Last night, I watched the 2000 PBS documentary Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness. Typically dry, as PBS documentaries tend to be, the subject of Chiune Sugihara, the former Japanese Consul-General to Lithuania, was fascinating and extremely touching.
Sugihara was a very worldly young man who was thrilled to become a member of the Japanese foreign service in 1919. His prewar experiences were interesting, and had a definite impact on his momentous actions years later, but I will let you read about them on your own. He was skilled with languages, and during this time, he married a Russian woman, though they divorced when he returned home to Japan.
In the 1930s, Sugihara remarried, to Yukiko Kikuchi, who accompanied him on his assignment to Lithuania. There was no Japanese community in Lithuania, so the consulate there was set up really as a spy operation for Sugihara to observe the maneuvers of the Germans and the Soviets, neither of whom were allied with Japan at the time.
The documentary gave a little insight into the Sugiharas' life in Lithuania at the time, and included first-hand accounts from Lithuanian Jews such as Solly Ganor, who was 11 when he met Sugihara. Ganor had given his Hanukkah money away to the many Polish Jews who had escaped to Lithuania and were living on the streets. However, he wanted to see a movie, so he went to his aunt's store to ask for some money. She refused him, but Sugihara, who was shopping in the store at the time, gave him some money for the film. "I can't take money from a stranger," Ganor told him, so Sugihara insisted he think of him as an uncle. Consequently, Ganor invited Sugihara to his family's Hanukkah dinner the following Saturday. The Ganors were shocked when the whole family arrived for the meal, but they all seemed to enjoy learning about each other's cultures.
The story of Sugihara's kindness started when one Jewish family living in Kaunas, but holding Dutch citizenship, discovered that they could flee Europe to Curaçao, a Dutch colony requiring no entry visa. However, in order to flee to the Caribbean, the Jews needed a two-week transit visa for Japan. Sugihara signed a few at first, but when word was spreading about this possible exit strategy, more and more Jews were clamoring for the visa. Sugihara was denied permission by his superiors, but he granted the visas anyway. He spent almost every hour of the day signing visas, or just blank sheets of paper for the desperate Jews. When the time came for the Sugiharas to return to Japan, at his superiors' orders, he continued to sign visas in the hotel, at the train station, through the windows on the train. The total estimate of how many visas he signed ranges from 6,000 to 10,000, but bear in mind that a whole family often traveled on one visa. Yukiko recalled crying uncontrollably when the train began to move and he could sign no more.
For the Jews who managed to leave Lithuania using a Sugihara visa, the road ahead would be difficult. They'd have to take a train all the way across Russia, and then a boat to Japan, a journey which would cost them US$180. Once in Japan, they had nowhere to go. There was a small community of Jews living in Kobe, who asked an American Jewish organization for money to help support the sudden influx of Jews. "Money no object Save Jews," their reply telegram read.
By now, Japan was allied with Germany, and the Japanese weren't sure what to do with this community of Jewish immigrants who weren't going anywhere. The Germans asked the Japanese to kill them or return them. The Japanese government wasn't sure, but asked the leaders of the Jewish community in Kobe to explain why the Nazis hated them. I'll paraphrase the Rabbi's response: "They hate us because they know we're Asians. Why don't you read the propaganda they write, instead of the edited translations they send you? They want a master race. The Aryans - six feet tall, not Japanese; blond hair, not Japanese; blue eyes, not Japanese. They're coming for us now, but they'll be coming for the gypsies, and the Slavs, and the Blacks, and then you next. We're from Israel, on the other side of Asia, but you and us are in the same boat."
So Japan refused to surrender or kill the roughly 20,000 Jewish refugees they were dealing with, but set them up in a ghetto in Shanghai, where they survived the Holocaust until they moved on to find asylum in Israel, the U.S., or other countries.
Sugihara was eventually fired from the foreign service as a punishment for disobeying his orders and signing the visas. He lived for a few decades with very little money, supporting his family with odd jobs, and finding himself living in Russia for 16 years, sending money home to Japan. His son Buki recalls visiting him in Moscow, and his father offering to cook a special dinner. Potatoes and sausage cooked on a hot plate in the bathroom. It was quite a treat for Sugihara at the time.
Solly Ganor was not able to leave Lithuania, even though he had a Japanese transit visa, and ended up being sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. When it was about to be liberated in 1945 by the Allies, the Nazis took the Jews on a death march. Solly recalls falling asleep in a field, too sick and exhausted to go on. He was awoken by strange men. They wore the uniforms of American soldiers, but had facial features he had only ever seen on Sugihara. In an incredible coincidence, the same boy who had Sugihara's family over for Hanukkah dinner was rescued by the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry.
Living his later years at home in Japan, Sugihara accepted very little of the reward that the Jewish community wished to give him. He did accept a scholarship for his son to attend university in Israel, and a monument was built for him in Japan. In 1985, he was named Yad Vashem, Righteous Among the Nations. In 1998, twelve years after his death, Yukiko traveled to Israel where the Jews who survived the war thanks to Sugihara visas tearfully thanked her, on behalf of their families. There is a street named after him in Kaunas, Lithuania, and his former home there is now a museum. There are also monuments to Sugihara in Israel, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles.
It is estimated that there are roughly 40,000 descendants of Jews alive today because of Chiune Sempo Sugihara.
It is one of those startling cosmic moments for me to think of the bizarre circumstances in the life of Solly Ganor. To think of the Japanese-American soldiers whose families were likely interned in the "War Relocation Camps" opened by President Roosevelt, finding themselves in Europe freeing people from Nazi labor and death camps. One such prisoner having inadvertently taught Sugihara about the life and culture of the Jewish people. And Sugihara himself finding himself morally obligated to do whatever he could to help the Jews.
Whenever I think about how one person's courage helped to save the lives of people threatened by Genocide, I think of this one exhibit I went to at a Holocaust museum a few years back. I can't remember where it was, somewhere in Europe I think (maybe at Terezín in the Czech Republic, but I'm not sure). They had an exhibit to teach children about the Holocaust, and at the end the message was that genocide still exists. And we can still try to do something about it. Here is one place to help us think about what we might be able to do to honor the memories of everyone who has died at the hands of genocide by helping those who are still threatened however we can.