July 12, 2004

Visas for Life... A Japanese Schindler

by Linda Anderson Krech

Where does goodness come from? How does it find its way into our being? How can we cultivate the ability to "do the right thing?" How can we care more about "doing the right thing" than we do about our own comfort, convenience, well-being, status, gain?

If only we knew.

For some people, faith in God is the answer simple and clear. Yet others commit atrocities in the name of their higher power, justifying any means to accomplish their end goal, with no trace of goodness to be found. And our goodness quotient can vary wildly from one moment to the next. Maybe our blood sugar is a little low at the defining moment, maybe we didn't sleep well the night before. Maybe we're depressed over a lost promotion or worried about our father's health. Maybe the countless influences on us add up to a big black zero at the moment of opportunity, and that's the end of that one.

So when someone's goodness runneth over, splashing their courage and compassion on all of us, it can make us stop in our tracks for a moment. Chiune Sugihara has done that.

During the summer of 1940, this man found it within himself to risk all for the sake of doing the right thing. Sugihara had barely settled into his new post as Japan's vice-consul in Lithuania when the Nazi armies invaded Poland and waves of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania. Sugihara found himself face-to-face with an unexpected and uninvited dilemma of monumental proportions. Polish Jews, trapped and desperate in Lithuania, were seeking transit visas in an effort to escape Nazi persecution. The American, British and French consuls had refused to provide the needed paperwork to help them escape, and they were desperately seeking help from Sugihara. "It was terrifying," recalled his wife, Yukiko, who discovered the surprise gathering outside of their suburban villa. "There were hundreds of people, men, women and children, almost all tired and dirty. The women were crying. I remember their eyes, bloodshot, intense, desperate. A little girl sat on the dirt, worn out and frightened."

Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara listened to stories, "terrible stories," from five Jewish representatives. "We stayed up all night discussing the problem. If he did not give them the visas, they might die," said Yukiko. He told the crowd that he would have an answer for them the following day, and he wired his superiors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo for instructions. The response was a clear and negative one no visas. No exceptions. Sugihara sent two additional telegrams to Tokyo, but received the same reply.

"It was a difficult choice," Yukiko reported. "Chiune knew he was disobeying direct orders, and that if the Germans found out he had issued visas to Jews he could be killed." The Germans were rapidly advancing east. The Soviets (who had annexed Lithuania) had ordered the closing of all foreign embassies. On a summer day in late July of 1940 Sugihara announced his decision at the consul gate. "I'll issue visas to each and every one of you to the last."

"There was a momentary silence," remembered Yukiko. "It was like electricity flowing through the crowd. People hugged and kissed each other. Others lifted their hands to the sky."

For the next 29 days, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. They wrote 300 visas each day. He knew he did not have much time. But the Soviet authorities and his Tokyo superiors were ordering him to close his office. His wife supplied him with sandwiches and massaged his fatigued hands at the end of the day. When he was finally forced to close the consulate doors on August 28, he left a note on the door, giving the address of his hotel. For three more days he continued to write visas, at which point he had no choice but to leave. "Please forgive me," he asked of the remaining refugees. "I cannot write any more."

As his train pulled out, Sugihara threw unsigned visas from the train window and gave the consul visa stamp to a nearby refugee. He had taken his efforts to the limit. Of the thousands of visa holders, only 7 did not arrive safely in Japan. Once dependents have been included, an estimated 6,000-10,000 people may have been saved by Sugihara's act of selfless compassion. Today an estimated 40,000 people, survivors and descendants, owe their lives to Sugihara.

As a result of Sugihara's actions in defiance of his orders, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the diplomatic service in 1945. He had to start his life over. At first, he could only find work as a part-time translator and interpreter. Later he worked as a manager for an export company. He died, at age 86, in 1986.

Now, sixty years later, there is interest in Sugihara and the courageous actions that he took. The book "In Search of Sugihara" presents a widely acclaimed study of this man, and recently an American documentary, "Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness" was released.

There is no way to purely and simply know Sugihara's motivation, or anyone's motivation for that matter. But it seems likely that the ability to put oneself in another's shoes forms the foundation of compassion, and is therefore one of the most important skills to develop, if goodness can be cultivated at all. Thank you, Chiune Sugihara, for the example you set during that month in August, so long ago. It serves, on the grandest of scales, as an exquisite reminder of the importance of cultivating compassion.

Linda Anderson Krech is a member of the ToDo Institute staff.

Posted on July 12, 2004 5:28 PM
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