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A Rescuer in Lithuania: Chiune Sugihara

The excerpt from the documentary film The Rescuers describes rescue efforts by Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in the Lithuanian prewar capital of Kaunas (Kovno) in the summer of 1940. In defiance of his superiors, Sugihara decided to provide transit visas to thousands of Jews who had escaped German persecution in Poland. Many of them used this opportunity to flee Europe into safety.

Guiding Questions

  1. What was Sugihara’s dilemma?
  2. How do you explain why Sugihara disobeyed orders from Japan?
  3. What shaped Sugihara’s universe of responsibility?

Historical Background

Jews had lived in the area now known as Lithuania since the fourteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the region was under Russian control.

Map of Lithuania.

Antisemitism and official anti-Jewish policies often interrupted the growth of the Jewish community, and the Russian government blamed the Jews for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. As a result, three years of anti-Jewish riots—known as pogroms—ensued. These riots and other pogroms in the Russian Empire dealt a massive blow to this community. Many were killed and had their homes plundered; others decided to leave, with the majority choosing to emigrate to South Africa or the United States.1

Prior to this period, Jews in the region had experienced years of intellectual growth and a thriving culture. Long before the twentieth century, Lithuania was a center of Jewish learning and religious study.2

The Vilna Gaon, well-known as one of the most influential minds in rabbinic study, is illustrative of the breadth of intellectual Jewish life in Lithuania.

Many Jewish religious trends found a home in Lithuania, including the lively Orthodox of Mir yeshiva, whose fate would be decided by the man at the center of this essay, Chiune Sugihara (yeshivah is a traditional Jewish seminary or college). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish life in Lithuania thrived thanks to the growth of multiple secular movements and Zionist, socialist, Bundist, and communist organizations.3

After World War I, Lithuania became an independent state. The 100,000 Jews living there were emancipated—their rights were mostly recognized—but by the early 1930s, the economic crisis known as the Great Depression and rampant antisemitism among ultranationalist groups were causing great pain in the Jewish community. On the eve of World War II, some 160,000 Jews lived in Lithuania—about 7% of the overall population.4

Lithuania lost its independence in 1939, when it fell into the hands of the Soviet Union as part of the nonaggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany known as the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact. The Germans marched into Poland while the Soviet Union took control of Lithuania, establishing its military headquarters in Vilnius. The following year, in June 1940, the Soviet Red Army marched into the country and fully annexed it to the Soviet Union.

Soviet communism brought traumatic changes to the region. As the Soviets took control of the country, they began a campaign of terror, targeting certain people as enemies of communism. Politicians, intellectuals, and community leaders were purged and executed in an atmosphere of lawlessness and extreme violence. The Soviets also moved to nationalize farms, factories, and mines, transferring both people and equipment inland as part of their economic strategy. Later, the Soviets deported tens of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia and Soviet Asia for internment in labor camps (gulags). The death rate among the deported—7,000 of them were Jews—was extremely high.

The Sovietization of the Lithuanian economy affected Jews deeply. and many lost their livelihood, property, and businesses. However, many occupations and professions previously closed to Jews were now open because the Soviets lifted Lithuania’s antisemitic regulations. For example, Jews could take jobs in local and state government and higher education. Jews, therefore, benefited to some extent from the Soviet occupation. Although some Jews supported a version of socialism or communism, the majority did not. This fact did not prevent the Lithuanian population from claiming that Jews uniformly supported communism or agreeing with Nazi antisemitic propaganda, which argued that Jews controlled the Soviet Union and were conspiring to take over the world.

Although Jews generally did not support the communist economic system, they preferred the Soviets to the Germans, whose intentions had become increasingly alarming; As news about the persecution of Jews in Germany and nearby Poland spread through Europe, both Jews and non-Jews realized that the former intended on ridding Europe of its entire Jewish population. 5 As Jews became more visible in the Soviet government, many Lithuanians (and a minority of ethnic Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians) found Jewish-Soviet collaboration a symbol of betrayal. These factors, plus the high level of violence and lawlessness happening under Soviet rule, set the stage for a brutal display of hostility and vengeance toward the Jews.

