By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Nearly 30 years after his death, Chiune Sugihara has become a symbol of “doing the right thing.”
A Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania in 1940, he issued thousands of visas to Jewish families, enabling them to flee the country before the Nazis arrived.
Although he was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem in 1985, his story has become more widely known in the years since his passing. Sometimes called the “Japanese Schindler,” a reference to the movie “Schindler’s List,” Sugihara has been memorialized in books for children and adults, documentaries, TV and film dramatizations (including the Oscar-winning “Visas and Virtue” and the more recent “Personal Non Grata”), and even an opera. Statues of Sugihara include one on Central and Second in Little Tokyo. Museums and foundations have been established in his name.
During visits to the U.S. by Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko, and eldest son, Hiroki, Holocaust survivors and the Jewish community as a whole have had an opportunity to personally thank the family. These events, along with similar reunions with Nisei veterans of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion who helped liberate Dachau, have strengthened ties between the Jewish and Japanese American communities.
Since the death of Hiroki in 2001 and of Yukiko in 2008, it is no longer possible to hear first-hand accounts from the family of that fateful summer in Lithuania. But a recent gathering at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles did bring together a family member — Chiune’s grand-nephew Tetsuya Sugihara — and one of those who was saved by Sugihara’s visas — Leon Prochnik.
Speaking through an interpreter, Sugihara explained, “Chiune is actually my great uncle, but because my grandfather passed away quite young, Chiune raised my father like his own child, and hence I treated Chiune like my own grandfather or just an uncle. For me, Chiune was just an ordinary man, he was just my ordinary relative, he was just my grandfather who was very kind to my dad and me, and that was it.
“Chiune was quiet and he was very humble, and he actually never spoke about his past. So I actually never knew that he gave these visas out to Jewish people during World War II as well as the fact that he was a diplomat in Lithuania.”
He noted that his great uncle’s decision came with a cost. “Germany and Japan had an alliance together. So for Chiune to be helping the Jewish people, it was totally against the Japanese government’s orders, so this act was taken very seriously by the Japanese government, and at the age of 47 Chiune was totally fired from the government in Japan. Chiune’s dream was that he always wanted to become a diplomat. So when he was fired by the government, he was left with devastation.”
The younger Sugihara once asked his great uncle about his decision. “As he would have explained to anybody, all he said was ‘It’s not a big deal. It was just the right thing to do.’ And that was it … That was the kind of person Chiune Sugihara was. I think this is a reflection of a true human being. If Chiune was put in the same situation, even if it wasn’t the Jews, I believe that he would make the same decision.
“Of course, at times we have to obey rules and laws, but if that goes against our good heart, we must make a decision, we must determine to follow our good heart, and when we can act based on that, that’s when the beginning of a noble human being starts. I believe that this act really shines when we face the last moment of our lives, that we can say, ‘I have lived a fulfilling life that is beyond fame, any prosperity.’”
Twenty-eight years after the fact, some of those who were saved by Sugihara managed to find him. “I cannot imagine the joy he must have felt when he reunited with his friends,” his grand-nephew said.
Since non-Japanese found “Chiune” difficult to pronounce, Sugihara introduced himself as Sempo, an alternate reading of the characters for Chiune (千畝). “So the Jewish people only knew him as Sempo Sugihara, which wasn’t his real name. So that’s why it took so long” to find him, Tetsuya explained.
He recalled when he first became aware of Chiune’s accomplishment. “I was in university when I attended Chiune’s funeral. I realized my uncle wasn’t an ordinary human being when I saw these Jewish people attend his funeral, which is not something you normally see at a Japanese person’s funeral.”
The younger Sugihara established a foundation called the Chiune Liberation Society, with Rumi Suzuki, who was also present at the Los Angeles event. “It is a gathering of people who will not tolerate any kind of discrimination,” he said. “It is a group of people who are determined to change despair into hope and joy.”
The organization’s first project is to help schools in Sri Lanka that don’t receive any funding from their government. Volunteers have been collecting school supplies and shoes in Japan to donate to the kids.
“This the Chiune Sugihara that I know, and my determination is to follow Chiune’s spirit,” Tetsuya said.
A Survivor’s Story
Prochnik, who speaks regularly at the Museum of Tolerance and at schools all over Los Angeles, gave a modified version of the presentation he gives to children, complete with photos, drawings and maps. The first photo showed him as a 6-year-old feeding pigeons in Krakow, Poland about three months before the Germans invaded. He remembered that the city’s central square was popular with tourists, “a little like Venice.”
He had fond memories of that period. “My family owned the second-largest chocolate factory in Poland (Suchard) … We had a very, very privileged life, lots of vacations, a full-time nanny … a beautiful house in Krakow … a full-time cook … I had a very, very good life.” He hastened to add that most of Poland’s Jews were “very, very poor.”
In addition to singing songs with his father, who was “a terrific piano player,” his most cherished memory was visiting the chocolate factory. “There was a room where they melted the chocolate … I would go over to one of the tubs … I would roll up the sleeve and put my arm up to my elbow in chocolate, and then I would take it and I would lick it off.” This would cause a stomach ache, yet the next time he went to the factory he would do it all over again.
The tub became his imaginary friend, which he named Milka after a famous chocolate bar that Suchard made. Prochnik said he was working on a children’s book about his experiences called “Milka and Me.”
Those good times came to an abrupt end. “We were on vacation when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland … We got a telegram from the manager of our factory saying, ‘Do not come back here to Krakow. The Germans are here and they are looking for you’ … because we were Jewish and because we were wealthy. We had property, we had a factory, we had a house and the factory had trucks … So there was no going back.”
