Contributor: Simon Strelcovas
In the Autumn of 1939, thousands of refugees from Poland (more than 30 thousand) trying to escape war sought protection in Lithuania. Serving as the vice consul of the Empire of Japan in Kaunas, Sugihara Chiune (1900–1986) was approached by a group of Polish refugees, most of them of Jewish origin, who fled the German-Soviet occupation of their country. After the Soviet annexation of Lithuania in the summer of 1940, these refugees were more anxious than ever to ﬁnd a way out of the Baltic region.
Finding a way out of Kaunas
Some of them ﬁrst approached the Dutch consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, who was willing to provide them with a sort of visa to the Curaçao in the Caribbean Sea. However, in order to cross the Soviet Union eastwards, they would also need a transit visa in Japan– and Sugihara was the one who provided it. As the rumors about the willing consul spread, many more refugees came to the tiny Japanese consulate in Vaizganto str. on a desperate quest for a visa. Shocked by the large numbers of applicants, stressed by the need to close the consulate due to the impending occupation, and bafﬂed by the lack of clear instructions from his ministry, Sugihara did not yield his initial ardor and granted a few thousand visas (2,139 registered) that allowed their recipients, many of whom were children, to leave the region. Altogether, as many as several thousand refugees may have used them to escape the region.
Ten months later, shortly after Nazi Germany had commenced its onslaught of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of the Jewish community in Kaunas and Lithuania was massacred, some immediately and the majority within several months of the German occupation. By then, the grantees of Sugihara’s transit visas had headed mainly to East Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Many of them sojourned in Japan for a while, and then moved elsewhere, mainly to Shanghai where they stayed until the end of the war. After escaping the Holocaust in Europe, they mostly immigrated to Israel, the United States, and a few other countries, following the end of the war.
Suigihara left Kaunas for different positions in Prague, Koenigsberg, and finally Bucharest between the Fall of 1941 and the Summer of 1944. When the Soviets occupied Romania, Sugihara and his family were arrested. After being held in an internment camp, in 1947 he was able to return to Japan. After this, Sugihara was dismissed or pressured to resign from the foreign, either as punishment for his actions or because after losing the war, Japan needed less international delegates– the details remain unknown. Decades later, in 1985, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Remembering Sugihara Today
The most important site of commemoration of Sugihara is the modest building of the former Japanese consulate in Kaunas, where his activities in summer 1940 took place. In 1999 the building became the residence of the Sugihara Foundation ‘Diplomats for Life’. A memorial museum was established in his honor and its exhibition has been continuously updated with photos, personal belonging, films, and maps. Stories of those who benefitted from Sugihara’s actions, like Edith Hamer Finkelstein’s illustrated below, are available on the Sugihara House’s website.
“I was born on May 14, 1937 in Kaunas, Lithuania. In 1937 my parents were living in Klaipeda. My father was a successful import-export trader, and my grandfather was one of the owners of a lumber mill in Taurage. Our family was big. Considering the future, my mother went to deliver the baby to Kaunas, which was the capital of Lithuania at the time… When Klaipeda was occupied by the Germans my father was forced to give up his business and leave the town. At first we stayed in Taurage, where my grandparents resided, and later we moved to Kaunas… [As time went on,] the more obvious it became that Jews are not safe in this part of the world. On July 24, 1940 we were issued the visas by the Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas. We could apply for the visas as my father originated from Eastern Prussia and held a German passport. All my mother‘s relatives held Lithuanian passports. When the Nazi[s] occupied Lithuania, they were all exiled into the Kaunas ghetto. Almost all of them were shot at the Ninth Fort. We were lucky. We got the visas marked by numbers 7 and 8. My mother‘s passport had an entry stating that I was her child.”
Since 2001, the Sugihara House annually awards a prize entitled “The Person of Tolerance” to Lithuanian citizens and foreigners alike who speak against manifestations of radicalism, prejudice, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in the political and public life of Lithuania. Recipients include priests, professors, journalists, film directors, singers, artists, writers, and more who have stood against contemporary hatred in Lithuania.
Today, the world faces another crisis. Refugees, including children like Edith, are feeling violence in their home countries and seeking protection elsewere. Sugihara provided transit visas for thousands, which for many of them, was the difference between persecution or death and access to safety. We now know the fate of those who did not have access to such visas. Like Edith shared in her testimony, “we were lucky” because of Sugihara.
- Who do you think of when you think of a rescuer? Why do you think Sugihara’s story is less known than that of other rescuers?
- How did Sugihara use his position in order to support refugees seeking protection?
- Is there someone in your community who you would consider a “Person of Tolerance?” Why?
- There are many questions surrounding Sugihara’s story: Was he dismissed or did he retire? What risks did he take when issuing visas? Should these questions impact our memory of his actions? Why or why not?
Assoc. Prof. dr. Simonas Strelcovas has been working on Chiune Sugihara and World War II refugees in Lithuania topic more than 10 years. He is author of several books and scientific articles regarding this amazing story. Simonas is advisor of Sugihara foundation “Diplomats for Life” and one of the founders of Northern Casablanca Academy.