Disregarding Jewish suffering and influenced by far-right propaganda, elements of the Lithuanian population instigated scores of pogroms even before the Nazis invaded and occupied the country in June 1941. When the Germans arrived, locals continued to massacre Lithuanian Jews on their own, sometimes in front of German SS officers, who were flabbergasted by such scenes of extreme brutality.6 Shortly thereafter, however, the Germans began a systematic killing campaign. The notorious mobile killing units (the Einsatzgruppen) directed the operations and carried out the killings with the help of local militiamen, police, and civilians. The remaining Lithuanian Jews—some 40,000 people—were put to hard labor in a number of local internment camps; many were later deported to Nazi camps, where the majority of them died.7 Before the Soviet Union liberated Lithuania in 1944, the Germans were able to kill 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the highest murder rate in Europe.

Chiune Sugihara, the Diplomat

Portrait of Chiune Sugihara. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in the Lithuanian prewar capital of Kaunas (Kovno) in the summer of 1940. In defiance of his superiors, Sugihara decided to provide transit visas to thousands of Jews who had escaped German persecution in Poland. Many of them used this opportunity to flee Europe into safety. When his defiance was discovered, Sugihara was lost his position and was stripped of his pension.

Before the Nazi invasion in 1941, Jews fleeing persecution in Poland began arriving in Kaunas, the capital of independent Lithuania, in 1939.8 Kaunas hosted the consulates of the countries that had diplomatic relationships with Lithuania and, after 1939, the Soviet Union. But as the Nazi army pushed across Europe in the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union ordered all foreign embassies to close down and move their diplomats to Moscow.

Amidst all this, one diplomatic consulate requested a month-long extension: the Japanese consulate headed by Chiune Sugihara. He was a striking exception: other diplomats turned their backs on the refugees, packed up, and quickly left. Extension was luckily granted to Sugihara, and the Japanese diplomat put it to good use; over the course of 29 days, he was directly involved in the rescue of as many as 3,000 Jews.

Brought up in Japan during changing times and rapid modernization, Sugihara was the son of a diplomat. An excellent student, he graduated from Tokyo’s Waseda University with top honors.  But rather than pursuing a professional career in Japan, he elected to go to Harbin Gakuin in Manchuria (now in China), Japan’s exclusive school for future experts in Soviet diplomacy. Going to a school abroad and focusing on Soviet diplomacy prepared him for a life as a world-class diplomat. And after graduation, he began a career in diplomacy, which took him to Finland at the end of the 1930s.

Then, in November 1939, Sugihara was sent to Lithuania on a new mission—a mission that was very different from the work that most consulates do. Lithuania’s location made it the perfect place to gauge the movements of the Germans, who had recently invaded Poland, and Sugihara’s superiors placed him there to spy on the Germans. (There were no Japanese subjects in Kaunas whatsoever and no significant diplomatic mission to be had.)9 But after the Soviets ordered all foreign diplomats to leave Kaunas, his mission had dramatically changed.

On an August morning, Sugihara heard noises from the street below. Looking outside from his office window, he saw a large crowd gathering at the gate of the building. His staff soon told him what all the commotion was about. The crowd consisted of Polish Jews who had escaped Nazi atrocities. Stateless and paperless, they were begging for documents—a passport or a visa—that would allow them to leave Lithuania and find safety.

Sugihara sent a telegram to Japan and received the following response: 

CONCERNING TRANSIT VISAS REQUESTED PREVIOUSLY STOP ADVISE ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE ISSUED ANY TRAVELER NOT HOLDING FIRM END VISA WITH GUARANTEED DEPARTURE EX JAPAN STOP NO EXCEPTIONS STOP NO FURTHER INQUIRIES EXPECTED STOP (SIGNED) K TANAKA FOREIGN MINISTRY TOKYO.10

Sugihara now faced a tricky dilemma. He could either accept the orders from Tokyo or follow his conscience and defy his superiors’ explicit ban. After consulting his wife, Yukiko, he chose the latter, and over the next 29 days, risking his career and even his life, he would tirelessly write up thousands of transit visas allowing holders to pass through Japan en route to the Dutch controlled island of Curaçao. Witnesses claim that Sugihara signed the last of these visas as his train to Japan was leaving Kaunas. “And so,” as Sir Gilbert says in the clip, “these Jews made this incredibly long journey right across European Russia, right across Siberia to Japan,” where, for the most part, they found safety.

