Many people know Oskar Shindler from the incredible and moving Steven Speilberg directed Schindler’s List about an opportunistic businessman turned humanitarian who risks everything to save as many Jews as he can from Nazi death camps.
While Oskar Schindler is internationally lauded as a hero, there is a Japanese hero who may have saved more people, but is not nearly as well known. Chiune Sugihara (杉原千畝) was a Japanese diplomat that facilitated the escape of an estimated 6,000 European Jews. Only to face rejection by his own.
Sugihara was born in Gifu in 1900. He majored in English in school and was hired by the Foreign Ministry and was sent to work in China. While there he also learned Russian and German. He would be transferred to Manchuria and then eventually to Lithuania, where he would make his name.
In 1939 Sugihara would be promoted to vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate. As the Nazi parties’ attempts to drive out the Jewish population of German territories increased, Sugihara experienced a glut of Jewish refugees fleeing. The foreign ministries’ policy was that anyone requesting a visa to Japan, must first have a visa for a third location out of Japan. They also required a lot of time and money, things that nearly all of the refugees did not have.
Through contacts in Polish Intelligence, Sugihara heard about the terrible things happening to the refugees that fell into the Nazi’s hands. He made at least three requests to the home office to be allowed to do something. He was denied each time. Seeing the poor, helpless, persecuted, masses before him, he knew he had to do something. Against orders, he began to issue visas.
Normally, applications for visas were supposed to take at least 10 days, but Sugihara just wrote one visa after the other. From July 18th to August 28 of 1940, Sugihara and his wife would work 18-20 hours a day writing out visas. Eventually they would have to leave the office due to its closure. Throughout the night before they had to leave, they continued to write visas. Even as the train pulled out, he continued to write visa, and would throw them out the window to throngs waiting outside. As the train pulled off, he threw out a stack of unsigned visas and his hanko (official name stamp).
When he would eventually return to Japan, and his bosses found out what he did he was forced out of his job and had to work more menial jobs for the rest of his life as a punishment. He would never be recognized or praised until much later in life. For many years he never knew what happened to any of the people that he helped. In 1968, one of the people that he saved became an Israeli diplomat. He searched out Sugihara and made contact. In 1985, one year before his death, Sugihara was named “Righteous Among Nations” a special government honor given to non-Jews who at personal risk or sacrifice, helped people during the holocaust
One research group estimates that over 40,000 people are alive today because of Mr. and Ms. Sugihara. He is a true hero that deserves more recognition.