Yukiko Sugihara: Why My Husband Helped the Jews

In 1940, Yukiko Sugihara was with her husband, the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, in Kaunas (Kovno--Lithuania’s capital between the wars). In the video Wife of Righteous Among the Nations Sempo Sugihara of Japan, produced by Yad Vashem,  Yukiko Sugihara describes the events and ideas that led to her husband’s decision to write passage visas that helped thousands of Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution:

At first my husband refused. “Japan is Germany’s ally and we cannot do this,” he said. The representatives of the refugees were persistent. “Our lives are in danger,” they said, “maybe it will be possible to issue some entry visas.” My husband consulted me and afterwards said that he would try and send a telegram to the Japanese Foreign Office although he was sure that nothing would come out of it. “We will see what happens” he said and sent the telegram. So my husband sent the telegram, but, as we had predicted, the answer was a flat no. “Negative, do not issue visas.”

My husband told the refugees that this was the answer from the Foreign Office. They received the answer, but although they had said they would leave, they didn’t, and continued to stand in front of the building till evening. At the beginning there were about 200 maybe 300 people. They stood there from morning till night, waiting for an answer. They also stood like this the following day and the day after. They stood all the time. And their small children together with them. People who had escaped from Poland, a place dangerous for them, and together with their children walking day and night reached Kaunas and the Japanese Consulate asking for visas.

They had risked their lives in order to reach this place, their bodies exhausted, their clothes torn and their faces tired. I would see them from my window, when they saw me looking at them, they would put their hands together (as if praying). It was so hard for me to watch these scenes…they were so miserable.

Two days passed, and my husband sent another telegram, for the third time. The answer was the same answer, no matter how many telegrams: “do not issue visas.” We did not know what to do. My younger sister and my children also saw these people through the window, standing from morning till night. And my eldest son, Hiroki asked who these people are, why are they there. It was hard for me to explain…since I was talking to children. I said that bad people had threatened them, they had escaped and had come to father asking for help.

My son said: “They are so miserable, we must help them.” And my sister said the same. We all thought that. But in spite of the fact that the telegram had been sent three times, the answer had been negative.

I said to my husband that in spite of everything we must help these people. We could not sleep at night. We kept thinking and thinking what to do. In addition to that, I had a baby, we had three young children. If my husband issues the visas contrary to the Foreign Office instructions, then when we return to Japan, my husband would for sure lose his job. Or even worse, we might be in danger from the Nazis ourselves: they might arrest us, or we might have to flee from them because we had helped Jews. My husband, myself and the children.

We were thinking and thinking what to do. But, the representatives of the refugees begged and begged: “Please give us the visas.” Anyway, now there are only a few hundred, but thousands of Jews will arrive. My husband and I thought: these are the lives of thousands of human beings…1

  1. Citations

Connection Questions

  1. According to this testimony, why did Chiune Sugihara initially refuse to issue any visas? What factors helped change his and his wife’s minds?
  2. How does Yukiko describe the refugees? What did this sight do to her and her husband?
  3. What did Yukiko tell her son when he asked who the refugees were?
  4. How does Yukiko describe the dilemma her husband faced?

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