VISAS FOR LIFE: The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara
VISAS FOR LIFE was first shown at the Simon Wiesenthal
Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles 1995. The photographic exhibit was
created by Mr. Eric Saul, who provided the following narrative.
Introduction: The photographic exhibit
tells an important story of World War II. It is a story of courage,
valor, kindness, and the value of human life, a story of a Japanese husband
and wife who were nearly forgotten from the pages of history and humankind.
In the course of human existence, many people are tested. Only a few
soar as eagles and achieve greatness by simple acts of kindness, thoughtfulness
and humanity. This is the story of a man and his wife who, when confronted
with evil, obeyed the kindness of their hearts and conscience in defiance
of the orders of an indifferent government. These people were Chiune and
Yukiko Sugihara who, at the beginning of World War II, by an ultimate
act of altruism and self-sacrifice, risked their careers, their livelihood
and their future to save the lives of more than 6,000 Jews. This selfless
act resulted in the second largest number of Jews rescued from the Nazis.
The Compassion of Consul-General Sempo Sugihara
In March 1939, Japanese Consul-General Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kaunas
to open a consulate service. Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania
at the time and was strategically situated between Germany and the Soviet
Union. After Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain
and France declared war on Germany. Chiune 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 chilling tales
of German atrocities against the Jewish population. They escaped from
Poland without possession 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 forth 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 being perpetrated
against 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. 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
Against this terrible backdrop, the Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara
suddenly became the linchpin 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 Chiune Sugihara
requested and received a 20-day extension.
Except for Mr. Jan Zwartendijk, the acting a Dutch consul, Chiune Sugihara
was now the only foreign consul left in Lithuanania's capital city. They
had much work to do.
The Dutch Connection
Now into summer, time was running out for the refugees. Hitler was 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 and Dutch Guiana,
(now known as Suriname) situated in the Caribbean, did not require formal
entrance visas. Furthermore, the honorary Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk,
told them he had gotten permission to stamp their passports with entrance
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 on 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.
On a summer morning in late July 1940, Consul Sempo Sugihara and his
family awakened to a crowd of Polish Jewish refugees gathered outside
the consulate. Desperate to flee the approaching Nazis, the refugees knew
that their only path lay to the east. If Consul Sugihara would grant them
Japanese transit visas, they could obtain Soviet exit visas and race to
possible freedom. Sempo 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.
Chiune Sugihara wired his government three times for permission to issue
visas to the Jewish refugees. Three times he was denied. The Japanese
Consul in Tokyo wired:
CONCERNING TRANSIT VISAS REQUESTED PREVIOUSLY STOP ADVISE
ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE ISSUED ANY TRAVELER NOT HOLDING FIRM END VISA WITH
GUARANTEED DEPARTURE EX JAPAN STOP NO EXCEPTIONS STOP NO FURTHER INQUIRIES
(SIGNED) K TANAKA FOREIGN MINISTRY TOKYO
Visas For Life
After repeatedly receiving negative responses from Tokyo, the Consul
discussed the situation with his wife and children. Sugihara had a difficult
decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional
discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had
to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional
obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a
samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that
if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced,
and would probably never work for the Japanese government again. This
would result in extreme financial hardship for his family in the future.
Chiune and his wife Yukiko even feared for their lives and the lives
of their children, but in the end, could only follow their consciences.
The visas would be signed.
For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara
sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour and hour,
day after day, for these three weeks, they wrote and signed visas. They
wrote over 300 visas a day, which would normally be one month's worth
of work for the consul. Yukiko also helped him register these visas. At
the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even
stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches. Sugihara chose not
to lose a minute because people were standing in line in front of his
consulate day and night for these visas. When some began climbing the
compound wall, he came out to calm them down and assure them that he would
do is best to help them all. Hundreds of applicants became thousands as
he worked to grant as many visas as possible before being forced to close
the consulate and leave Lithuania. Consul Sugihara continued issuing documents
from his train window until the moment the train departed Kovno for Berlin
on September 1, 1940. And as the train pulled out of the station, Sugihara
gave the consul visa stamp to a refugee who was able use it to save even
After receiving their visas, the refugees lost no time in getting on
trains that took them to Moscow, and then by trans-Siberian railroad to
Vladivostok. From there, most of them continued to Kobe, Japan. They were
allowed to stay in Kobe for several months, and were then sent to Shanghai,
China. Thousands of Polish Jews with Sugihara visas survived in safety
under the benign protection of the Japanese government in Shanghai. As
many as six thousand refugees made their way to Japan, China and other
countries in the following months. They had escaped the Holocaust. 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
unceremoniously dismissed Chiune Sugihara from the diplomatic service.
