Persona non grata no more: Chiune Sugihara - analysis

In the darkest hour of World War II, we know how Chiune Sugihara responded. His courage is measured in the more than 6,000 lives he saved from the Nazis and their collaborators.

JAPANESE DIPLOMAT Sugihara Chiune.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last month, on behalf of the Knesset, I had the honor as a son of a Holocaust survivor, to participate in a notable event, marking 2020 as the Year of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, at diplomatic conference organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania.
Who is to say how one will react when the bell of history tolls?
In the darkest hour of World War II, we know how Chiune Sugihara responded. His courage is measured in the more than 6,000 lives he saved from the Nazis and their collaborators. He risked his position, his own and his family’s safety, and his future to help the Jews fleeing certain doom in Lithuania. For his deeds he is forever known as a Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
It is indeed an extraordinary story.
Chiune Sugihara, was sent to Kovno, Lithuania, as the imperial consul to establish a network and gather intelligence on the Soviets. In 1939, he traveled from Manchuria to the Russo-German conflict in Europe, where he found the German invasion of Poland and the Soviet occupation of Lithuania had caused a growing surge in Jewish refugees.
It quickly became clear to Sugihara that he must help. When he did not receive approval to do so from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he acted on his own, in 1940 issuing his first transit visit via Japan to the Dutch island of Curacao. Soon his consulate was inundated with Jews, desperate to receive this visa. Sugihara did not turn his back on them. It is said that he continued to issue “Visas of Life” to Jewish refugees even as his train was departing Kovno, after being removed from his post by the Japanese government.
Chiune Sugihara’s courage set in motion a chain of humanity, Japanese individuals acting on their own, to help the Jews along their harrowing journey. Perhaps the greatest example of this chain is a man named Setsuzo Kotsuji, Japan’s only scholar of classical Hebrew, who on countless occasions helped the refugees once they reached Japan. Most significantly, at great risk to himself and his family, he successfully obtained the approval of local authorities and of the foreign minister himself to extend the visas from two weeks to many months.
This precious time was essential to ensure safe passage beyond Japan. The Jews who encountered this man never forgot him. When he died, his body was flown to Israel for burial, where some of our most eminent rabbis – children whom he had saved so many decades before – held vigil and awaited its arrival at the airport.
It is most fitting that on the occasion of the Year of Chiune Sugihara we recognize that he enabled a story that came to encompass extraordinary Japanese people, whose consciences would not allow them to stand idly by in the face of unspeakable human suffering.
As is so often the case, for Chiune Sugihara himself, the price of heroism was high. Upon his return to his country in 1946, Sugihara was dismissed from the Foreign Service. He became persona non grata.
Yet, happily, in more recent years, Japan has come to embrace Sugihara. This process began in many ways in 1985, at Yad Vashem, when he was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. Until then, his deeds were not widely known, except to the Jews he saved. For them, he was the “Japanese Schindler.”
I would like to thank and commemorate the memory of Chiune Sempo Sugihara, a man who displayed monumental bravery and risked his life for the sake of what was right; a man who came from a country with history and tradition of thousands of years and saw before him the Jews – a people still without a country then, but who also had a history and tradition of thousands of years.
The bell of history tolled for Chiune Sugihara, and he responded for all time. His faith in humankind was unshakable. He will forever be a hero in the Land of Israel, and for Jewish people all over the world. Thank you.
The writer is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Chairman of the Israel-Japan Parliamentary Friendship Group, in the Knesset.