27 Jul A War Hero in a Diplomat’s Pinstripe Suit
Not all great wartime heroes are daring generals who bravely lead their troops to victory against great odds and risks. This is the story of a hero from the “pinstripe suit” class, an unassuming Japanese diplomat by the name of Chiune Sugihara. His name is unknown except to a few, yet he was responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Jews during the dark days of the Holocaust in World War II.
The scene was Kaunas (Kovno) in Soviet Lithuania in the summer of 1940. World War II had begun a year earlier with the German invasion of Poland.
Thousands of fleeing Polish Jews as well as Lithuanian Jews were desperately seeking a way out of Lithuania before the expected German invasion.
They were after visas to anywhere that would have them. Yet it was impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, hoping to get a visa to Japan. Long lines formed before the consulate. Chiune Sugihara (b. January 1900, d. July 1986), the Japanese consul, could not bear the site of the multitudes of desperate individuals seeking a way – any way – out of Lithuania in order to save themselves from certain death.
In July and August 1940, aware that applicants were in great danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, contrary to the instructions he received three times from the Japanese Foreign Ministry not to do so. This Christian humanitarian knew that in doing so he was risking his own career and personal safety, as well as that of his family.
Sugihara with the assistance of his wife Yukiko 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 Sept. 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted an estimated 6,000 visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of households and thus permitted to take their families with them.
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 out of the train’s window into the crowd of desperate refugees, even as the train pulled out. In final desperation, even 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.
Sugihara later wrote, “What I did might have been wrong as a diplomat, still, I couldn’t abandon those thousands of people depending on me. I did not do anything special – I just did what I had to do,” He also was quoted as saying, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I would be disobeying God.”
After the war, Sugihara was dismissed from the Foreign Ministry and took a series of menial jobs to support his family. Subsequently, Sugihara’s righteousness was recognized in his home country. A memorial hall in his memory and a statue of him can be seen today in a verdant garden setting in his home town of Yaotsu-cho, Japan.
The story of Chine Sugihara is told today in the Lights in the Darkness: gallery at the Friends of Zion Museum in downtown Jerusalem.
In 1985 Sugihara received Israel’s highest honor. He was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
A street in Netanya, Israel, was named after Sugihara in June 2016 in a ceremony attended by one of Sugihara’s sons, Nobuki.