COLUMN ONE : An Unsung ‘Schindler’ From Japan : Defying his government and wartime danger, a consul in Lithuania saved thousands of Jews in 1940. He sacrificed his own bright future to write precious visas that gave new life to many.
The making of the man known as “Japan’s Oskar Schindler” started this way:
At 5:15 on a chilly summer morning in 1940, Chiune Sugihara awoke to the sound of a low rumble outside. He was no industrialist, like the German who saved more than 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factories, a story captured in the movie “Schindler’s List.”
Rather, Sugihara was Japan’s consul general in Lithuania.
On this particular morning, he peeked outside the curtained windows of the consular building and was startled to see the quiet street choked with a crowd of more than 200.
Unnerved and afraid, Sugihara woke his wife and three children and hid them in a closet. But when he took a closer look, he saw that the people outside were not hostile. They were desperate.
Their eyes were bloodshot. They looked fatigued. There were older men in beards and hats, young boys, mothers holding infants. When they saw him, some put their palms together in prayerful entreaty. Others, excited, tried to climb over the fence.
They were Polish Jews fleeing the encroaching German army, and Sugihara was their last hope to avoid the Nazi death camps.
As war rumbled through Europe, all escape routes from Poland had been cut off except a treacherous journey through the frozen hinterlands of the Soviet Union via Lithuania. From the eastern port of Vladivostok, the refugees could sail to Japan and, from there, try to flee to China, North America or the Dutch colony of Curacao. But they needed a transit visa through Japan. So they lined the streets, waiting for days, outside the Japanese mission.
The pleas presented Sugihara with the kind of searing dilemma that confronts few people in a lifetime: a choice between individual conscience and national duty, between life and death. To issue the visas, he would have to defy orders from his government not to accommodate the Jews.
Three times the 40-year-old official sent urgent cables to the Japanese government seeking permission to proceed; three times he was refused. Japan was on the verge of entering a military alliance with Germany and Italy and was being pressured to cooperate in addressing “the Jewish problem.”
“I had to do something,” Sugihara told the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes a year before his death at age 86 in 1986. “Those people told me the kind of horror they would have to face if they didn’t get away from the Nazis, and I believed them. There was no place else for them to go.
“I had to look at it from the standpoint of humanity. I could only be fired and returned to Japan. What else were they going to do?”
He decided to defy his government, a choice that would change his life forever. He was in fact fired by the Foreign Ministry upon returning to Japan seven years later. Paradoxically, he remained a diplomat during the war, serving in various postings.
For 28 days, from July 31, 1940, until the Japanese government ordered Sugihara out of Lithuania to Berlin, the consul general feverishly handwrote transit visas. From morning to night, he interviewed one applicant after another and wrote one visa after another. He lost weight and grew weak with exhaustion. His wife, Yukiko, also suffered from stress; she became unable to nurse their newborn son.
But Sugihara kept writing permits, even after he closed the consulate and moved to a hotel for a few days to wait for the train that would take him and his family to Germany. He kept writing even on the train, thrusting the precious pieces of paper through the window to waiting hands outside.
In the end, he managed to write an estimated 1,600 visas, which the Israeli government and various scholars credit with saving the lives of 2,000 to 6,000 Jews. (An entire family could travel on one visa.)
As the train rolled slowly out of the station, Sugihara bowed deeply to the Jewish refugees still crowding the platform and apologized: “Please forgive me. I can’t write any more. I will pray for your safety.”
Yukiko still recalls the look of shock on the faces of the remaining refugees. Nevertheless, as the train pulled away, one shouted, “ Banzai , Japan!
“Sugihara, we will not forget you!” the refugee shouted as he ran alongside the departing train. “We will see you again.”
Most of the refugees never did see him again. But few forgot him. One who remembers is Samuiel Minski, 73, a retired hosiery salesman living in Framington, Mass. Thanks to a visa from Sugihara, the Polish native managed to escape to Japan with his mother and two siblings and, from there, join his father in the United States.
The Minskis braved capture by the Lithuanian police as they crossed the Polish border. They took a two-week Trans-Siberian train journey over Russia and spent three months in Japan on an expired visa, departing on one of the last boats to leave before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, Minski is a father of three and grandfather of six.
“Everyone is talking about Schindler, but he used people as slave labor and made money off of them,” Minski said. “I’m not minimizing what he did, but I feel we are forgetting the people who did these 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 am sure I would not be here today.”
Despite official opposition to Sugihara’s acts, however, Jewish scholars say the Japanese government paradoxically supported Jews because it viewed them as rich potential allies.
The government reportedly even developed an intriguing scheme, known as the “Fugu Plan,” to create a haven for Jews in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in exchange for financial help in developing the region and political influence in improving ties with Washington. Like fugu, the famous blowfish that is exquisite to eat when properly prepared but poisonous when not, Jews were seen as possible allies who could enrich Japan--or destroy it if not handled carefully.
