How a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania helped thousands flee the Holocaust

Left: A monument to Chiune Sugihara in Vilnius. Right: Chiune Sugihara, 'The Japanese Schindler'
Left: A monument to Chiune Sugihara in Vilnius. Right: Chiune Sugihara, 'The Japanese Schindler'

The Holocaust, the systemic annihilation of millions of European Jews by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, is one of the worst atrocities in human history. It was a time best described by words such as persecution, torture, inhumanity and death.

Although stories of hope and salvation were few and far between during this dark period, they did exist. Shining examples include the actions of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler and the young English banker Nicholas Winton.

Schindler saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories and bribing Nazi officials to look the other way. He subsequently shielded his Jewish workforce from deportation to concentration camps and almost certain death. Winton helped save the lives of 669 children during the Kindertransport (‘children’s transport’) – the evacuation of Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia during the start of WW2.

Then there are the actions of Chiune Sugihara, a man described as the ‘Japanese Schindler’, whose story is less well known but equally heroic.

Sugihara was born in Japan on New Year’s Day, 1900. His father always wanted him to go into medicine, but Sugihara had others plans. On the day of the medical exam, he decided not to show. It was an act of defiance that symbolised Sugihara's desire to do what he believed was right even though he knew it would incur the wrath of his father. He would display such strength of character throughout his life.

A career in the Foreign Ministry beckoned and Sugihara soon found himself in the city of Harbin in the northeast of China. With ethnic Russians comprising half the city’s population, Sugihara became well versed in the local language. His excellent linguistic skills meant he played a pivotal role in negotiations with the Soviets over the Chinese Eastern Railway. A disagreement with the way the Japanese military treated the locals led to another act of defiance in Sugihara’s life that saw him leave Habin and return to Japan after 16 years of service. It was there that he’d meet his future wife, Yukiko, and together they’d have four children.

A short post in Helsinki followed before Sugihara and his young family found themselves living in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. In 1939, Sugihara had been asked to go to the city and establish a Japanese consulate. At first glance, it was an unusual posting. The Sugihara’s would become the only Japanese people registered as living in the country at that time.

However, Sugihara’s role there had a purpose – to gather intelligence, keep an eye on both the actions of Nazi Germany and the Soviets, and report back to his superiors. For nearly the entire first year of the war, Lithuania remained a free and independent country making it a hotbed for spies. It also became a haven for those fleeing the persecutions of both the Soviets and the Nazis.

After the Soviets invaded Lithuania on 15 June 1940, the situation in Kaunas changed. Sugihara and his family lived in the consulate building and one morning Sugihara opened his curtain windows and was shocked at what he saw.

‘The street that the bedroom window of the consulate faced,’ Sugihara wrote in his 1983 memoir, ‘was suddenly filled with the din and clamour of a large group of people.' That group would gradually get larger and larger as the days went on. Most were Jewish refugees from Poland but also Lithuania and further afield, all hoping to get a Japanese visa to escape the Nazis and now the incoming Soviets.

Sugihara sent word to his superiors in Japan and asked what he should do. They declared that no visas were to be handed out to anyone without the proper papers. That of course meant that almost everyone standing behind the gates of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas were ineligible. Sugihara wrote back a further two more times to his bosses in Tokyo but received the same answer every time. He then decided to conduct another act of defiance in his life.

‘When I received the answer from Tokyo (to my request to issue visas), I spent an entire night plunged in thought’, Sugihara wrote in his memoirs. ‘I could have refused to issue them, but would that, in the end, have truly been in Japan’s national interest? I came to the conclusion, after racking my brain, that the spirit of humane and charitable action takes precedence above all else…. I took it upon myself to save (the refugees). If I was to be punished for this, there was nothing I could do about it. It was my personal conviction to do it as a human being.’

At a time when actions of brutality and inhumanity were justified under the guise of ‘just following orders’, Sugihara refused to toe that line.

Sympathising with the plight of the Jewish refugees, Sugihara began issuing transit visas to as many people as he could. Transit visas provided the holder safe passage to Japan, although they were only allowed to be given to people with legitimate visas to an onward location, which many of the refugees would not have had. Even so, Sugihara wrote transit visas between 18-20 hours a day until his ‘fingers were calloused’ and every joint from his writs to his shoulder ached.

He also negotiated with the Soviets to ensure the refugees were allowed to travel via train across the Soviet Union to safely reach Japan. After bargaining with Moscow, Sugihara gained assurances from Stalin that his refugees would be left unharmed and allowed to cross the country.

By late August, time was running out and with Lithuania no longer an independent country, Sugihara had to close the consulate and leave with his family. The deadline to leave was the 4 September and even as Sugihara waited on the platform for the train to take him and his family to Berlin, he continued to hand out transit visas.

All in all, Sugihara wrote 2,139 visas. So how many Jewish refugees did Sugihara save? Given the fact that some people might not have been able to use their visas whilst others would have taken multiple people on one visa, historians have estimated that 6,000-10,000 people were saved by Sugihara’s actions. This means that somewhere between 40,000-100,000 people are alive today as descendants of those who received a ‘Sugihara visa’. It’s easy to understand why he’s been described as the ‘Japanese Schindler’.

For two years after the war, Sugihara and his family were kept in a Soviet POW camp, released to return to Japan in 1947. Forced to retire from the Foreign Ministry due to his actions in Kaunas, Sugihara went on to work as a trader and his exploits during the war were all but forgotten.

During the late 1960s, a recipient of one of his visas contacted him. That recipient was now an Israeli diplomat, which led to Sugihara being declared 'Righteous among the Nations' in 1984 by Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial. The award is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust and Sugihara is the only Japanese national to have received it.

Further honours came from Poland and Lithuania (the latter declaring the year 2000 to be ‘The Year of Chiune Sugihara’), whilst a museum now resides in the city of Tsuruga, the location where many Jewish refugees arrived in Japan.

On 31 July 1986, Sugihara passed away at the age of 86.