The story of Oscar Schindler is well known across the world, largely thanks to the Academy Award-winning movie Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. It tells the story of the German industrialist, who saved hundreds of Jewish individuals from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
However, few people have heard of Schindler’s Japanese equivalent, Chiune Sugihara. While working in the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania in 1940, Sugihara single-handedly saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees by granting them visas to escape via Japan. His story is one of the most remarkable events of the Second World War, yet it rarely features in historical accounts of the conflict.
Chiune Sugihara’s early life
Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1, 1900, as the second son of five boys and one girl. Over his formative years, he was moved between schools, as his father wanted him to get a good enough education to become a doctor. The young Sugihara, however, had other plans, and purposely failed his exam, so he could go to school to learn the English language.
From 1920-22, Sugihara served in Korea as a second lieutenant with the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 79th Infantry Regiment. After resigning from his post, he took the Foreign Ministry’s language qualifying exams and was assigned to Harbin, Manchuria, where he took part in the negotiations about the North Manchuria Railway and rose to the position of Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchukuo.
He later left this role, however, as a way of protesting Japan’s poor treatment of the Chinese.
Serving as the vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania
In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was appointed the vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, where he was tasked with reporting on German and Soviet troop movements in the Baltic. He also cooperated with Polish Intelligence.
The city where Sugihara was based, Kaunas, had a large and prosperous Jewish community, comprised of around 32,000 people at the time the Second World War broke out. This population was supplemented between 1939-40 by thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in German-occupied Poland, who brought with them terrible tales of the horrors befalling those who were still there.
After the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in June 1940, the Jewish population of Kaunas remained trapped, unable to leave, even as the Germans advanced on the Soviet line. They couldn’t flee east without the guarantee of visas for travel. Many were heading for the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, but, in order to get there safely, they needed travel permits to move through East Asia.
Sugihara became increasingly aware of the Jews’ desperate plight and urgently sought a way to use his position to help them.
Chiune Sugihara issued Japanese visas to those in need
Without orders from Tokyo, Chiune Sugihara did the only thing he knew would get Lithuania’s Jewish population to safety: he issued visas, which allowed them to move through Japan and onto Curaçao. These were crucial, as the path to Japan involved cutting through the Soviet Union, which required the proper paperwork.
It wasn’t until Sugihara had issued around 1,800 visas that he heard from officials back in Japan, who told him that he shouldn’t be issuing the travel permits to anyone who didn’t have the necessary funds, nor a guarantee to move onward from the country. Aware of the danger this put the Jewish refugees in, he refused to follow these orders, spending between 18-20 hours a day hand-writing the documents.
By the time Sugihara left Lithuania in September 1940, he’d issued 2,140 visas. As for the total number of individuals he saved, the number ranges from 6,000, all the way to 10,000. It’s also alleged he handed the official Consulate stamp to a refugee before departing, so that additional permits could be issued in his absence.
As he was leaving Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara reported told those at the train station, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best,” to which the crowd responded that they’d never forget him.
Sugihara’s departure from Lithuania was the result of a transfer to Prague, followed by another move to Romania. It was there that he remained until the end of the Second World War. He was arrested in 1944 when the Soviet Red Army marched through the Balkans and was held in a prisoner of war (POW) camp for 18 months with his family.
When he returned to Japan in 1947, he was retired from the Foreign Ministry, as the government office was downsizing.
Chiune Sugihara was named Righteous Among the Nations
With him forced to retire, Chiune Sugihara struggled to support his family through menial work, as he was only given a small pension. Nevertheless, he never regretted his decision to help the Jews in Lithuania and was rewarded for his courage in 1984, when he was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. He was too sickly to travel, so his wife and son accepted the honor on his behalf.
On July 31, 1986, Sugihara passed away in hospital. His funeral was attended by a large Jewish delegation, who celebrated his selfless actions during World War II.