Chiune Sugihara-The Savior of Thousands of Jews During the Holocaust
Mark Goldsmith, May, 2001
I chose a topic on the Holocaust because some of my Grandmothers' relatives were killed during the Holocaust. I noticed that a man named Chiune Sugihara saved thousands of Jews. He was Japanese, and I am part Japanese, so I really wanted to do my Graduation Speech on him.
Sugihara was born on January 1st, 1900 in Japan. He got very good grades and studied literature at Waseda University.
The Foreign Ministry was seeking people who wished to study abroad and might be interested in a diplomatic career. Sugihara thought it was a great idea to join the Foreign Ministry. He was sent to the Japanese Language Institute in China. In 1924, Chiune was appointed as clerk in the Harbin Japanese Embassy. Count Sugihara studied and translated Russian, which subsequently got him into Europe.
Sugihara was disturbed by his government's policies and the cruel treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese government. The Japanese invaded China while he was in China. He resigned his post in protest in 1934. This shows that he cared for other people. Sugihara not only cared for the rights of his own people, but the rights of other people. He then returned to Japan and was married in 1935.
In March 1939, Japanese Consul-General Sugihara was sent to Kaunas to open a consulate service. After Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Sugihara had barely settled down in his new post when Nazi armies invaded Poland and a wave of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania. They brought with them tales of German atrocities against the Jewish population. They escaped from Poland without possessions or money, and the local Jewish population did their utmost to help with money, clothing and shelter.
Before the war, the population of Kaunas consisted of 120,000 inhabitants, one fourth of which were Jews. Lithuania, at the time, had been an enclave of peace and prosperity for Jews. Most Lithuanian Jews did not fully realize or believe the extent of the Nazi Holocaust that was forced on the Jews in Poland. The Jewish refugees tried to explain that they were being murdered by the tens of thousands. No one could quite believe them because they couldn't imagine how something that horrible could happen. The Lithuanian Jews continued living normal lives. Things began to change for the very worst on June 15, 1940, when the Soviets invaded Lithuania. It was now too late for the Lithuanian Jews to leave for the East. Ironically, the Soviets would allow Polish Jews to continue to emigrate out of Lithuania through the Soviet Union if they could obtain certain travel documents.
By 1940, most of Western Europe had been conquered by the Nazis, with Britain standing alone. The rest of the free world, with very few exceptions, barred the immigration of Jewish refugees from Poland or anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Against this terrible backdrop, the Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara suddenly became the key player in a desperate plan for survival. The fate of thousands of families depended on his humanity. The Germans were rapidly advancing east. In July 1940, the Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassies to leave Kaunas. Almost all left immediately, but Sugihara requested and received a 20-day extension.
Now into summer, time was running out for the refugees. Hitler rapidly tightened his net around Eastern Europe. It was then that some of the Polish refugees came up with a plan that offered one last chance for freedom. They discovered that two Dutch colonial islands, Curacao (kyurasau) and Dutch Guiana (Geeana), (now known as Suriname) located in the Caribbean, did not require formal entrance visas. Furthermore, the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, told them he had gotten permission to stamp their passports with entrance permits.
There remained one major obstacle. To get to these islands, the refugees needed to pass through the Soviet Union. The Soviet consul, who was sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, agreed to let them pass under one condition: In addition to the Dutch entrance permit, they would also have to obtain a transit visa from the Japanese, as they would have to pass through Japan on their way to the Dutch islands. This would be the time when Sugihara took action.
One morning when Sugihara woke up, letters from Polish refugees flooded his office and at least a hundred Polish refugees were standing outside. The Polish refugees asked him to help them by writing visas because the Germans were heading in their direction rapidly. If he didn't help them, the Nazis that were closing in on their position would capture all of the Jews there. They would be sent to concentration camps and probably meet their fate there. Sugihara was moved by their plight, but he did not have the authority to issue hundreds of visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. Sugihara's wife, Yukiko strongly encouraged him to help them. So Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry three times for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees They did not approve three times but he granted such visas anyway to the people who requested them. Count Sugihara couldn't bear to see the genocide of the Jews.
Sugihara wrote transit visas, which were temporary visas, for the refugees to go to Japan. He and his wife wrote approximately six thousand visas for Jews in about four weeks. In issuing the visas, he was risking his career, his future, and even his safety, but he didn't care. As many as six thousand refugees made their way to Japan, China and other countries in the following months. They had escaped the Holocaust, the concentration camps, and the gas chambers. Through a strange twist of history, they owed their lives to a Japanese man and his family. They had become Sugihara Survivors.
Despite his disobedience, his government found Sugihara's vast skills useful for the remainder of the war. But in 1945, the Japanese government abruptly dismissed him from the diplomatic service. His career as a diplomat was shattered. He had to start his life over. He even wanted to change his name to Sempo Sugiwara. Once a rising star in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Sugihara could at first find work as only a part-time translator and interpreter.
Today, more than fifty years after those twenty-nine fateful days in July and August of 1940, there may be more than forty thousand people who owe their lives to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. Two generations have come after the original Sugihara survivors, all owing their existence to one modest man and his family. After the war, Count Sugihara never mentioned or spoke to anyone about his extraordinary deeds. It was not until 1969 that Sugihara was found by a man he had helped save, Mr. Yehoshua Nishri. Soon, hundreds of others whom he had saved came forward and testified to the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial) in Israel about his life saving acts of courage. After gathering testimonies from all over the world, Yad Vashem realized the enormity of this man's self-sacrifice in saving Jews. And so it came to pass that in 1985 he received Israel's highest honor. The Yad Vashem Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem recognized him as "Righteous Among the Nations".
Sugihara's efforts resulted in the rescue of an estimated six to twelve thousand Jews, the second largest rescue after those of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish envoy who saved one hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, and De Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, France, who saved between thirty to fifty thousand Jews. Together, these three men were responsible for saving approximately one hundred fifty thousand people, or fifteen percent of all Jews who were rescued during the Holocaust.
Stories of people such as Sugihara should teach us not to be bystanders, but to be involved and take action. Oscar Schindler, Hannah Senesh, Varian Fry, and the whole Danish government are examples of these people. They refused to be bystanders. They all did their part to save Jews, combining to rescue tens of thousands of Jews. If there were more rescuers, we can only imagine how many more Jews would have been saved during the Holocaust.
Count Sugihara performed a great humanitarian deed. He had a very kind heart, and didn't care about his life, just other peoples' lives. He wanted to do whatever he could to bring helpless Jews to safety. We would have had more relatives, friends, and people still living today if there were more people like him.
In closing, I would like to thank Mr. Freedman and Mr. Mintz for running this school and program. I also would like to thank Shira and Marsha for teaching us to be good Jewish citizens.
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