Chiune Sugihara: Unsung (Jewish) hero of the Far East

Chiune Sugihara: Unsung (Jewish) hero of the Far East

Japanese language specialist saved thousands of Polish Jews during the Holocaust

The author and his wife, Maris Chavenson, with Takanobu Fuchikami, mayor of the Japanese city of Tsuruga, at left, and Vice Mayor Fujio Katayama. (Photos by Martin Raffel)
The author and his wife, Maris Chavenson, with Takanobu Fuchikami, mayor of the Japanese city of Tsuruga, at left, and Vice Mayor Fujio Katayama. (Photos by Martin Raffel)

Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler are two individuals whose heroic acts during World War II, which saved thousands of Jews, are well known. Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who rescued thousands of mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from near certain death, is much less well known. This is my modest attempt to correct this imbalance.

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Japan sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The Ministry routinely brings over a diverse mix of civil society leaders from the United States and around the world, Jews included. The purpose of this program is to enable the country’s “guests” to meet with government officials and their civil society counterparts, as well as to learn about Japan’s history, religious heritage, and rich cultural traditions. We had been on a similar trip 15 years ago that included stops in Tokyo and Kyoto. This time we skipped Kyoto, but added some new places to our itinerary, including two associated with Sugihara: the town of Yaotsu in the Gifu Prefecture, his birthplace; and Tsuruga, the Japanese port city in Fukui Prefecture to which Jewish refugees fled during World War II.

Just what did Sugihara do to prompt Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in 1984 to recognize him as Righteous Among the Nations? Sugihara, a language specialist, was sent by his government in 1940 to the Japanese consulate in Kovno in Lithuania to observe and report on movements of the German and Russian armies in that area. Realizing that staying in Europe would be akin to issuing their death warrants, Sugihara wired Tokyo asking for permission to issue transit visas to a small group of Polish Jews who had reached Kovno, thus enabling them to leave Lithuania before the Nazis occupied that country. His request was flatly denied, but beginning in July 1940, Sugihara disregarded the orders and provided the visas. When word got out that these visas were available in Kovno, large numbers of Polish Jews made their way to the Lithuanian capital and Sugihara continued to issue visas to the Jews throughout the summer months. All told, he issued over 2,000 visas for individuals and families, saving, according to most accounts, some 6,000 Jewish lives. Today, it is estimated that there are at least 40,000 Sugihara “survivors” and their offspring.

Here’s where another unsung hero comes into the story: For transit visas to be of any use, there needed to be a destination for the refugees. Not that there was direct coordination, but Sugihara’s partner in “crime” was a Dutch diplomat, also stationed in Kovno at the time, named Jan Zwartendijk who, in 1997, also received the Righteous of the Nations designation. He used his consular authority to issue visas to these Polish Jews by citing Dutch-controlled Curacao as their destination.

How much Japanese and Dutch officials back home truly disapproved of their respective consuls’ actions is somewhat uncertain. The Netherlands was occupied by Germany in 1940, so there is no way its government would have approved these life-saving visas, and it’s clear both diplomats acted well outside of their authority.

The trail of the Jewish refugees went from Kovno via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, Russia, where they boarded ships bound for Tsuruga. Upon their arrival, Japanese officials could have refused the refugees entry — certainly at that time many countries were keeping out Jews seeking to escape the Nazis’ clutches — but they let them in, and the people of Tsuruga were welcoming to the Jews during their sojourn. Then they made their way to Kobe and Yokohama, two Japanese cities with small Jewish communities, where they stayed until their departure to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other locations.

A bust of Chiune Sugihara in the Japanese town of Yaotsu.

Today, Japan’s government, together with the Gifu Prefecture and JTB, the country’s official travel agency, launched a joint initiative to promote mostly Jewish tourism to locations associated with Sugihara. Over lunch, my wife and I met with Masanori Kaneko, the mayor of Yaotsu, widely believed to be Sugihara’s birthplace (although this has been challenged by Sugihara’s son).

The mayor was clearly proud of Sugihara’s connection to his town. “We are trying our best,” he observed, “to inherit and reflect the spirit of Sugihara.” He explained that the children of Yaotsu-Town are taught about Sugihara’s story from a very young age, with classrooms displaying age-appropriate materials about the diplomat’s activities. The school’s sixth-graders, he noted, have developed a role-play presentation showing the process of issuing the visas, which they take on the road to other schools throughout Japan.

After our lunch meeting, we were taken on a guided tour of the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, a sparse but effective exhibition that explains the events surrounding the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, as well as Sugihara’s life-saving activities. In Tsuruga, we met with the city’s mayor, Takanobu Fuchikami, and vice-mayor, Fujio Katayama, along with other members of the municipal staff. We agreed on the importance of spreading Sugihara’s story and the lessons it conveys, both to the American-Jewish community and to the wider American public.

Afterward, we visited the impressive Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum, which describes how the town offered a haven not only to the Jewish refugees in 1940, but also to Polish orphans in 1920. I was especially moved when the museum staff showed us an excellent video featuring Masha Leon, who passed away in 2017. Leon, who for many years wrote the “On the Go” column for the English-language edition of The Forward, was a Sugihara survivor. From time to time, I would run into her at events at the residence of Japan’s consul general in New York City and she would share her stories with me over glasses of wine and sushi.

Toward the end of our trip, we were accompanied to Sugihara’s grave in the lovely seaside city of Kamakura by my long-time friend, a senior — now almost retired — Japanese diplomat, Hideo Sato. Among other important posts, Hideo served as ambassador to Israel.

Some may suggest that Japan has an ulterior motive in promoting Sugihara, while others express frustration that it took so long for Japan to recognize his valor. I prefer to look at this straightforwardly, that Japan wants to shine a light on one of its sons who chose to do the right thing despite the risks involved. As for timing — well, I say better late than never.

May the memory of Chiune Sugihara always be for a blessing.

For a deep dive on this subject, see “In Search of Sugihara” by Hillel Levine (The Free Press, 1996).

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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