Article courtesy of Yad Vashem website
In November 1939, Chiune-Sempo Sugihara, a Japanese career diplomat, was sent to Kovno (Kaunas), then the capital of Lithuania, to serve as Japan’s Consul. As part of his job, he was to monitor the maneuvers of the German Army across the border, so that Japanese headquarters would know in advance of the anticipated German attack on the Soviet Union.
When Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, all foreign diplomats were asked to leave Kovno by the end of August. As he was packing his belongings, Sugihara was informed that a Jewish delegation was waiting in front of his consulate, asking to see him. The delegation was headed by Zerach Warhaftig – a Jewish refugee who was to become years later a minister in the government of the State of Israel. Sugihara agreed to meet with the delegation for a brief conversation. The Jewish delegation had come with a desperate request.
The Jewish refugees in Lithuania were in dire straits, watching as the gates to the world were closed to them. It had become practically impossible to obtain immigration visas to anywhere in the world. In their desperate search for countries that would permit them to enter, they had found out that Curacao – a Dutch colony – required no entry visas. This would enable them to leave Lithuania, but since the war had blocked all travel possibilities westwards, the delegation had come to the Japanese Consul with the request to issue transit visas. With these transit visas they would be able to obtain permission to cross the Soviet Union.
The Japanese consul asked for time to obtain authorization from his superiors to grant the visas. Nothing indicated that the Japanese Foreign Ministry would agree to this unusual request. However, Sugihara was very troubled by the refugees’ plight and therefore began issuing visas at his own initiative and without having obtained his ministry’s support. Nine days later the response from Tokyo arrived. The proposal was rejected, and authorization to grant transit visas was denied. Sugihara decided to continue with the distribution of the visas anyhow. His wife later described how the predicament of the desperate Jewish refugees had impacted her husband. After the meeting with the delegation he was troubled and contemplative until he decided to go ahead and disobey his orders. Within a brief span of time before the consulate was closed down and Sugihara had to leave Kaunas, he provided approximately 3,500 transit visas. Thanks to Sugihara they were able to leave Europe and the murder that was to begin a year later. Among the recipients of visas were many rabbis and Talmudic students. Their narrow escape enabled them to re-establish the Jewish traditional schools elsewhere.
With a near deadline for leaving the country and a small staff, Sugihara stamped some of the passports himself. It is said that he was stamping passports even at the railway station, as he was leaving Lithuania. He also enlisted the help of some of the Jews to stamp the passports. With no knowledge of Japanese, some of the stamps were put in upside down. While all this was going on, Sugihara was receiving dispatches from Tokyo warning him against issuing visas without due process.
From Kaunas Sugihara was sent to open a consulate in Koenigsberg (today Kaliningrad) and then to Bucharest. Upon his return to his country in 1946 Sugihara was dismissed from the Japanese Foreign Service. His understanding was that this was a consequence of his insubordination as consul in Kaunas. From then on he had to make a living doing odd jobs.
The visas granted by Sugihara saved the Jews from the hands of the Nazis, who invaded Lithuania in June 1941.
In 1984 Yad Vashem recognized Chiune-Sempo Sugihara as Righteous Among the Nations.
Two years later he died in Japan. Today he is considered a hero in Japan.