ON CHIUNE SUGIHARA by Anthony Porco


Chiune Sugihara is known as "the Japanese Schindler" for a good reason; like the more famous Czech arms magnate, the Foreign Service functionary labored tirelessly to save the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the darkest hours of the Nazi takeover of Europe. It is only recently that Sugihara's story has become widely known, both in his native land (which now reveres him) and in the world in general. It is a stirring one, and one that very much deserves to be told, even belatedly.

In 1940, Chiune Sugihara was a minor official in the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, then (and now) an independent country, but soon to be taken over by the Soviet Union and then captured by the Nazis in their invasion of Soviet territory. The Jews of Lithuania, and many refugees from the earlier German invasion of Poland, were desperate for exit visas that would allow them to leave the country ahead of certain persecution and probable death at the hands of the Nazis. Most countries refused them entry; the honorary Dutch consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk (in an act almost as noble as that of Sugihara's) permitted them passage to two of his homeland's colonial possessions, Curacao and Dutch Guiana (now the independent country of Surinam) in South America. Sugihara, in turn, convinced Soviet officials to allow Jews to pass through Soviet-held territory.

One thing was missing: permission to issue transit visas allowing refugees to pass through Japan to other countries such as the Dutch colonies. Sugihara tried three times to get permission from his government to do so, but was thrice refused. In defiance of that refusal, Sugihara began to hand-write the visas. He wrote so many that summer that his wife Yukiko had to massage his hands at night to relieve cramping. In August of that year, when the Germans closed down the Lithuanian embassies and he was transferred to Berlin, he continued to pen the vital documents and hand them out of the train window to refugees.

When asked why he defied his orders, Sugihara explained that his first loyalty was to his Emperor, and not to the foreign service bureaucracy for which he worked. In an interview, he told the historian Rabbi Martin Tokayer that "(If) I could look the Emperor in the eye and say, 'Lord Emperor, if you were here and this boy (a Jewish refugee) asked you, what would you do? I'm sure you'd say, "Please, if you can escape through my country and live, be my guest."

Another historian, Professor Hillel Levine of Boston University (author of the book In Search of Chiune Sugihara), said that Mr. Sugihara "got caught up in rescuing people and he couldn't stop." One of the people Mr. Sugihara helped to save, Moshe Zupnik (now an American living in New York City), put it even more simply: "He did a very important task, and he was one of the few."

Until recently, Mr. Sugihara was recognized only minimally for his deeds. After the war, he was laid off from Japan's foreign ministry and ended up working as an importer for a Japanese company in Moscow. In 1985, about a year before his death, a tribute to him was done at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but he was in poor health and could not attend it. Yukiko Sugihara and their son Hiroki are both still alive, and have both attended posthumous honors for him.

What can we learn from this story? The most obvious point is that one individual can make a real difference. This is, indeed, an evident notion, to the point that it has become a cliche. Often, however, I fear that we have lost touch with it in recent years--that the despair over the difficulties of our government and our seemingly intractable problems have given us a sense of helplessness. Fewer people vote than ever before, and they justify not voting or participating in civic culture by insisting that one person (i.e. themselves) cannot make a difference. Sugihara's story shows us that if we choose not to make this so, it is not so, even in a situation much worse than any we are currently facing.

The other conclusion I want to draw from Sugihara's life is less obvious, but just as clear. In the last few decades, Japan has emerged as a major trade competitor even as it has remained a political ally. In this time, Americans have grown increasingly willing to entertain very crude stereotypes of the Japanese--that they are greedy and opportunistic, that they are relentless conformists, and even that they are fundamentally untrustworthy. Sugihara demonstrates to us the folly of such prejudices. While individuals of any race can be all of those things, individuals of any race can also be noble, fight the odds, and be defiant of undeserving authority.

Chiune Sugihara was such a man.

 NOTE: The source of information for this essay was an article in The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1995, P. B1.

Contact Anthony Porco at harlandar@yahoo.com


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