Trees to memorialize "Japan's Schindler"

  • 2001-10-11
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The 100th anniversary of the birthday of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued Japanese visas to save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, was marked in Vilnius last week.

Sugihara worked in Kaunas at the beginning of World War II.

Sugihara, who died in 1986, has become known as "Japan's Schindler" in reference to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who helped save Jews in Poland during World War II.

On Oct. 2, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, Japanese Ambassador Shohei Naito, Sugihara's widow Yukiko Sugihara, and some 200 Japanese politicians, artists, school children and Lithuanian politicians planted an alley of Japanese flowering cherry trees, called "sakuras."

Participants also unveiled a memorial stone with Sugihara's brief biography in Lithuanian, Japanese and English.

Adamkus personally thanked Sugihara's widow for her family's contribution in the protection of humanity.

"The respect of trees in Lithuania and Japan is enormous, just like that of humanity and common values of civilization. The roots of these Japanese trees put down in Lithuanian land will serve to further reinforce friendship between our nations," Adamkus said.

Naito said that Sugihara's heroic deed did not only save Jews 61 years ago but also laid the groundwork for friendly relations between Lithuania and Japan.

Several sakuras were planted in the street and square named after Sugihara in Vilnius and in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.

A total of 280 sakuras were originally planned to be brought to Vilnius, but only 108 arrived. Organizers of the event said SAS Airlines lost the rest on the way from Tokyo and Copenhagen. A Japanese delegation said that they would demand compensation from SAS and bring new 172 sakuras later.

Seven sakuras were also planted near the former Japanese Consulate on Juozo Tumo-Vaizganto Street in Kaunas.

"His task was to save people, not paying attention to their origin. I think that we did the right thing though we suffered a lot because of it later," said Sugihara's 88-year-old widow after visiting the former consulate building where she lived more than 60 years ago.

Sugihara, in his capacity as deputy consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania's provisional capital city, defied the orders of his own government and wrote transit visas to 6,000 stranded Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in 1940. M·ny Jews were from Poland. Japan was Nazi Germany's ally in World War II.

Because of the documents issued by Sugihara, many of the Jewish refugees escaped via the U.S.S.R. to Kobe, a major port city in western Japan, and from there were able to reach other nations and safety.

Sugihara was appointed to Lithuania in the late 1930s, a very complicated period in the region. In early September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland.

Germany also encouraged Lithuania to join the attack and take Polish-occupied Vilnius back, but Lithuania proclaimed neutrality.

On Sept. 28, 1939, additional Soviet-Nazi protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were signed transferring Lithuania to the Soviet zone of influence.

Poland ceased to exist on Europe's political map in the fall of 1939.

Lithuania was still independent but was forced to allow establishment of Soviet military bases in exchange for return of its ancient capital Vilnius. The foreign diplomatic corps was staying in Kaunas. Thousands of Polish and German Jews escaped to Lithuania and the Lithuanian government also gave refuge to thousands of Polish soldiers despite former poor relations with Poland.

Fearing the Nazis might return, thousands of Jews were waiting for visas at the Japanese consulate in Kaunas.

They waited in line through the night. Sugihara was issuing visas without paying attention to official consulate procedures.

In June, 1940, the U.S.S.R. occupied Lithuania. The Soviets as well as Tokyo asked Sugihara to leave Lithuania. He continued to issue visas for a short time.

The Soviet Union and Germany were allies at that time and the Soviets were reluctant to take measures against a diplomat of an ally to Germany.

Even after Sugihara left, his visas saved some lives. Polish soldiers received copies of Sugihara's visas and copied the Japanese letters in their passports. Japanese border officials were surprised that so many Europeans had identical names but allowed them to enter.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry condemned Sugihara and his name was not cleared until 20 years ago.