The plan was never executed--some people question whether it actually existed--but Japan did continue to admit Jewish refugees into its settlement in Shanghai when other nations had closed their doors, and allowed them to overstay their visas by months.
“Jews have a debt they owe Japan, at least (for its actions) during World War II, regardless of motivation,” said David Kranzler, author of “Japanese, Nazis and Jews.”
Chiune Sugihara was born on a day seeming to brim with promise: Jan. 1, 1900.
The second son among six children, he quickly distinguished himself. His intelligence and sense of responsibility caused him to take on many family duties normally given to the eldest son.
When his father, a tax collector, moved to Japan’s colony of Korea to work, Sugihara supported the family by doing delivery jobs. After the father retired and began running a Japanese inn, the family joined him in Korea. There, the young Sugihara saw his father take in impoverished Japanese even though they couldn’t pay, while his mother cleaned their clothes and hair of lice.
Sugihara proved an ace at foreign languages, entered Tokyo’s elite Waseda University and, at age 19, went to study Russian in Manchuria.
In 1924, he entered the Foreign Ministry. For the next two decades, he would teach Russian, work as a translator and be posted to Lithuania, Berlin, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European stations.
He married a Russian woman in Manchuria, said his sister, Ryuko Nakamura, who lived with them. They divorced about 10 years later, and Sugihara married Yukiko, whom he met on a visit to Japan. Sugihara was a ladies’ man--a source of many marital arguments--and he loved to dance, play the piano and violin, throw parties and play mah-jongg.
Ultimately, his choice to help the Jews probably shattered his career and his dream to become an ambassador to Russia. When he returned to Japan in 1947, he was abruptly fired. Yukiko says he was clearly told it was because of the insubordination in Lithuania.
The Foreign Ministry, however, denies any connection and says he was laid off because of Allied orders to streamline the bureaucracy. The fact that he was given full retirement benefits indicated it was a normal layoff, said Muneo Suzuki, a former Foreign Ministry official who investigated the case.
Sugihara was reduced to peddling light bulbs, working as a translator for international radio broadcasts and running the PX operation for the Allied Occupation Forces, a job he considered beneath his dignity, said his son, Hiroki.
In 1960, he returned to Moscow with a trading firm and stayed there 15 years.
When he went back to Japan in 1975, his family life was in disarray because of his long absence. “There was never a sadder life than his,” his sister said.
But Hiroki said his father was not disappointed at all and felt he had achieved much.
For nearly half a century, Sugihara’s case remained virtually unknown in his country, although Israel gave him its version of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Yad Vashem Prize for Righteous Gentiles, in 1985. A tree was planted in his honor near Jerusalem.
No such laurels were bestowed upon him in Japan. Part of the reason was Sugihara himself: A modest man, he did not tell even his siblings about his heroic deeds in Lithuania. Nakamura, his sister, read about it in the newspapers four decades later.
In a nation that honors obedience to authority more than individual conscience, Sugihara’s acts were not viewed as particularly honorable by many top officials.
In 1991, Masamichi Hanabusa, then consul general in New York, appealed to the Foreign Ministry to bestow official recognition on Sugihara before a visit by the Japanese foreign minister to Israel that year. Hanabusa wanted to improve Japan’s relations with Israel and the United States, and present the image of a Japanese humanitarian. But his faxes were never even acknowledged, said Suzuki, who at the time was the ministry’s second-highest official.
It took Suzuki, a politician then serving as the Foreign Ministry’s parliamentary vice minister, to wrench open the case over the objections of reluctant bureaucrats. He was preparing to make Japan’s first visit to the newly independent Lithuania, and, for better or worse, Sugihara still remained the most famous and important Japanese official there.
“I wanted to restore his honor,” Suzuki said. “He was a magnificent person who did an act of great humanitarianism and courage.”
But top Foreign Ministry officials vehemently objected, saying restoration was unnecessary since Sugihara was never dishonorably dismissed. Suzuki spent three days persuading them to go along.
Suzuki met with Sugihara’s family in October, 1991. Although he did not apologize for Sugihara’s firing, he did express regrets for ignoring the family for five decades and officially praised Sugihara’s acts.
“It was wrong for him to violate the orders, but it was an honorable act to save the lives of human beings,” Suzuki said. Shortly thereafter, then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa praised Sugihara in a Parliament hearing--but also stopped short of an apology.
Since then, the case has begun receiving broader public attention. The Education Ministry recently approved a textbook that presents his case for the first time.
In 1992, the Fuji Television Co. produced a docudrama about the case, “Visas for Life.” The program is attracting attention in the United States as well, where Boston University communications professor Robert Barram is spearheading efforts to circulate the film among colleges, libraries and study groups and broadcast it on both local television and PBS.
Those who knew Sugihara say he would squirm under the limelight, for he believed he had done nothing extraordinary.
“They were human beings. They needed help. I’m glad I found the strength to give it to them,” he said in a 1985 interview.
“For a Japanese, this is a natural thing to do.”
Researcher Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.