In 2019, a Japanese man traveled from Antwerp, Belgium, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to meet with a Jewish Rabbi at Shofuso, a Japanese house and garden in Philly. Though the two men had never met, their lives were decisively intertwined in 1940 by a war, a genocide, and one man's determination to do the right thing.
On January 1, 1900, Chiune Sugihara was born into a middle-class family in Japan. Receiving high marks in school, his father wanted him to be a physician. However, Sugihara had no desire to study medicine; he was far more interested in the English language. Sugihara failed his medical school entrance exam, writing only his name on the test, and entered Waseda University in Tokyo to study English. There, he became a member of Yuai Gakusha, a Christian fraternity founded by a Baptist pastor, in hopes of further improving his English.
In 1919, Sugihara passed the Foreign Ministry Scholarship exam. After two years of military service, he resigned his officer's commission in 1922 and took the Foreign Ministry's language qualifying exams in 1923. He passed the Russian exam with high marks and was recruited into the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
On assignment from the Foreign Ministry, Sugihara attended the Harbin Gakuin National University in China where he studied German, Russian and Russian Affairs. During his time in Harbin, Sugihara converted to Christianity and married Klaudia Semionovna Appollonova. In 1932, serving in the Manchurian Foreign Office, he negotiated with the Soviet Union to purchase the Northern Manchurian Railroad. In 1935, Sugihara resigned his post as Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria in protest of the harsh treatment of the local Chinese people by the Japanese. He and his wife divorced and Sugihara returned to Japan.
After returning to Japan, Sugihara married a woman named Yukiko with whom he had four sons. He continued his government service as a translator for the Japanese delegation to Finland. In 1939, Sugihara was made a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. In addition to his diplomatic duties, Sugihara was instructed to report on Soviet and German troop movements.
Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, many Jewish Poles had fled to neighboring Lithuania. The Soviets also had begun to take over Lithuania, establishing military bases in 1939. By 1940, Polish refugees, along with many Jewish Lithuanians and Jewish refugees from other countries, sought exit visas to flee the country.
At the time, the Japanese government only issued visas to individuals who had gone through official immigration channels and already had a visa to another destination to exit Japan. Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times to make exceptions for the Jewish refugees; he was denied three times.
Aware of the dangers facing these people, Sugihara did what he knew to be right. Beginning July 18, in deliberate disobedience of his orders, he issued 10-day visas to Jews for them to transit through Japan. He also made arrangements with Soviet officials who allowed the refugees to travel through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway (at five times the regular price). Working 18-20 hours a day, Sugihara hand-wrote visas, producing a month's worth of them every day. He continued his life-saving work until September 4, when he was forced to leave his post just before the consulate was closed.
Witnesses report that Sugihara continued to write visas on his way to the railroad station from his hotel and even after boarding the train. He threw the visas out into the crowds of refugees even as the train departed the station. Out of visas, Sugihara even threw out blank sheets of paper bearing only the consulate seal and his signature for people to turn into visas. According to Sugihara's biography written by one of his sons, as he departed, he bowed to the crowd and said, "Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best."
Someone exclaimed from the crowd, "Sugihara. We'll never forget you. I'll surely see you again!"
The exact numbers of visas issued and Jewish people saved is in dispute. Hillel Levine, an author and professor at Boston University, estimates that Sugihara helped, "as many as 10,000 people", though fewer than that number survived. Some Jews carrying Sugihara's visas did not leave the country before the German invasion of the Soviet Union and were murdered in the Holocaust. The Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that around 40,000 descendants of the refugees are alive today as a result of Sugihara and his visas.
In 1984, Sugihara was recognized by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, as Righteous among the Nations. This honorific title is given by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust for altruistic reasons.
Despite his fame in Israel and other nations for his actions, he lived in relative obscurity in Japan until his death in 1986. His funeral was attended by a large Jewish delegation from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan. After this, Sugihara's heroic story spread throughout the country.
The Japanese man from Antwerp, Belgium, was Nobuki Sugihara, youngest and only surviving son of Chiune Sugihara. He met in Philadelphia with Rabbi Yossy Goldman, son Rabbi Shimon Goldman. The elder Goldman was a teenage student that fled Poland, and then Lithuania, with his class and teachers on one of Sugihara's visas. Shimon Goldman passed away in 2016 at the age of 91, leaving behind more than 100 descendants, including 80 great-grandchildren.
"Every time he clutched a great-grandchild to his heart, it was not only love but also an indication for him that Hitler did not win," Yossy remembered of his father. Yossy was joined by his own son, Rabbi Yochonon Goldman, and the three men sat down to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. "I would not be here, my son would not be here, none of us would be here if it was not for your father," Yossy said to Nobuki, "God bless his soul. I'm sure there's a special place in heaven for him. Thank you."
Today, Sugihara has streets in Lithuania, Israel and Japan, and even an asteroid named after him. Further tributes to the Japanese diplomat include gardens, stamps and statues. However, his greatest legacy is the thousands of Jews that he saved and their tens of thousands of descendants. In Sugihara's own words, "I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn't, I would be disobeying God. In life, do what's right because it's right, and leave it alone."
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This article originally appeared on We Are The Mighty.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons