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Oscar Schindler was a German businessman whose motives were originally driven by profit. Raoul Wallenberg was a diplomat instructed to go to Hungary to save Jews. But Sugihara had nothing to gain – and much to lose – by disobeying orders and saving the lives of so many men, women and children at grave risk of dying in the Holocaust.
A career diplomat who had paid for his own education, Sugihara learned Russian and spent some years in an important post in Japanese-occupied China before resigning in 1934 in protest at the maltreatment of the local people. But in 1938 Japan dispatched him to Helsinki before he was ordered in March 1939 to go to Kaunas, Lithuania’s interwar capital, to set up a one-man consulate and report back on relations between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. His wife Yukiko and children accompanied him.
His modest, likeable nature quickly endeared him to the Lithuanians and also to the local Jews who made up around a quarter of the city’s residents. He and his family were invited to a Hanukah celebration and Sugihara commented on how the closeness of the Jewish families reminded him of Japan.
In September, Hitler invaded Poland and a wave of Jewish refugees streamed over the border into Lithuania where the local Jews did their best to help them. When the Soviets invaded Lithuania in June 1940, they curiously barred local Jews as well as other nationalities from leaving but allowed Polish Jews the option of travelling east through the Soviet Union – if they could get the right travel documents. However, they also demanded that all foreign embassies and consulates in Kaunas close.
Sugihara suddenly became a crucial figure in a colossal battle for survival. He requested a 20-day extension to stay open. Besides the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, he was soon the only foreign dignitary left in the city.
Route to survival
It became obvious to the Polish refugees that Germany could invade the Soviet Union at any time, and some realised the only window to their survival was quickly closing – a route to the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curacao and Dutch Guiana, which did not need entrance visas, via the Soviet east and Japan. As Jewish families began to mass outside his tiny consulate Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo three times asking permission to issue visas to them – and each time he was strictly denied.
He knew that defying his government could cost him his job and spell poverty for his family. But he made the decision with Yukiko to put humanity before blindly obeying his country’s orders. Over 29 days from 31 July 1940, the couple issued and signed visas at a rate of 300 a day – long, gruelling work. Signing 300 would ordinarily have taken a month. At the end of each day they would massage each other’s hands. Hundreds more desperate people swarmed at the gates, on one occasion even trying to scale the walls, only to be calmed by Sugihara himself. On 1 September, even from the window of his departing train to Berlin he continued to issue visas – before giving the consular stamp to one of the Polish Jews to continue his work in his absence.
The refugees were soon able to board trains from Kaunas to Moscow and then to Vladivostok, sail to Kobe, Japan, and reach freedom. No less than 6,000 people survived the calamity of the Holocaust in this way – and all thanks to Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko.