Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Righteous Among The Nations

Israel has a designation for those who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis: Righteous Among the Nations.  We've all (hopefully and probably) heard of Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, but how is it that I've heard of so few of the others?

Today would have been the 119th birthday of one of them, Chiune Sugihara of Japan:
Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝 Sugihara Chiune, 1 January 1900 – 31 July 1986) was a Japanese government official who served as vice consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania. During the Second World War, Sugihara helped some six thousand Jews flee Europe by issuing transit visas to them so that they could travel through Japanese territory, risking his job and his family's lives. The fleeing Jews were refugees from German-occupied Western Poland and Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland, as well as residents of Lithuania. A few decades after the war, in 1985, the State of Israel honored Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew: חסידי אומות העולם‬) for his actions. He is the only Japanese national to have been so honored...

As the Soviet Union occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland (Polish Jews) as well as Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel, yet it was impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan...

From 18 July to 28 August 1940, aware that applicants were in danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara decided to ignore his orders and issued ten-day visas to Jews for transit through Japan. Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an unusual act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the standard ticket price.

Sugihara continued to hand-write visas, reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month's worth of visas each day, until 4 September, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of households and thus permitted to take their families with them. Before he left, he handed the official consulate stamp to a refugee so that more visas could be forged. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out of the train's window even as the train pulled out.

In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he prepared to depart, he said, "Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best." When he bowed deeply to the people before him, someone exclaimed, "Sugihara. We'll never forget you. I'll surely see you again!"

Sugihara himself wondered about official reaction to the thousands of visas he issued. Many years later, he recalled, "No one ever said anything about it. I remember thinking that they probably didn't realize how many I actually issued."

The total number of Jews saved by Sugihara is in dispute, estimating about 6,000; family visas—which allowed several people to travel on one visa—were also issued, which would account for the much higher figure. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive today because of his actions...

In 1985, 45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he was asked his reasons for issuing visas to the Jews. Sugihara explained that the refugees were human beings, and that they simply needed help...

Sugihara died the following year at a hospital in Kamakura, on 31 July 1986. In spite of the publicity given him in Israel and other nations, he remained virtually unknown in his home country. Only when a large Jewish delegation from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, showed up at his funeral, did his neighbors find out what he had done. He may have lost his diplomatic career but he received much posthumous acclaim.
I had never heard of him until today, and I'm glad that I have now.

1 comment:

Mike Thiac said...

And the Nobel Prize Committee awards the ALGORE, Obama, and Jimmy Carter. What a joke.