Chiune Sugihara Saved Thousands of Jews during World War II, Without Defying His Government

January 8, 2018 | Amanda Borschel-Dan
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On the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara wrote thousands of visas for Polish Jews, allowing them to escape to the Far East and thus avoid Hitler’s grasp. Since his heroic actions began receiving public attention in the late 1960s, the facts about his story have gotten mixed up with a number of myths. Amanda Borschel-Dan seeks to set the record straight:

Today, Sugihara is lauded internationally as an anti-establishment figure who went against the orders of [authoritarian] Japan to save the Jews. According to this narrative, after eighteen months of dire Soviet captivity in Romania starting in 1944, he returned to Japan and in 1947 was fired by the Foreign Ministry for his deeds. [As a result], he lost his pension and died in poverty. However, say historians and his sole surviving son, almost none of this is true.

Born in 1900, during his short stint in 1939-40 as the Japanese vice-consul to Kovno (today Kaunas) in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Sugihara is credited with issuing up to 3,500 transit visas to Jewish refugees and families who had fled Nazi-occupied Poland. . . . With these visas, and a complex mechanism of aid from other consuls, companies, and individuals, up to 10,000 Jews are thought to have been saved. . . .

[The Japanese government had] sent Sugihara to Kovno where, using his Russian language skills, he was to report back to Japan about any German or Soviet military movement in the area, which would allow Japan time to move its troops. In short, like every wartime attaché, he was a diplomatic spy.

But Sugihara never defied any orders. He reported regularly on his rescue activities, even if he engaged in some creative stalling and bureaucratic maneuvers to carry them out. His subsequent diplomatic postings in other European cities suggest that he was on a successful career path; the Japanese foreign service fired him in 1948 due only to a U.S.-initiated reorganization.

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