There were many great stories of how people stepped forward and chose to be brave despite whatever big and dangerous was ahead of them. During World War II, when Hitler decided that he wanted to cleanse the world from Jews, different nations, regardless of their personal beliefs, traditions, and roots, decided to stand and do what they could to save these people that they didn’t know. That’s what Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who spoke fluent Russian did. His main weapon? Travel visas.

Supposed to be a Physician

Chiune Sugihara was from Mino, Gifu prefecture. He was born on January 1, 1900, to a middle-class father and an upper-middle-class mother. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but it seemed like that’s not what he wanted for himself. When he took that test, he wrote nothing more than his name on the exam papers; thus, he failed them. So instead, he entered Waseda University in 1918 and studied the English language. After a year, he took and passed the exam for Foreign Ministry Scholarship.

In 1920, Sugihara served in the Imperial Army as a second lieutenant with the 79th Infantry. He was deployed to Korea, which was part of the Empire of Japan at that time. He resigned his commission in November 1922 and took the Foreign Ministry’s language qualifying exams the year after. He passed the Russian exam as a stand-out. The Japanese Foreign Ministry hired him and assigned him to China. There, he studied both the German and Russian languages.

Handing Out Visas

Chiune Sugihara depicted on Eastern Orthodox icon (Светлана Вукмировић, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One couldn’t help but wonder why a Japanese who was supposed to be a physician became fluent in Russian affairs and started working for the Foreign Ministry. Perhaps these were all prerequisites of his real purpose in life.

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kaunas, Lithuania, to become a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate there. His main task was to report on Soviet and German troop movements and monitor German troop movements in anticipation of it invading the Soviet Union. All intelligence reports were reported to his superiors in Berlin and Tokyo.

The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940, and many Polish Jews and Lithuanian Jews tried to get exit visas as traveling without one would be dangerous for them. The main problem was that it was challenging to find countries willing to issue these visas, and all diplomats would soon be leaving. Many of them flocked to the Japanese consulate where Sugihara was, attempting to get a visa to Japan. The Dutch Honorary Consul already provided over 2,200 official third destination passes to the Caribbean island of Curacao, which was a Dutch colony. That meant that refugees would be permitted entrance into the island as long as they had transit visas.

1940 issued Sugihara visa. The holder was Czech and used his Czechoslovakian passport, issued to him in 1938. He managed to escape to Poland in 1939 and from there to Lithuanian. (Government of Czechoslovakia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese government required that only those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds should be issued visas. The problem was that most of the refugees did not meet these criteria, therefore, were not eligible for visas. Sugihara, hoping that the instructions would change, contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three-time for instructions. Each time he was told that those who would be granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination so they could exit Japan and that they were firm with no exceptions.

Sugihara knew what it meant for the Jews if they stayed in Lithuania: they were in imminent danger. He decided that he would not follow the orders and instead took it upon himself to issue ten-day visas to Jews for transit through Japan. Beginning July 18, 1940, he wrote hand-written visas, spending 18 to 20 hours a day on them and producing a month’s worth of visas in a single day. He also spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel via the Trans-Siberian Railway on the condition that they would pay five times the regular ticket price.

One of Many

Nathan Lewin’s family was one of those who were helped by Sugihara. When Hitler invaded, Lewin’s family traveled through the forest to reach Lithuania together with his mother, maternal grandmother, and uncle. Lewin was three at that time. When a Dutch diplomat told them that their family would be permitted into Curacao without visas as long as they could acquire a transit visa from another country to get there, they immediately went to the Japanese Consulate. As Lewin said in an interview,

“Mr. Sugihara did not hesitate. He didn’t care if they were citizens of the Netherlands or Poland or Germany or Lithuania. He knew they were human beings who had to be rescued and whose lives were at stake.”

He was instructed not to issue travel documents to Lewin’s family, but he did it anyway. In fact, he continued issuing visas until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By then, he had already issued thousands of visas to the heads of households who were permitted to take their families with them. According to witnesses, Sugihara was still writing visas while he was in transit from his hotel and even after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station. He reportedly threw visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out of the train’s window. In his final act of helping the people before finally being transited away, he hurriedly prepared and flung out blank sheets of paper with nothing but the consulate seal and his signature as the other details could be filled in later. Just before he departed, he said, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.”

Chiune Sugihara and his family pose with two German soldiers on the steps of Japanisches Generalkonsulat, the Japanese consulate in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Germany, 1941, Originally black and white photograph colorized Julius Jääskeläinen. (Julius.jaaCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

No one knew how many Jews Sugihara was able to save exactly, but the estimate was as many as 6,000. When he was asked later on why he did all that, he answered,

“It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. … I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do.”

His actions were not known and recognized until before his death in 1986. He was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations title by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.