His career as a diplomat was shattered. He had to start his life over.
Once a rising star in the Japanese foreign service, Chiune Sugihara could
at first only find work as a part-time translator and interpreter. For
the last two decades of his life, he worked as a manager for an export
company with business in Moscow. This was his fate because he dared to
save thousands of human beings from certain death.
The Miracle of Chanukah 1939
The makings of a hero are many and complex, but Sugihara's fateful decision
to risk his career may have been influenced by a simple act of kindness
from an 11-year-old boy. He lived with his family in Lithuania, and his
name was Zalke Jenkins (Solly Ganor).
Solly Ganor was the son of a menshevik refugee from the Russian revolution
in the early 1920s. After the Russian revolution the family moved to Kaunas,
Lithuania. The family prospered for years before World War II in textile
import and export. Young Solly Ganor, concerned about Polish Jews entering
Kaunas, gave most of his allowance and savings to the Jewish refugee boards.
Having given away all of his money, he went to his aunt Annushka's gourmet
food shop in Kaunas. He went there to borrow a Lithuania lit (Lithuanian
dollar) to see the latest Laurel and Hardy movie. In his aunt's store
he met Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Consul Sugihara overheard the
conversation and gave young Solly two shiny lit. Impulsively, the young
boy invited the Consul with the kind eyes to his family celebration of
the first night of Chanukah 1939.
The surprised and delighted Consul gratefully accepted the young boy's
offer, and he and his wife Yukiko attended their first Jewish Chanukah
Mr. Sugihara commented on the closeness of the Jewish families and how
it reminded him of his family, and of similar Japanese festivals. Fifty-four
years later, Mrs. Sugihara remembers with delight the cakes and cookies
and desserts offered to them during this Jewish festival of lights.
Solly Ganor and his father were soon friends with the Consul-General
and they conversed in Russian. Later Solly Ganor and his father witnessed
Consul Sugihara in his office calling the Russian officials to get permission
to issue visas across the Russian borders. Solly Ganor and his father
later received Sugihara visas but were unable to use them because they
were Soviet citizens.
Most of the Ganor family were murdered in the Holocaust. Solly's sister
Fanny and Aunt Anushka survived the war. Aunt Anushka returned to Lithuania
and died in 1969. Fanny married Sam Skutelsky from Riga and eventually
settled in the United States. Their son Robert, Solly's only living nephew,
now lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Solly and his father spent over two years in the Kaunas ghetto before
being deported to the Landsberg-Kaufering outer camps of Dachau in late
1944. They survived the war and moved to Israel. The older Ganor died
peacefully in Tel Aviv in 1966.
Ironically, in May 1945, Solly Ganor was liberated by Japanese American
soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, men who had been interned
in their own country.
To Solly, the Japanese face has come to symbolize kindness and liberation.
Who Was Chiune Sugihara?
For the last half century people have asked, "Who was Chiune Sugihara?"
They have also asked, "Why did he risk his career, his family fortune,
and the lives of his family to issue visas to Jewish refugees in Lithuania?"
These are not easy questions to answer, and there may be no single set
of answers that will satisfy our curiosity or inquiry.
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara always did things his own way. He was born on
January 1, 1900. He graduated from high school with top marks and his
father insisted that he become a medical doctor. But Chiune's dream was
to study literature and live abroad. Sugihara attended Tokyo's prestigious
Waseda University to study English. He paid for his own education with
part-time work as a longshoreman and tutor.
