He who Saves A Life, Saves the Entire World (The Talmud)
I’m due to travel to Los Angeles in the next couple of weeks to pick up a visa at the Israeli consulate. When I do so, I hope to have time to swing through Little Tokyo for some take-away sushi and a visit to the Chiune Sugihara memorial. The memorial is a bronze likeness of the Japanese hero sitting on a concrete bench with a visa in his hand. There’s enough room for the two of us to have lunch together.
Earlier this summer, I didn’t even know who he was.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Jewish refugees fled east to Lithuania, which, at the time, was an independent country with its own population of some 210,000 Jews. In June 1941, the Nazis took Soviet-controlled Lithuania, and by the end of the year, an estimated 195,000 Jews would be murdered.
On November 23, 1939, two months after the invasion of Poland, Sugihara opened the Japanese consulate in Kaunas to monitor events in the region. The nearest Japanese embassy was in Riga, Latvia.
Then from the west came the Soviet Union, which occupied independent Lithuania in June 1940. Soviet occupation meant the closure of foreign embassies and consulates, and Sugihara was soon forced out of Kaunas, taking the train to Berlin on September 4, 1940.
However, by the time Chiune left town, he had a heroic case of writer’s cramp.
As safe havens for Jews were shrinking in Lithuania , the Japanese consulate became an unlikely house of salvation. Against the strict orders of the Tokyo home office and at great risk to his career, if not his life, Sugihara handwrote an unknown number of transit visas in July and August 1940 helping some 6,000 Jews to travel through Japan (estimates range between 2,100 and 3,400 hand-written visas). As he departed Kaunas, he was still writing, throwing the last of his signed visas out of the window as the train was leaving the station. He reportedly pleaded, ‘Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best’. A voice from the throng of refugees surrounding the departing train exclaimed, ‘Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!’ Years later, Sugihara would be reunited with some of the survivors.
Sugihara’s visas allowed the holder and his family to leave Soviet-occupied Lithuania, travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway and board a ferry to Japan where they could stay for two weeks before continuing onwards to a final destination. Sugihara saved approximately six thousand Jews, although some estimates are higher.
In 1985, Israel honored him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Later this year when I get settled in Jerusalem, I’m planning a pilgrimage of silence to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum where Sugihara’s name is on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous.
Sugihara’s story is certainly not unknown, yet on the world stage he sits in the shadow of a certain Mr. Schindler. His wife penned his biography, Visas for Life (1995), and his life has inspired a handful of films and documentaries, including Visas and Virtue (1997), which won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. The Huffington Post published a nice article on him just last January (2013).
The honorary Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk (1896-1976), belongs to the same conversation. Stationed as the director of the Philips’ Lithuanian operations, Zwartendijk assumed the duties of honorary consul a day before the Soviet occupation of the country in mid-June 1940. He issued 2,350 visas over a ten-day period for the Dutch island of Curacao before the Soviets shut down the consulate on August 3, 1940.
The Sugihara Foundation – Diplomats for Life was founded in 1999 by the joint efforts of Lithuanian and Belgian citizens in order to perpetuate the memory and heroic deeds of the wartime consuls, Sugihara and Zwartendijk, and to promote the idea of civic society, tolerance and the human spirit. In 2000, the foundation opened the Memorial Education Center in the former Japanese Consulate in Kaunas. Since 2008, the Sugihara House has included the ‘Visas for Life’ exhibition, an interpretive museum providing information on the lives of the two foreign consuls as well as stories of the survivor families.
A modest gift counter sells books and videos. I bought a small booklet and a pin with the two flags of Japan and Lithuania. The guest book, with many entries in Japanese and Hebrew, contains comments from around the world.
After visiting the house for most of an hour, I stepped out into the warmth of the Kaunas summer day. It was a peaceful, almost dull August afternoon, and I stood outside the Sugihara House in a quiet, unassuming neighborhood on a hill overlooking the bus station. My historical imagination threatened to fail me, as I struggled with some difficulty to imagine the crowds and the cries, the parents and children, the hopes and desperation, the individual stories and the collective humanity that once surrounded Sempo’s house during the long summer days of 1940. But they were there, all around me, and encircled by these images, I walked back down into the streets of Kaunas.
In my own small, if inadequate, way, I am connecting with the story, which has grabbed my imagination, even if I only accidentally stumbled across it. For some unknown reason, I took an August vacation to Lithuania, and now I hope to have lunch soon with Sugihara in LA before paying tribute to him later this fall in Jerusalem.
Visas for life!
After Kaunas, Sugihara’s diplomatic career took him to Prague, Königsberg and Bucharest. His Romanian service ended with an eighteen-month stint in a Soviet POW camp. In 1947, he was asked to resign from the Japanese Foreign Service. He died in Kamakura, Japan on July 31, 1986.
My pilgrimage to LA to pick up my own visa will not a journey in the footsteps of my new hero. To my knowledge, Sugihara never set foot in Los Angeles. Rather, the Little Tokyo monument is a monument materializing community memory rather than marking the ground of a historic event. Moreover, it’s memory in Diaspora. It’s just a simple concrete bench in LA connecting cultures, commemorating events and memorializing people from all sides of the world. That’s something I can definitely sit on.
To be sure, the heavens are well-pleased with Chiune. In 2000, a new-found asteroid, 25893 Sugihara, was named after Japan’s former consul to Kaunas. Thanks, Sempo! Meet ya in LA!