese goverment’s strict visa requirements. Seeing the refugees’ desperation, he contacts the Japanese Foreign Ministry back home and asks for permission to grant them visas anyway. His request is denied. Risking his livelihood and his safety, he decides to take matters into his own hands:
From 18 July to 28 August 1940, aware that applicants were in danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his family. He ignored the requirements and issued the Jews with a ten-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an extraordinary act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the standard ticket price.
Sugihara continued to hand write visas, reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day, until 4 September, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of households and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out of the train’s window even as the train pulled out.
In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he prepared to depart, he said, “please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.” When he bowed deeply to the people before him, someone exclaimed, “Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!”
I have nothing to say for that last paragraph except:
It’s estimated that Sugihara wrote anywhere from 3000 to 6000 visas, saving thousands from imprisonment and execution. After reading his story, I’m patiently waiting for a movie about this man’s life so I can weep like a toddler during the train scene.