One day he saw an item in the classified ads. The Foreign Ministry was
seeking people who wished to study abroad and might be interested in a
diplomatic career. He passed the difficult entrance exam and was sent
to the Japanese language institute in Harbin, China. He studied Russian
and graduated with honors. He also converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity.
The cosmopolitan nature of Harbin, China opened his eyes to how diverse
and interesting the world was.
He then served with the Japanese-controlled government in Manchuria,
in northeastern China. He was later promoted to Vice Minister of the Foreign
Affairs Department. He was soon in line to be the Minister of Foreign
Affairs in Manchuria.
While in Manchuria he negotiated the purchase of the Russian-owned Manchurian
railroad system by the Japanese. This saved the Japanese government millions
of dollars, and infuriated the Russians.
Sugihara was disturbed by his government's policy and the cruel treatment
of the Chinese by the Japanese government. He resigned his post in protest
In 1938 Sugihara was posted to the Japanese diplomatic office in Helsinki,
Finland. With World War II looming on the horizon, the Japanese government
sent Sugihara to Lithuania to open a one-man consulate in 1939. There
he would report on Soviet and German war plans. Six months later, war
broke out and the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. The Soviets ordered
all consulates to be closed. It was in this context that Sugihara was
confronted with the requests of thousands of Polish Jews fleeing German-occupied
Sugihara, the Man
Sugihara's personal history and temperament may contain the key to why
he defied his government's orders and issued the visas. Sugihara favored
his mother's personality. He thought of himself as kind and nurturing
and artistic. He was interested in foreign ideas, religion, philosophy
and language. He wanted to travel the world and see everything there was,
and experience the world. He had a strong sense of the value of all human
life. His language skills show that he was always interested in learning
more about other peoples.
Sugihara was a humble and understated man. He was self-sacrificing,
self-effacing and had a very good sense of humor. Yukiko, his wife, said
he found it very difficult to discipline the children when they misbehaved.
He never lost his temper.
Sugihara was also raised in the strict Japanese code of ethics of a
turn-of-the-century samurai family. The cardinal virtues of this society
were oya koko (love of the family), kodomo no tamene (for the sake of
the children), having gidi and on (duty and responsibility, or obligation
to repay a debt), gaman (withholding of emotions on the surface), gambate
(internal strength and resourcefulness), and haji no kakete (don't bring
shame on the family). These virtues were strongly inculcated by Chiune’s
middle-class rural samurai family.
It took enormous courage for Sugihara to defy the order of his father
to become a doctor, and instead follow his own academic path. It took
courage to leave Japan and study overseas. It took a very modern liberal
Japanese man to marry a Caucasian woman (his first wife; Yukiko was his
second wife) and convert to Christianity. It took even more courage to
openly oppose the Japanese military policies of expansion in the 1930s.
Thus Sempo Sugihara was no ordinary Japanese man and may have been no
ordinary man. At the time that he and his wife Yukiko thought of the plight
of the Jewish refugees, he was haunted by the words of an old samurai
maxim: "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge."
A Final Tribute: Righteous Among the Nations
Today, more than 50 years after those 29 fateful days in July and August
of 1940, there may be more than 40,000 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, Mr. 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. He was recognized as "Righteous
Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem Martyrs Remembrance Authority in
By then a old man near death, he was too ill to travel to Israel. His
wife and son received the honor on his behalf. Further, a tree was planted
in his name at Yad Vashem, and a park in Jerusalem was named in his honor.
Forty-five years after he signed the visas, Chiune was asked why he
did it. He liked to give two reasons: "They were human beings and they
needed help," he said. "I'm glad I found the strength to make the decision
to give it to them." Sugihara was a religious man and believed in a universal
God of all people. He was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my government,
but if I don't I would be disobeying God."
Consul Chiune Sugihara, age 86, died on July 31, 1986. Mrs.Yukiko Sugihara
had her 83nd birthday on December 17, 1996. She now lives in Kamakura
"Sempo Sugihara we will never forget you."
Yehoshua Nishri, Sugihara survivor
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