By Bob Kaku
The Academy Award-winning movie, Schindler’s List (1993), made Americans aware of the heroic and self-sacrificing actions of the German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews during World War II. Lesser known are the similar exploits of another man, a Japanese diplomat named Chiune Sugihara.
Mr. Sugihara was named Vice Consul to Lithuania for the Empire of Japan in 1939. Japan had been an ally of Nazi Germany since the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936.
Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The Nazis murdered and committed unspeakable atrocities against thousands of Polish Jews, triggering an exodus into neighboring countries including Lithuania. Once the Jewish refugees escaped to that country, they were trapped. German armies were advancing from the West. The Soviet government refused to let the Jews come into their territory without exit visas.
By the summer of 1940, Lithuania was in danger of being invaded by the Germans. Almost all the diplomatic missions had withdrawn from Lithuania, except for the Dutch and Japanese consulates. The Dutch consulate wrote authorization papers to resettle the Jews in Curacao in the Caribbean and Dutch Guiana in South America. But the Jews could not get to those locations without passing through German-occupied territories. Hundreds of Jews flocked to the Japanese consulate as their last hope.
Mr. Sugihara wrote three times to his superiors in Tokyo to request the granting of exit visas. Each time Japanese Foreign Ministry ordered him not to. The Japanese government feared angering its ally. But his heart was moved by the plight of these beleaguered people. He with the help of his wife, Yukiko, started to write exit visas in direct violation of his orders. He wrote over 6,000 exit visas with his own hand, imperiling his career and life and even his family’s lives. He talked to Russian officials who allowed the Jews with exit visas to travel through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the normal fare. The Jews made it across Russia, China, and into Japan. From there, many of them made passage to the U.S., which had not yet been dragged into the war.
Even as Japan pulled itself from the ashes of World War II under American occupation, pre-war, nationalistic sympathies lingered within the government. Mr. Sugihara was forced to resign from the diplomatic corps. He lived most of the post-war years in relative obscurity, passing away in 1986.
His story surfaced in 1968, and in 1985, the government of Israel recognized him with the honor of Righteous Among the Nations and granted him and his family honorary citizenship. Since then, his story has been told in a number of books and documentaries, included PBS’s The Conspiracy of Kindness.
Even more significant are reports that Mr. Sugihara was a Christian. It’s unknown whether he was born-again or not. But his courageous acts nearly 70 years ago demonstrate the fruit of a true Christian.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 NIV