Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thank You Chiune Sugihara

A true test of character is when someone does the right thing with no hope of reward and a strong likelihood of punishment. Chiune Sugihara of blessed memory passed this test when he was the Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania in 1941 at the outbreak of war between the USSR and Germany.

Japanese foreign ministry rules were very strict about issuing residence or transit visas for Japan. A transit visa could only be issued when the applicant had a destination visa for a country willing to accept him. The Dutch colony of Curacao required no visa and issued letters to that effect to those who requested it. This was an extremely dubious loophole for visa applicants. Sugihara's superiors specifically prohibited this as a grounds for issuing a transit visa.

Chiune Sugihara disobeyed his superiors flagrantly and repeatedly in a society and work environment that frowned on disobedience. He did nothing but issue visas from morning to night for days on end. Some desperate applicants came without passports. He would not turn them away. The task was physically demanding. He had to sometimes write out visas by hand one after the other until hundreds of grateful recipients thronged past counting. When his consulate closed, he issued visas from his hotel room. When he was leaving Lithuania, he issued visas from the train station. Only the departure of the train stopped his untiring hands from their work of mercy.

Sugihara's wife supported his work with all her heart. Her eyes filled with tears even decades later as she described the desperation of the refugees.

After the war, Sugihara lost his foreign ministry position. The official story is that it was simply a post war shake up. According to his wife, there was displeasure with his actions in Kovno.

Sugihara did not have an easy life. He spent sixteen years working away from his family in the USSR to make a living.

In 1968, a grateful beneficiary of Sugihara's efforts, Yehoshua Nishri located Sugihara and articulated his thanks to the Sugiharas. He was given official recognition as a Righteous Gentile. His family was awarded Israeli citizenship in perpetuity.

When asked why he did what he did, he said as follows. "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 cannot just help but sympathize 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.

People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives....The spirit of humanity, philanthropy...neighborly friendship...with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation---and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage. "

In explaining his actions he quoted an old Samurai saying. "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge."

The descendants of those saved by Sugihara number now in the thousands. The Jewish people owe him a debt of unending thanks. His example is a perfect example of how the best in people can be brought out by the worst circumstances.


The video with this posting is a short presentation of the Sugihara story.

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