Japanese wartime hero who saved thousands

  • 2004-03-11
  • By Andrew Page
KAUNAS - If it weren't for the plaque at 30 Vaizganto St., you would probably walk right past the Sugihara House museum.

On a leafy hillside overlooking Lithuania's second-largest city, the comfortable two-story residence perfectly blends in with its stately neighbors.
But it was on this very same street, in front of this very house, that Jewish refugees once lined up in their hundreds, their fashionable hats and expensive eyeglasses unable to conceal the desperate anxiety etched on their faces.
It was 1940. The resident of the house - Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara - was their last hope to escape the dangerous mix of anti-Semitism and war that would soon burst into murderous flame here as it had in Poland.
Posted to a country with no Japanese citizens, Sugihara had been stationed in independent Lithuania's prewar capital to collect military intelligence about the Soviet and German armies. Just months later, the Soviets would occupy the country and order all diplomatic missions to close. Saving Jewish refugees was not part of Sugihara's plans as he made preparations to leave Lithuania. Yet when faced with a defining moral choice - to obey his superiors in Tokyo or obey his conscience - he made a surprising decision that decades later would make him a national hero in Japan.
Today 4,000 Japanese visitors a year visit the Sugihara House to honor his brave act in issuing thousands of visas. Yet Sugihara himself never saw his own behavior as anything extraordinary, saying: "I did the only right thing, as any decent human being would have done."
Sugihara risked severe repercussions for himself and his family, yet he never hid his actions and kept detailed records. After the war, this may have cost him his diplomatic career. His prestige would not be restored until the survivors he helped save found him decades later.

Taking action
It all began on July 27, 1940. Sugihara left his wife Yukiko and their three children in their quarters upstairs and went down to his ground-floor office. But minutes later, he reappeared upstairs, rushed to the window, and pulled back the curtains to show Yukiko what was happening outside. A crowd was pressed up against the metal fence that used to surround the consulate.
Most were Polish refugees who had fled to Lithuania to escape the brutality in their Nazi-occupied country. Unlike most Lithuanian Jews who reluctantly accepted there was little hope of escape, the Polish Jews pursued every possibility, however unrealistic. They had seen first-hand what the Nazis were capable of and knew they were not safe.
To leave Lithuania was extraordinarily difficult and required three different visas. First there was an end visa, or the official approval of a final destination country. Then there was a transit visa, or permission to travel through whichever other countries were on the way. And finally, there was an exit visa for permission to leave the Soviet Union. It was practically impossible to get even one of these visas, much less all three, as the free world had shut its borders. But the Polish refugees never gave up. They pored over world maps and visa regulations even as diplomats themselves were packing up.
Word of a possible escape route began to circulate when the Dutch ambassador in Riga, L.P.J. de Decker, agreed to bend the rules. Technically, the far-flung Dutch island of Curacao did not require an entry visa, and De Decker kindly didn't mention that that entry required permission from the local governor - something that was rarely granted. De Decker authorized his diplomatic colleague in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, to exploit this loophole, which he did, also earning himself a place in history alongside Sugihara by issuing entry visas in the thousands.
But the Dutch visa was worthless without a transit visa. Those lined up outside the Japanese Consulate could not make this unusual route East without Sugihara's permission. Unlike Ambassador de Decker and Zwartendijk, whose country was occupied by the Nazis, Sugihara still had an official chain of command in his home country, which was soon to enter an alliance with Nazi Germany. He repeatedly wired for permission to grant the transit visas, but never received authorization. In the end, he decided to take personal responsibility: "I finally decided that it was completely useless to continue the discussions with Tokyo, I was merely losing time," Sugihara later wrote.
Writing out the elaborate Japanese characters by hand, Sugihara granted visas to all who came to him, working 16 hours per day as the embassy was under mounting pressure to close. He secured special permission to remain open a few weeks longer, and even met with Soviet authorities to encourage them to grant the necessary exit visas. His widow, Yukiko, remembers her exhausted husband writing visas even as they were waiting for their train to leave Kaunas for Berlin, finally rolling westward to shouts of "Thank you" that she has never forgotten. In all, over 2,000 visas were issued, saving many more as whole families traveled on a single Sugihara visa. Yet it wasn't until decades later that he learned his visas had been used successfully.

A hero remembered
After Sugihara was located by survivors in 1968, there were trips to Israel and a full scholarship for his son to study at Hebrew University. A memorial to him was dedicated in Japan a few years after his death in 1986. But in Kaunas, only a street was named in his honor in 1991.
Thanks to the efforts of a non-profit Lithuanian foundation called Sugihara - Diplomats for Life, a small museum finally opened in the city in May 2000. Tourists from around the world as well as local schoolchildren visit the museum in increasing numbers each year.
Today, Vytautus Magnus University operates the Center for Japanese Studies on the upper floors of the house. On the ground floor, is the Sugihara House, where a photo exhibition presents the story in stark black-and-white imagery.
In the office where Sugihara prepared the visas, a period desk and typewriter are on display, but neither actually belonged to the Japanese consul. The only authentic artifact is the Japanese flag that had adorned this building more than 60 years ago.
But the artifacts seem irrelevant compared to the magnificent act they commemorate. To stand in the same office where thousands were granted life-saving visas, it is impossible not to feel inspired by such a selfless act of compassion. Walking down the hill, back to the bustling center of Kaunas, there is time to reflect on the simple but profound power of true idealism.