1940 was a rough year for Lithuanians. A rough year for pretty much everyone across Central Europe, actually – caught between the iron jaws of the German Wehrmacht, which sat the pace of WW1 with the brutal annexation of Poland in 1939, and the Soviet Union pulling the strings of neighboring satellite states. Lithuania is no exception to this rule: with the backing of land collectivization, propaganda posters displaying dictators hugging kids and one-way tickets to Siberia, Soviet forces soon invaded the country and got a firm grip on its government. But the worst was yet to come.
For Nazi Germany was at the gates of Lithuania, about to break off the nonaggression pact it had signed with the USSR prior to the war… and resolute to take over the country. Given Hitler’s strong anti-Semitic stand, the situation raised concern for the Lithuanians, 250,000 of which were Jewish (about 10% of the local population at the time, also made up Polish Jews who had fled their home country since the German Offensive.)
Locals did not have much time to mull the issue over. Time was running out. A consul from the Netherlands, Jan Zwartendijk, suggested an ‘exile destination’ to escape mass deportations: the East Indies (now Indonesia). The German sphere of influence did not span this Dutch colony, so Zwartendijk was convinced it was the only way for them to make it to safety. However, in order to reach the Indies, refugees required an entry visa to Japan, a document very hard to obtain. But Lithuanian and Polish Jews assembled anyways in front of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, the country’s second biggest city. Peering through the window of his nearby official accommodation, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who run the office, immediately reached out to his hierarchy to know about the procedure to follow. He was answered that no such visas could be emitted without proper supporting documents and funds (which, obviously, most refugees lacked). What should he do then?
“After hard thinking, I ultimately reached the conclusion that humanity and compassion come first. I risked my career and duly executed my mission without hesitation.”
Fortunately, Sugihara just ignored the rules of Japan bureaucracy – probably influenced by the samurai maxim he often quoted: “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.” The diplomat, who soon took the nickname ‘Sempo’ for being easily addressed, began emitting large numbers of handwritten entry visas to the desperate Jewish populations of Lithuania. From July 1940 on, this forbidden activity became his daily occupation, on which he spent between 18 and 20 hours a day, with the help of his wife Yukiko. He would produce in a day the quantity of visas usually dealt in a month! Unsurprisingly, Tokyo soon knew about the zealous diplomat’s behavior, and dismissed him in early September.
Sugihara nevertheless kept on writing visas, even as he was sat in his train back home at the Kaunas train station; running out of time, he would simply stamp the paper with the consulate’s seal and sign it, eventually throwing the documents out of the compartment’s window to the refugees standing on the platform. Overall, it is estimated that no less than 6,000 “visas for life” were emitted by Sugihara – as many tickets out of hell for the persecuted Jewish populations.
From then, Sempo took one civil servant job after the other, working in Germany, Czechoslovaquia and Romania until the end of WW2. Awarded the title of Righteous Among The Nations in 1985, he passed away the following year, with most of his fellow countrymen ignoring his wartime achievements… Sure, it is easier for people to remember heroisms born on the battlefield. But it sometimes takes very uncommon weapons to change the world: Sugihara himself used a diplomatic stamp and a little bit of disobedience.
- Rick Beyer, The Greatest Stories Never Told (2003), “Japan’s Schindler”, ed. HarperCollins/History.
- Eric Saul, The Sugihara Story: http://hkcssst.net/papers/japanIssue08/TheSugiharaStory.pdf