Transit visa to the Dutch colonies written and signed by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who helped rescue Jews by giving them transit visas through Japan. August 9, 1940.

“Thanks to Zwartendijk and Sugihara, as many as 3,000 Jews were saved, including all the Jewish students of the Mir yeshiva, the orthodox religious academy,” said Richard Salomon, whose father, Bernard, received a Japanese visa. “Without Sugihara, many of the most accomplished minds of our world would not exist today. His legacy produced doctors, bankers, lawyers, authors, politicians, even the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.”11 Curiously, none of them ended up living in Curaçao.12

Citations

  • 1 : The South African Jewish community is predominantly Lithuanian in its origin. Lithuania was also the birthplace of a movement called Musar (Hebrew for “ethics”), which emphasized the moral teaching of the Jewish texts and above all the cultivation of a personal life that follows ethical principles.
  • 2 : In the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius (or Vilna), Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (a.k.a. the Vilna Gaon [the Genius of Vilna]) established a school of thought that attracted some of the brightest minds and scholars in the Jewish world. His most talented student, Rabbi Hayim of the Volozhin Yeshiva, became the leader of this influential movement, called the Mitnagdim (Hebrew for “opposition”). The Mitnagdim opposed the eighteenth-century Hasidic movement. For the Mitnagdim, the Hasidic emphasis on the charismatic tzadic (Hebrew for “righteous”) leader resembled the populism of the Evangelical movement too much and was anathema to traditional Judaism and the rabbinical institutions. See John Efron et al., The Jews: A History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2009), 267.
  • 3 : The Bund is short for the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland (the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, established in Vilna in 1897). The organization advocated cultural autonomy for Jews, using Yiddish (rather than Hebrew) as the national language. In contrast with Jews who joined European socialist and communist parties, the Bund advocated for an organization that represented the distinct interests of the Jewish worker. This socialist organization also differed in goals from the Zionist organizations in that it called for a resolution of the issues Jewish workers faced within the national boundaries of European states rather than in Palestine. 
  • 4 : Dov Levin, “Lithuania,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 3, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990), 898.
  • 5 : On the whole, Jews suffered just as much as the rest of the population. Under Sovietization, all free organizations in Lithuania were shut down, and shortly after the occupation, most Jewish institutions ceased to exist, destroying much of what defined this proud and vibrant community. We thank Joshua Rubenstein for this and many other thoughtful suggestions.
  • 6 : Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess, eds., The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, trans. Deborah Burnstone (Old Saybrook: Konecky & Konecky, 1991), 34.
  • 7 : Levin, “Lithuania,” 898. 
  • 8 : The Lithuanian Jewish population now reached about 250,000 (10% of the population of Lithuania). As was the case in other eastern European towns, the Jewish population in Kaunas was substantial: 35,000–40,000, or a quarter of the city’s 120,000 inhabitants. (In some smaller towns in the east, Jews comprised half the population or even more). See “Lithuania,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, accessed March 28, 2013, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005444
  • 9 : Mordecai Paldiel, “Sugihara, Chiune-Sempo,” The Righteous Among the Nations (Jerusalem: HarperCollins, 2007), 446.
  • 10 : Cable communication cited in Thomas J. Craughwell, Great Rescues of World War II: Stories of Adventures, Daring and Sacrifice (New York: Pier 9, 2009), 215.
  • 11 : Jaweed Kaleem, “Chiune Sugihara, Japan Diplomat Who Saved Jews During Holocaust, Remembered,” Huffington Post, January 24, 2013, accessed April 1, 2013, Huffington Post.
  • 12 : Paldiel, “Sugihara, Chiune-Sempo,” 450.

Connection Questions

  1. What led to the chaos and violence in Kaunas before the Nazis arrived? Who was responsible?
  2. What excuses were used to justify hate and violence targeting Jews before and after the German occupation?
  3. What were the historical events that led to thousands of Polish Jews amassing at the doorstep of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas?
  4. What might have influenced Sugihara to defy his government's orders? What could have been the consequences of Sugihara's decision? For diplomats, where is the line between conscience and duty? Can a democracy function when government representatives follow their own conscience versus their government's policy?

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