January 1 marks 118 years since the birth of Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Oskar Schindler.” One of the Righteous Among the Nations, Mr. Sugihara saved the lives of thousands of Jews.
Born January 1, 1900 in Honshu, Japan, Chiune Sugihara was an exceptional student. In 1923, he graduated from Harbin Gakuin, Japan’s training center for experts on the Soviet Union, where he studied Russian and received top honors.
In November 1939, due in part to his fluency in Russian, Sugihara became the first Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania. He was assigned with reporting back to Japan any intelligence he gathered on Soviet and German troop movements.
The Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in 1940 and a Nazi invasion seemed imminent. From his window in the consulate building, Sugihara saw hundreds of Jews—Jewish refugees as well as Lithuanian Jews—lining the street desperately seeking documents that could help them escape the country to find safety. Sugihara sent a telegram to Japan describing the situation. He received a reply instructing him that visas were not to be distributed.
Against the orders given by his superiors in Japan, Sugihara began issuing the transit visas necessary for Jews to travel to Japan. These transit visas allowed Jewish individuals and families to travel through Japan in order to reach a new country where they would be safe from Nazi reach.
Recalling his decision to flout his orders from Japan, Sugihara said, “I thought as follows. I can issue transit visas…by virtue of my authority as consul. I cannot allow these people to die, people who have come to me for help with death staring them in the eyes. Whatever punishment may be imposed on me, I know I should follow my conscience.”
Japan closed the consulate office in Lithuania in July 1940 and transferred Sugihara to a position in Prague. Sugihara requested a month extension, during which time he issued 10-day transit visas for more than 2,000 Jews.
Because of his bravery to defy the strict orders received from his superiors, Chiune Sugihara saved as many as 6,000 Jews from being captured by the Nazis.
In 1985, a year before he died, Sugihara was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel, for the great risk he took and the thousands of lives he saved.
The Museum has nine visas signed by Mr. Sugihara in its collection.