In the summer of 1940, Chiune Sugihara was one of the last foreign diplomats remaining in Kaunas, Lithuania. Most had followed the Soviet Union’s encouragement to leave as the German army drew closer. Sugihara, the Japanese consul, had extended his stay. He and his family remained.

Kaunas had a large Jewish population, and many Jewish refugees from Poland were also staying there. With German occupation impending, they needed to leave. A plan was devised: they could go to two Dutch-colonized islands, Curacao and Dutch Guiana. Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk had permission to stamp their passports for entrance.

To get there, however, they needed to pass through both the Soviet Union and Japan. The Soviet Union would allow them to pass through, provided they had Japanese transit visas. These they needed from the local Japanese consul. Three times Sugihara wrote to the Japanese government requesting permission to issue the visas. Three times the order came that no, the visas could not be issued. He was told to stop asking.

But outside his door there were crowds of people waiting, for whom those visas meant a chance at escape before they could be captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Obtaining that piece of paper was a matter of life and death.

Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko discussed what they should do. Disobedience could mean an end to Sugihara’s diplomatic career, and could even put their lives, and the lives of their children, at risk. Obedience meant standing by as thousands of Jewish refugees were captured and killed by the Nazis. They chose disobedience.

They began to work together, each day issuing as many visas as the consulate would usually issue in a month. For almost a month, every waking moment was spent writing as many visas as possible to give to the seemingly endless crowds of people waiting at the door. When they had to leave the country, they continued to issue visas until their train began rolling away from the platform.

Estimates vary, but it is believed that around 6000 people were able to escape before the Nazi invasion of Lithuania because of the visas the Sugiharas issued. In 1947, Sugihara was asked to resign from his position with the Japanese diplomatic service. There was speculation as to the reason for this, but the reason given at the time was downsizing of the department, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry has since denied that it was because of his actions in Lithuania, and even praised his choice as a “courageous and humanitarian decision.”

When faced with a choice between personal and family safety and security, or helping people in need, the Sugiharas chose to risk their livelihood and their lives, and helped thousands of refugees escape. Why? His answer was simple: “They were human beings and they needed help.” 

Chiune Sugihara was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations”, and a tree was planted in his honour at Yad Vashem, in 1985. He died in 1986. Yukiko Sugihara died in 2008.

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