The story of Oskar Schindler is fairly well known. He is credited for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware factory, and his story is retold in the famous film Schindler’s List. The State of Israel honoured Schindler as “Righteous Among the Nations” – a status it endows on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
In a town called Yaotsu about 60km from here was born another of whom Israel has deemed “Righteous Among the Nations”. Despite his relative obscurity, at least compared to Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara is credited with saving thousands of Jews during this terrible time in history. Last weekend we visited a commemorative museum dedicated to this man and his story.
Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in 1939. In July and August 1940 and he used his position as a representative of the Foreign Ministry to write transit visas to allow European Jews to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan to claim asylum in countries of refuge.
He contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to request permission to grant transit visas to fleeing Jews despite them not meeting the requirements for issue of a visa. Tokyo responded that without a visa to a destination country a Japanese transit visa could not be granted. Realising that the Jews coming to his office would be in grave danger from the Nazis if they could not escape, he began to issue visas by his own hand, without authorisation from Tokyo and in defiance of direct orders to the contrary. Given his low position in the Foreign Ministry, cultural pressure to follow orders, and the Japanese alliance with Nazi Germany, this was an incredible act of bravery.
Sugihara hand-wrote visas for up to 20 hours per day. As news spread of his actions, more and more refugee Jews lined up outside the consulate in order to get a transit visa through Japan. This continued for only a couple of weeks after which the Japanese consulate was closed in September and Sugihara was ordered to leave.
Sugihara died in Japan in 1986. His story is not well known in Japan. His humility was such that it was only when a large Jewish delegation (including dignitaries) attended his funeral that his neighbours and friends found out what he had achieved.
The little commemorative museum in Yaotsu does quite a good job at recounting Sugihara’s story despite its paucity of related artefacts. (For example, the only visas on display were replicas.) However, as is typical of most Japanese recounts of World War II, the broader Japanese Imperial context in which these events took place is missing. Despite this shortcoming the museum does a good job at bringing visitors to uncomfortably face the extent of human evil (it includes photos from the Nazi death camps), as well as the joy of redemption brought through a man that chose to do good.