The visa vigilante

Chiune Sugihara Gifu Prefecture, Japan 1900 - 1986

It’s September 1939, and Hitler’s Nazi regime is taking flight. German forces have invaded Poland, and thousands of Polish Jews – fearing the worst – have fled to nearby Lithuania. But the USSR, at the time allied with the Germans, was on the move – the refugees knew it wouldn’t be long before their situation became even darker. Fortunately for many of them, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara had not long arrived in the Lithuanian city of Kovno, and he would go on to help save thousands of their lives.

A gifted Russian speaker, Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to provide Japan with intelligence on the movement of Soviet and German troops around the Baltic region. He was also part of a larger Japanese-Polish cooperative plan, which saw him issue exit visas to Jews hoping to escape their increasingly dangerous environment.

But obtaining these visas was fraught with difficulty. The global war meant many countries had closed their borders entirely. Only Surinam (later Suriname) and the Dutch colony of Curacao in the Caribbean and would permit new arrivals, but with conflict blocking westward travel, the Jews needed permission to cross the Soviet Union and transit through Japan in order to get there.

Sugihara was under strict orders only to issue visas to those that had already made the proper immigration arrangements with these destination countries, and who could prove that they had the funds to travel. Some 2,200 Jews made their escape from Europe this way, but many thousands more were left trapped, unable to fulfil this criteria.

Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, and all foreign diplomats, including Sugihara, were asked to leave, and it seemed that the fate of the remaining Jews had been sealed. In dire straits, refugees tried forging fake immigration documents for Curacao and Surinam. When they were rejected, they began to gather outside the Japanese consulate, pleading for the paperwork that might save their lives. Day after day, while Sugihara and his family slowly packed up their things, hundreds of men, women and children, tired, broken and terrified, would stand desperately by the consulate gates, from morning until night.

Troubled by their hopeless plight, Sugihara contacted the Japanese Foreign Office. Perhaps, he thought, they would permit him to issue some entry visas. The answer was a flat no: “Negative, do not issue visas,” read their reply. Sugihara relayed the response to the ever-growing group of refugees, but still they remained outside the consulate. Sugihara asked the Foreign Office again. No. A third time. Still the answer was no. Then, in an unusual act of disobedience, Sugihara began writing visas anyway.

With his remaining time in Lithuania limited, Sugihara reportedly spent up to 20 hours a day handwriting the documents, taking breaks only to have his weary hands massaged by his wife. He was producing a month’s worth of visas every day, knowing full well his job – perhaps even his life – was at stake. He continued producing visas even after the Japanese Foreign Office warned him against doing so without due process, and witnesses say he was still writing documents at the railway station as he was leaving the city, flinging sheets of paper out of the carriage window to desperate Jews as he departed.

Many never made it out of Lithuania, but thanks to Sugihara’s defiance, it’s estimated that around 10,000 did, escaping with lives that they would certainly have lost had they remained in the country just one year longer.

Sugihara was never formally reprimanded for his actions, but he was forced to resign from the foreign service, ostensibly under the pretence of budget cuts. In 1968, Joshua Nishri, an Israeli diplomat in Tokyo, who had himself been saved by a Sugihara visa, tracked him down, and submitted his name to Yad Vashem for recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations. That honour was bestowed upon him in 1984, two years before his death.

We will remember them

Chiune Sugihara Gifu Prefecture, Japan 1900 - 1986
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