Fri, Jan 10, 2020 - Page 9 News List

A very quiet hero: How a Japanese diplomat saved 6,000 Jews

Chiune Sugihara’s son tells how he learned of his father’s rescue mission in Lithuania, which is to commemorate the diplomat’s achievements this year

By Jennifer Rankin  /  The Observer

As a child in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, Nobuki Sugihara never knew his father had saved thousands of lives. Few did.

His father, Chiune Sugihara, was a trader who lived in a small coastal town about 355km south of Tokyo. When not on business trips to Moscow, he coached his young son in mathematics and English.

He made breakfast, spreading butter on the toast so thinly “nobody could compete”

His son had no idea his father saved 6,000 Jews during World War II.

Over six weeks in the summer of 1940, while serving as a diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara defied orders from his bosses in Tokyo and issued several thousand visas for Jewish refugees to travel to Japan.

Even when an Israeli diplomat contacted the family in 1969, the young Sugihara did not realize the scale of what his father had done.

“We never thought so many survivors survived, because my father never talked like [it was] a heroic act. We were not excited,” Nobuki Sugihara said in his home in Antwerp, the Netherlands.

Now the life and legacy of his father will be celebrated in Lithuania, 80 years after he issued “visas for life” to refugees who sought his help.

Lithuania’s government has declared this year “the year of Chiune Sugihara”: An official program promises an exhibition of photographs in Lithuania’s parliament, as well as concerts, conferences, films, postage stamps and a monument erected in Kaunas, Lithuania’s former capital, where he was posted in 1939.

It is all part of the burgeoning memorialization of Chiune Sugihara, who in 1984, two years before he died, was declared “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli state organization that commemorates the Holocaust.

Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kaunas in the autumn of 1939 to open a consulate, soon after Nazi tanks had rolled into neighboring Poland.

At first glance, it was a curious posting for the up-and-coming diplomat who, by leaving blank an entrance exam paper for medical school, had defied his father’s wish for him to become a doctor.

No Japanese were registered as living in the country, thousands of kilometers from the Pacific.

However, Kaunas was an ideal place for Japan to check up on its ally, Nazi Germany, whom it suspected of making a secret pact with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, as well as plotting an invasion of the Soviet Union.

Both suspicions were confirmed by Chiune Sugihara’s contacts with Polish spies and reconnaissance of Nazi troop movements, sometimes done under the guise of a picnic.

Lithuania would suffer a double occupation by Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but for nearly 10 months at the start of the World War II, Kaunas was the free capital of independent Lithuania, “a Casablanca of the north,” a hotbed of spies, as well as a short-lived haven for refugees fleeing Soviet and Nazi occupiers.

Sent to Lithuania to gather intelligence, Chiune Sugihara had probably not bargained for the scores of refugees who arrived at his gates in 1940.

After the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania on June 15, refugees flocked to the modest two-story Japanese consulate that was also home to Chiune Sugihara, his wife, Yukiko, their two toddlers and a newborn. Many were Polish Jews, who had arrived only months earlier after the Soviet invasion of Poland. Now they were looking for a second escape.

Chiune Sugihara sought instructions from his foreign ministry in Tokyo. He was told not to issue visas to anyone without proper papers, ruling out almost everyone in the line.

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