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July 31: Chiune Sugihara

July 31, 2013

SugiharaArticlePhoto01Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who helped more than 6,000 Jews escape the impending Holocaust in Lithuania, died at 86 on this date in 1986, one year after he was named as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem. Sugihara had already revealed his conscience while serving in the Japanese foreign ministry in Manchuria, where he quit his post in protest of mistreatment of the Chinese. While serving there, he converted to Orthodox Christianity and married his lifelong partner, Yukiko, with whom he had four sons. In 1939, Sugihara became vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania. The city, occupied by the USSR, had a Jewish population swollen with refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland. Sugihara began to provide Jews with ten-day visas that permitted them to transit through the USSR to Japan and other Asian lands. This was in direct violation of his orders, wired to him three times, not to issue visas to people without specific ties in Japan. Sugihara also convinced Soviet officials to let the Jews travel through on the Trans-Siberian Railway. By September, 1940, when his consulate was closed, he had written thousands of life-saving visas by hand -- and, according to witnesses, was still writing them while boarding his train to leave Kaunas, and threw blank sheets of embassy stationery with his signature as the train left the station. Asteroid 25893 Sugihara is named for him, as is a park in Jerusalem.

“Sugihara . . . entered into a life of extreme poverty and hunger. . . . [M]any of Sugihara‘s survivors tried to trace him, seeking information at the Japanese Foreign Ministry – but to no avail. The Japanese Government refused to cooperate; no one seemed to remember or recognize the name Sugihara. Being a humble and a modest man, Sugihara never mentioned his wartime deeds to anyone, and the world knew little of him until almost 30 years later, in 1968, when he was located by Joshua Nishri, the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of his survivors. The reunion with Nishri was most significant for Sugihara, since — for all those years — he had not known whether the visas he had signed had actually aided any refugees in fleeing Lithuania.”—Zamira Chenn