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On Another Righteous Person…

Many of us know about Oskar Schindler, thanks mostly to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic historical period drama film, ‘Schindler’s List‘. Alcoholic and lascivious Schindler joined hands with the Nazis in order to boost his business. However, the ethnic German businessman from Czechoslovakia (unknowingly) waged a war against racial hatred! At the time of the Holocaust, Schindler rescued nearly 1,200 Jews whose fate could have been determined in the Gas Chambers. And, he spent money from his pocket to do that. Later, he reportedly told his friends that he could have saved some more lives, had he sold his Nazi Golden Badge!
There was another person like Schindler… he was Sir Nicholas George Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015), a British humanitarian who established an organisation to rescue children at risk from Nazi Germany. He rescued around 669 children from erstwhile Czechoslovakia, and sent them to Britain! Apart from Schindler and Sir Nicholas, there was a third person, Chiune Sugihara (January 1, 1900 – July 31, 1986), who saved many Jews from Hitler and his Nazis! However, History, seemingly, has forgotten this Japanese national!

Chiune Sugihara.jpg
Chiune Sugihara

Sugihara’s father wanted his son to become a doctor. However, he was attracted by Literature. After studying English Literature, he started with an assignment in the Foreign Ministry! Sugihara cleared the entrance test and joined the Imperial Army as a Second Lieutenant. Initially, he served the Army in Japan and Korea. Later, he learnt Russian and German languages, and served as the Vice Consul for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas, Lithuania…
When the Second World War broke out, Japan joined hands with Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania. The Japanese government asked Sugihara to monitor the movements of the Soviet and the German Forces. He was also asked to inform Tokyo and Berlin about any Soviet plans to attack Germany. As the Nazis made it difficult for the Jews to live in Europe, many people from Lithuania and Poland (mainly Jews) visited the Japanese Consulate, and urged Sugihara to arrange ‘Exit Visas’ for them… so that they could leave for safer places. The Vice Consul contacted with the Japanese Embassy, thrice. However, the Japanese Government refused to provide Exit Visas to those people!

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Former Japanese consulate in Kaunas

With many people seeking asylum in different countries, Sugihara had to consider the security of his family and job. He discussed the issue with his wife Yukiko Kikuchi, and decided to oppose his Government’s decision (if necessary)! Sugihara used his official power to issue Exit Visas for many Jews. When the Japanese Government closed its Embassy in Lithuania in 1940, the Vice Consul set up a make-shift office at his residence and brought some stamps and visa papers with him from the Embassy. He used to work 18-20 hours a day! Sugihara reportedly signed nearly 6,000 visas and helped the Jews leave Lithuania and Poland. According to sources close to the Japanese Government, nearly 40,000 people were able to leave Europe only because of the Japanese official!
At the end of the War (in 1945), Sugihara, along with his family members, returned to Japan. He lost his job, upon his arrival in Tokyo. Two years later, he lost his son Haruki, who died at the age of seven. The situation prompted him to sell bulbs (in order to run his family). However, Sugihara managed to get a job in an Export Company as he was familiar with the Russian language…

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Visa issued in 1940 by Consul Sugihara in Lithuania, showing a journey taken through the Soviet Union, Tsuruga and Curaçao

In 1968, Joshua Nishri – an Economic Attaché to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of the Sugihara beneficiaries – located and contacted him. Nishri had been a Polish teen in the 1940s. Sugihara visited Israel in 1969 and Sugihara beneficiaries began to lobby for his recognition by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre and Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. In 1984, Yad Vashem honoured the Japanese national with ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award!
When asked why he risked his career to save other people, Sugihara said: “I do it just because I have pity on the people. They want to get out so I let them have the visas.” He told a reporter: “You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. 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 sympathise with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese Government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese Military Leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.

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Chiune and his son Nobuki in Israel, December 1969

Sugihara died at a hospital in Kamakura on July 31, 1986. Even 33 years after his demise, he remained virtually unknown in Japan…

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