Sempo ”Chiune” Sugihara, Japanese Savior

Sempo Sugihara was born on the 1st.of January of the year 1900 in Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture, Japan.

The original surname of his parents was Iwais, a very common one in those places. The legend says that when Sempo’s father, Mitsugoro Iwais finished his military service in Manchuria and Siberia in 1895, he came down with tuberculosis. At that moment he received special attention and care from an officer named Kosui Sugihara and, to show his gratitude, offered to become his adopted son, an usual custom in those days. But some members of the family didn’t ascribe this change of name to such a noble reason. Around the same time, Yaotsu implemented a new postal service; somebody by the name of Sugihara had more possibilities of receiving sufficient post than dozens of Iwais.

In March of the year 1939, the Consul General, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kaunas to open a consular service. Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania at that moment, a strategic point between the Soviet Union and Germany. After Hitler invaded Poland on the 1st. of September of 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Sugihara had barely settled down in his new post when the Nazi army invaded Poland and a wave of Jewish refugees fled towards Lithuania. They carried with them chilling stories about German atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish population.

Until the war, Lithuania had been a place of peace and prosperity for the Jewish people, most of whom hadn’t fully realized, or didn’t believe in the dimension of the Nazi plan of extermination which was taking place in Poland. The refugees tried to explain that they were being assassinated in masses, but the Jews in Lithuania continued with their usual lives. Things began to change for worse on the 15th of June 1940, when the soviets invaded Lithuania. It was too late to escape towards the East. Ironically, the soviets would allow the polish Jews to emigrate from Lithuania through the Soviet Union… but only if they managed to obtain some special documents.

By 1940, a great part of Occidental Europe was under Nazi control, whilst Great Britain resisted alone.

In this terrible context, the Japanese Consul Sugihara became de center of a desperate plan for survival. The fate of thousands of families depended on his sense of humanity. The German army moved quickly towards the East.

On July of the year 1940, the Soviet authorities ordered all foreign embassies to abandon Kaunas. Most of them obeyed immediately. Instead, Sugihara managed to extend his stay for other three weeks.

With the exception of the Dutch Honorary Consul, Jan Zwartendijk, Chiune Sugihara now was the only foreign consul that remained in the capital of Lithuania. A lot of work was awaiting him.

For the refugees time flew. Hitler controlled the East of Europe. It was at that moment when some Polish refugees came up with a plan, possibly their last chance towards freedom. They discovered that two Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, the islands of Curacao and the Dutch Guyana (Surinam), didn’t demand strict visas to enter to the country. Furthermore, the Dutch Consul informed them that he had been granted an authorization to seal their passports with entrance permits.

The major obstacle lay still ahead. To reach these islands, refugees had to go across the Soviet Union; their consul agreed to let them pass under one condition: apart from the Dutch entrance permit, they had to get a transit visa from the Japanese consulate, for they had to cross over the Japanese empire in order to reach the islands.

One morning of June, Chiune Sugihara and his family were woke up by a huge crowd of Polish refugees gathered together outside the Consulate.

They were desperate by the imminent arrival of the Nazis. They perfectly knew that their only way to escape was to reach the East.

Sempo was moved by the refugees urgent needs. Notwithstanding, he didn’t have his government’s official permission to issue hundreds of visas.

Sugihara had requested three times authorization to issue visas, but every time he was denied this possibility by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He talked this matter over with his wife and children. He had to make a difficult decision. He had been educated under the strict and traditional Japanese discipline. On one hand, he was limited by obedience. On the other, he had to help the needy. He knew that if he defied the orders given to him by his superiors he could be discharged and dishonored and probably could never again work for his government. This would have a repercussion on his economic situation and on his family’s honor.

He was afraid for his wife Yukiko and for his children’s lives, but he finally obeyed what his conscience comanded. He would sign the visas without Tokyo’s permission.

During twenty nine days, from the 31st. of July to the 28th. of August of 1940, Sempo and Yukiko Sugihara spent endless hours writing out and signing visas by hand. More than 300 visas a day, an amount that normally meant a whole month of work for the whole consulate. Without even stopping to eat, Sugihara decided not to lose a single minute. People waited for their transit permits standing in line, day and night. Hundreds of applicants became thousands. Sugihara worked around the clock; he knew that in no time he would be forced to shut down the consulate and abandon Lithuania.

He continued to issue visas till the last minute, just before the train left to take him from Kovno to Berlin, on the 1st. of September 1940. When the train left the station, he gave his official seal to a refugee, who could continue the rescue mission.

Once they received their visas, refugees didn’t take long to leave for Moscow by train and from there to Vladivostok in the Trans-Siberian railroad. From there, most of them went on to Kobe, Japan, a city where they were allowed to remain for several months. After that they were sent to Shangai, China.

Doctor Isaac Lewin, one of the thousands saved by Sugihara, said to Professor Hillel Levine, author of the book ”In Search of Sugihara”, that ”the Japanese authorities were benign in checking transit visas”.

Thousands of Polish Jews with visas issued by Sugihara survived under the protection of the Japanese government in Shangai. During the following months about six thousand refugees fled to Japan, China and other countries. They had escaped from the Holocaust.

Sugihara acted on his own account. There is no proof that any economic incentive ever existed nor that he took pleasure in danger.

In spite of his disobedience, the Sugihara government seemed to find a good example in his attitude, to remember the war. Nevertheless, he was discharged from the diplomatic service in 1945. His career had come to an end. He would have to start again from scratch.

At the beginning he only found a half-day job as translator and interpreter. During the last 20 years of his life, he worked as a manager of an export company with business in Moscow.

Chiune, his nickname, means a thousand lives.

In Israel, Sugihara’s actions were acknowledged publicly in 1969 but it wasn’t till 1985 that he was bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

He died in 1986 in the outskirts of Tokyo. It is thanks to his wife’s testimonies and that of his eldest son Hiroki, that we know of his exploits.

Translation: María Pensavalle.