May 30, 2007

'Japanese Schindler' who saved Lithuanian Jews is honoured

When Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the monument of Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania last weekend, many television programmes back in Japan had to run stories explaining who this obscure diplomat was.

It's obvious why the Emperor would be in London yesterday to dine with the Queen but who was Chiune Sugihara?

For years, few Japanese knew the incredible story of how the man dubbed "Japan's Schindler" saved about 6,000 Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War despite working for an ally of Germany. Unlike Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who turned against the Nazis and rescued almost 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust, Sugihara had to wait until just seven years ago for his bravery to be officially recognised.

Sugihara was the acting consul in Lithuania's temporary wartime capital when he was ordered to abandon his post as the Germans advanced in 1940. A fourth of the city's population was Jewish, mostly prosperous and well integrated, and few were ready to believe the horror stories from nearby Poland until it was too late to flee. By an accident of history the mild-mannered diplomat - one of just two left in the city - became their last hope for survival.

The crossroads in Sugihara's life came one night in July 1940 when he woke up to find a group of desperate refugees outside his window demanding visas to the Soviet Union. He decided to help but his repeated requests to Tokyo for permission to issue the visas were denied. Despite facing disgrace or worse for his family, Sugihara decided to follow his conscience and sign as many visas as he could, in defiance of his government.

Sugihara's courageous decision was all the more remarkable given his background. From solid middle-class stock, he graduated from Tokyo's elite Waseda University and served under the Foreign Ministry in Japan's puppet state of Manchuria, one of the more brutal military occupations of the war. A gifted linguist, he was once tipped for an ambassador's post.

Yet this is the man who sat for almost a month from 31 July to 28 August 1940 painstakingly writing out 10-day transit visas by hand, even enlisting his wife, Yukiko, to help him. By the time they boarded a Berlin-bound train on 1 September 1940, still scribbling out the last visa, they had saved about 6,000 people, including hundreds of children. Sugihara's final act in the besieged city was to hand his consular stamp to a refugee, who went on issuing passes.

Sugihara's reward for his heroism was dismissal from the Foreign Ministry immediately after the war. Disgraced in Japan, he was forced to eke out a living as a part-time translator and ended his life working for a trading company with connections to Russia. He died in 1986 and his family had to wait until 14 years later for the then Foreign Minister Yohei Kono to formally apologise.

A year before he passed away, he was honoured for his work in rescuing the Lithuanian refugees by the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel. The award stunned those who heard about it in Japan, where Sugihara had lived in obscurity for years.

Historians and journalists have searched through Sugihara's background to discover what made him take his momentous decision. There were hints in his past that the man who once planned to study medicine was plagued with a conscience. While stationed in Manchuria, for example, he resigned from his post after witnessing the brutality meted out by Japanese troops to the local Chinese.

But many suspect that the key to his change of heart may have been a Jewish refugee called Zalke Jenkins, whose family had fled to Lithuania from the Russian revolution. Sugihara met the 11-year-old in a shop and gave him some money, an act of kindness rewarded with an invitation to visit Jenkins' family. The diplomat spoke afterward at how moved he was by the strength of family bonds in Jewish life, which reminded him of home.

The Emperor's seal of approval is for many of his family the highest honour that Japan can bestow for Sugihara's bravery. "The visit by the imperial couple makes me feel as though his actions have again been rewarded," one of his surviving family members told the Asahi newspaper.


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