In Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu, Japan, locals watch a video documenting his actions in a replica of the diplomat's Kaunas office. (Michael Wilner, November 2017).
(photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
“He saw human beings in danger and he decided to help them.”
Those were the words of Nabuki Sugihara last week at a Yad Vashem on the occasion of the International Remembrance Day ceremony commemorating the actions of his father Chiune Sugihara, one of the unsung Righteous Gentiles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
Sugihara, who was the Japanese vice consul in Lithuania during World War II, issued visas to Lithuanian Jews for transit through Japan, saving thousands in the process.
Then an independent state, Lithuania was overtaken by the Nazis who began their policy of transferring the Jews to the death camps. Sugihara, who, according to his son, knew practically nothing about the Jews and their history, felt he couldn’t just ignore what his eyes saw.
“He saw on the first day 20 people, Jews, standing in front of his office, waiting for a sign to get some help,” recalls the son. “On the following day, they were 30, and then 40 and so on. He just couldn’t stay there and do nothing.”
Nabuki opened his speech with a few words in Hebrew, which he learned during his studies in economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, along his frequent visits to Israel since he graduated.
Nabuki revealed that his father, who died in 1986, never spoke about what happened when he was consul, but that “today it is known in Japan, his action is told, more people know and learn about it.”
According to the rules of the Japanese government, visas could be issued only through immigration procedures. While most of the Jews did not fulfill these criteria, Sugihara, understanding that they were in danger if they stayed behind, decided to ignore his orders – quite an unusual step in terms of the Japanese hierarchy culture – and issued visas to Jews for transit through Japan, between July and August 1940.
Sugihara continued to hand-write visas, until September 4, 1940, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. He handed the official consulate stamp to a refugee so that more visas could be forged after he left.
According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding his train, throwing visas into the crowd from the train’s window.
The ceremony was a joined initiative of the Israel-Claims Conference and Limmud FSU to honor the man who saved so many – close to 6,000 Jews – an act that has been officially recognized and honored. Today, Sugihara is a Righteous Among the Nations recognized by the State of Israel. A tree to commemorate his actions is planted at Yad Vashem, but last week’s ceremony was aimed to point out a specific aspect of Sugihara’s act: saving so many among the religious and haredi communities in Lithuania. Avraham Cimerring, son of one of the survivors saved by Sugihara, said that the victory is his family has grown to more than 60 people today.
SUGIHARA WAS in fact the savior of the yeshiva world of Lithuania. Practically all the Jews he managed to save, thanks to the Japanese visas he signed for them, were yeshiva students, the majority from Lithuania’s most prestigious yeshiva – the Mir yeshiva.
“Sugihara has saved the world of the yeshivot, and especially the Mir yeshiva, which exists to this day only because of his courageous act,” said Yitzhak Pindrus, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem for Degel HaTorah, and himself a student at the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU founder and the initiator of the event, said that “Chiune Sugihara saved thousands of Jews at great personal risk and while endangering not only himself but also his family. Our main aim in mounting this event is to honor his memory formally, in the first Holocaust museum in Israel, and to bring his story of great heroism and self-sacrifice to the wider public.”
“The mention of the deeds of Sugihara and other Righteous Among the Nations is meaningful especially in the current period when there is an awakening of antisemitism around the world,” said Shlomo Gur, the vice president for Israel-Claims Conference. “We in the Claims Conference see great importance in teaching the history of the Holocaust, which includes, of course, the heroic actions by the Righteous Among the Nations, who saved Jews while endangering their own lives and their own future.”
Following the ceremony, a plaque honoring Sugihara was unveiled in the Chamber of the Holocaust, and a special song, “Way of the Samurai” honored Sugihara’s memory, performed by the singer Avner Budagov.
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