With the ultimate goal of going to America via Russia and Japan, the family left everything behind and was smuggled out of Poland by “that time’s version of coyotes … on carts and sleds and on foot, when it was raining, when the weather was freezing.”
At one point the family was stopped by German soldiers and was able to pass as non-Jewish Poles. Miraculously, Prochnik said, the soldiers did not find his mother’s small Hebrew prayer book hidden under the hay in the wagon, which would have meant certain death.
Another lucky break came when they were stopped by three Lithuanian soldiers. Although Lithuania was very anti-Semitic at the time, Prochnik said, one of the soldiers turned out to be Jewish and was sympathetic to their plight.
Once in Lithuania, “we can actually live here for a while to sort things out (but) my family is still very worried because they sense that before long the Germans will invade … My family is talking about something I’ve never heard of before. Transit visas. I don’t know what a transit visa is … I ask my sister, ‘Why do we have to get transit visas?’ And the answer is the only way of getting out of Lithuania and getting across Russia is with a transit visa. You cannot smuggle yourself across the Soviet Union, it’s way too big … Well, the Lithuanian government is not giving out transit visas to Jews who want to escape. They couldn’t be less interested …
“About a week later, my father goes to buy himself cigarettes and he’s in the tobacco store and a guy who’s probably Jewish himself says to my father, ‘You’re not going to believe this. There’s a guy here in Kovno who’s giving out transit visas to Jews.’ ‘How can that be? The government’s not doing it.’ ‘He’s not part of the government. This man is a Japanese guy.’”
Showing a photo of Sugihara, Prochnik said, “This is 75 years ago. I’m 6 years old. I don’t know anything about this man. That I’m standing here today acknowledging his great nephew, it’s amazing.”
Prochnik’s father went to the Japanese consulate. “There are hundreds and hundreds of Jewish families standing around outside the embassy, saying, ‘Help us, help us, please help us,’ and he’s writing them as fast as he can, and my father realizes that the only way he’s going to get a transit visa is if he stays there overnight and then is one of the people who’s there early in the morning so he can be in front of the line. After several days of trying, my father gets us this piece of paper which saves our lives.”
While attending a school with Lithuanian Jews, Prochnik befriended the one boy who could speak Polish. He said he told his friend, “We are going to be leaving very, very soon … You have go to your father and you have to tell him that they have to get transit visas or they will be killed.”
“The next day, he comes to school and he’s very upset … He says, ‘I went and I told my father, and my father said, “Only cowards run away … we have a business here, my grandparents are buried here, you go to school here. We are not leaving.” And he slapped me in the face.’ So then I realized that they are not going to be leaving … My best friend is going to die.”
Showing his class photo, Prochnik said, “All these sweet little children — maybe one or two of these children survived the war. Think of it — all these children murdered.”
It took about 14 days and nights for the family to get across Russia by rail, he said, and then they went to Japan and later Canada because the U.S. was unwilling to admit Jewish refugees. He summed up his feelings when they finally reached New York: “We are finally home — no more running.”
Years later, his wife persuaded him to visit Poland. Showing a recent photo, he said, “Here I was, same square, different pigeons, but I’m feeding the pigeons … I’ve had a very full, rich life. I’ve done many interesting things in my life. But in the end I’m doing that because of this man.”
Prochnik and Tetsuya Sugihara embraced and exchanged gifts.
Over 6,000 Saved
Calling Chiune Sugihara “a remarkable man,” Elana Samuels, director of volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance said, “Mr. Sugihara was told to watch the Germans but not to get involved in what was happening before his eyes. What he noted was the desperation of these Jewish families wishing to flee in order to save themselves. He actually wrote to his government, asking for permission to issue transit visas. Three times his country said, ‘No, don’t get involved.’
“But Mr. Sugihara had a good heart, and with his wife, Yukiko, he hand-wrote for almost a time period of one month during that summer of 1940 close to 2,000 transit visas, and an entire family could travel and were saved because of those visas. We estimate that well over 6,000 Jews during that brief period of time were saved because of Chiune Sugihara and his goodness.”
Describing the event as “an absolutely historic and almost miraculous convergence” of “two totally different, totally remarkable partners,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, said, “There is a Jewish saying … which basically says that if you save one life, it’s as if you saved the entire world. It’s a quote in our Talmud. It’s one of the bases for why in Jewish tradition we revere people who go beyond the everyday responsibility, go out of their way and are actually able to save a human life.
“In the case of (Consul) Sugihara, he broke the rules and saved a couple of thousand people, signing a creative kind of visa that was a one-way ticket out of hell.”
Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance, shared a personal connection. “My father’s family, my mother’s family all came from Lithuania. My husband’s parents came from Lithuania. They were fortunate in being able to escape the country in the early 1930s, before the war.
“My name, Liebe, is the name of my father’s mother, who was murdered in Lithuania during the Shoah … probably by her Lithuanian neighbors and those who collaborated so eagerly and willingly with the advancing Nazi forces. And I’m very proud of that name, knowing that I continue her legacy today.
“But there is not a day that we are not in deep gratitude for what … Mr. Sugihara did, and for those few diplomats who had the extreme courage and enormous moral fortitude to stand up against the edicts of their own governments and do what they knew was right.”
She told Tetsuya Sugihara, “That is the kind of courage and moral strength that this museum tries to encourage in all of us. Your family represents it.”
Geft told Prochnik, “It is because you and other courageous survivors are here telling your stories that we guarantee we will not forget. Memory is really our moral compass for the future. Thank you for sharing your story.”
This article appeared in The Rafu Shimpo’s Holiday Issue (Dec. 9). The event took place on June 14.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo