Jerusalem dedicates a public square to the Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews, doing so in breach of Japanese policy.
Japan Times Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, awoke on the morning of July 18, 1940, to a disturbing sight. He peered through the curtains of his bedroom window just before 6 a.m. Sugihara and his wife had been living in the consulate building since their arrival at the end of August 1939, just a few days before the German Army advanced into Poland.
“The street that the bedroom window of the consulate faced,” Chiune wrote in a memoir more than four decades later, “was suddenly filled with the din and clamor of a large group of people.”
It wasn’t long before the number of people doubled. In subsequent days, several thousand Jewish refugees — primarily from Poland but also from Lithuania and points east — were to come to the consulate in the hope of attaining a Japanese visa and escaping the Nazi tyranny that most certainly awaited them.
Sugihara sent a cable — he was to send three in all — to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, asking permission to issue transit visas to refugees. He was instructed NOT to do so. The case came to the attention of Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who was troubled lest Sugihara’s actions stain his impeccable credentials with his Nazi allies.
At the time, transit visas were only issued to people with legitimate visas to an onward location from Japan and who could prove they had the means to provide for themselves while in the country. Sugihara nonetheless began writing out visas on July 29, 1940, and continued throughout that day and in the following days for the desperate and, in most cases, destitute refugees until, he wrote in his memoir, “my fingers were calloused and every joint from my wrist to my shoulder ached.”
Although transit visas at the time were valid for only 10 days, the term was lengthened to a month and, in some cases, longer, until most all of them had been able to arrange passage demo Japan to onward points such as Shanghai, the U.S., Australia and Brazil.
As for Sugihara himself, he was fired from his job at the Foreign Ministry two months after his return to Japan. “I was asked to accept the termination of duties without complaint because of ‘you-know-what,’” he told a Fuji TV show in 1977. The “you-know-what” was, of course, his insubordination in the visa affair. This gave rise to the notion that he was being punished for the most “un-Japanese” behavior of breaking the rules.
The Foreign Ministry was anxious to show that the Japanese had not been Nazi puppets and that some good deeds had been done. In disrepute after the war, the government tried to take credit for Sugihara’s altruism. This is a shining example of the actions of a single, brave individual subsequently being claimed by an institution that, in actuality, strove to foil him.
It was only in his last years that his courageous story came to light; and only after his death on July 31, 1986, that the government acknowledged his acts of conscience. In 1992, a monument to Sugihara was unveiled in his hometown of Yaotsucho, thanks to an initiative supported by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. There is also a museum in the town dedicated to his life and memory.
Perhaps the following words of Chiune Sugihara are the most eloquent on his contribution to humanity: “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.”
Sugihara’s deeds were recognized in 1984 by Israel, which bestowed upon him the title of Righteous Among the Nations, and posthumously by Japan, in 2000. In 2016, Israel honored the ‘Japanese Schindler’ by naming a street after him.
On Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, Jerusalem dedicates square to Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews.
Times of Israel Today, the city of Jerusalem dedicated a square in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in memory of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of visas to Jewish individuals and families, in breach of Japanese policy, when serving as the Japanese vice-consul to Kovno (today Kaunas) in Lithuania in 1940.
The recipients were Jewish refugees and families who had fled Nazi-occupied Poland ahead of Germany’s invasion of then-independent Lithuania. With these visas, and a complex mechanism of aid from other consuls, companies and individuals, up to 10,000 Jews are thought to have been saved from WWII Europe, escaping via the Soviet Union to Japan.
When he asked his father why he had acted on behalf of the Jews, Nobuki recalled, Chiune explained that he felt pity for the people who gathered outside the Japanese consulate in Kovno, and who “had nowhere else to go… no home… He didn’t like to hear ‘saved.’ He just did what he could do.”
Chiune’s 72-year-old son, Nobuki Sugihara, who lives in Belgium, addressed the event.
Nobuki, who was invited to study at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the late 1960s after the story of his father’s heroism belatedly began to resonate, said he used to live in the neighborhood near the square, and that the area had developed beyond recognition: “The view is different, the trees are bigger, people grew, survivors made children and grandchildren.”
He said his father “never imagined” that so many beneficiaries of the documents he issued would manage to survive; now, Nobuki estimated, there were several hundred thousand descendants of those who were able to escape to safety.
Below is a trailer from the film: Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara.
Post In the darkest hour of World War II, we know how Chiune Sugihara responded. His courage is measured in the more than 6,000 lives he saved from the Nazis and their collaborators. He risked his position, his own and his family’s safety, and his future to help the Jews fleeing certain doom in Lithuania. For his deeds he is forever known as a Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
When he did not receive approval to do so from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he acted on his own, in 1940 issuing his first transit visit via Japan to the Dutch island of Curacao. Soon his consulate was inundated with Jews, desperate to receive this visa. Sugihara did not turn his back on them. It is said that he continued to issue “Visas of Life” to Jewish refugees even as his train was departing Kovno, after being removed from his post by the Japanese government.
Chiune Sugihara’s courage set in motion a chain of humanity, Japanese individuals acting on their own, to help the Jews along their harrowing journey. Perhaps the greatest example of this chain is a man named Setsuzo Kotsuji, Japan’s only scholar of classical Hebrew, who on countless occasions helped the refugees once they reached Japan. Most significantly, at great risk to himself and his family, he successfully obtained the approval of local authorities and of the foreign minister himself to extend the visas from two weeks to many months.
This precious time was essential to ensure safe passage beyond Japan. The Jews who encountered this man never forgot him. When he died, his body was flown to Israel for burial, where some of our most eminent rabbis – children whom he had saved so many decades before – held vigil and awaited its arrival at the airport.
Chiune Sempo Sugihara was a man who displayed monumental bravery and risked his life for the sake of what was right; a man who came from a country with history and tradition of thousands of years and saw before him the Jews – a people still without a country then, but who also had a history and tradition of thousands of years.
The bell of history tolled for Chiune Sugihara, and he responded for all time. His faith in humankind was unshakable. He will forever be a hero in the Land of Israel, and for Jewish people all over the world.
A few words from the descendants of the Sugihara survivors: