By Chris Salierno
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
"I cannot allow these people to die, people who had come to me for help with death staring them in the eyes. Whatever punishment may be imposed on me, I knew I should follow my conscience."
Those were the words of Sempo Sugihara of Japan, who saved over 3,000 Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust of World War II. He was guided by his sense of morals and did what he thought what was right. Even when his country's government said otherwise, Sugihara continued to help send Jews far away from the sinister Nazis and Fascists of World War II Europe.
Sugihara worked in the Japanese Foreign Ministry with the title of "Junior Diplomat." At the request of his government, he was moved to Kovno, Lithuania and was named Vice Consul. There, he could be found handling travel documents and commercial contacts. This, however, was just a cover for a secret military mission: to keep the Japanese Military informed of troop movements of the German and Soviet Armies. Even though Japan was an ally of Germany, the Japanese had begun to distrust the Germans.
In Lithuania, Polish Jewish refugees of the famed Yeshiva Academy, who were Dutch nationals, were trapped. They should have been able to travel back to safety in the Netherlands, but this was not possible. No route could be found through the warzone, and passage through the Anti-Semitic German allies was impossible. So the Dutch Ambassador, with the cooperation of the Dutch Consul and a leader of the Mizrahi Religious Zionist Movement, thought about other route possibilities. They came upon the idea of sending the Jews to Curacao, a Dutch-controlled island in the Caribbean, by way of the USSR and Japan.
Sugihara was confronted with the idea in early 1940. He agreed and immediately began issuing refugees their transit visas to safety. Students of the Yeshiva Academy were sent to Curacao as planned. Other Jews found out about the plans and applied for visas, too. They were accepted by Sugihara and were authorized to enter Japan for up to fifteen days to find a home.
When Sugihara presented the plan to his superiors, they disliked the idea and scolded him for the visas he had already issued. But Sugihara's strong sense of morals led him to continue issuing the visas. He was directly disobeying orders.
Sugihara had issued between 3,000 - 5,000 visas before the Soviets took over Lithuania and kicked out the consuls. Because of this, he was reassigned to Berlin. It was said that on his way to the train station, Sugihara persisted in helping the Jews and stamped visas for a mob of Jews surrounding his car. When he was on the train, people threw their passports to him as he stamped them and tossed them back. As the train was leaving, many passports were left unstamped, so Sugihara threw out his official stamp to the crowd.
After the long trip across Asia, Jewish refugees were welcomed to Kobe, Japan. The residents of Kobe were very friendly and helpful to the refugees. There are many stories about the generosity of the good people of Kobe, who were recently struck by a horrible earthquake in 1994.
When Sugihara returned to Japan in 1947, he was asked to resign for insubordination, and his name was stricken from the roll of Foreign Service Officials. Sugihara was seen as a "rule-breaker" by his peers, and he had a tough time living in occupied Japan.
In 1984, things changed for Sugihara. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, awarded Sempo Sugihara the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" in recognition of his noble acts. He was honored in Jerusalem where he was met by many of the people he saved. Sugihara died in 1986 at the age of 86.
Sempo Sugihara is a person from whom we all can learn. He stood up for what he believed in when his superiors said otherwise. His altruistic act saved many lives. Mr. Ira Kaye, Holocaust researcher and author, has suggested that the moral of Sugihara's story be: "When faced with a moral dilemma, it is better to ask forgiveness (later) than to seek permission."
Special thanks to Mr. Ira Kaye who is currently writing a book on Holocaust Rescuers and to Mr. William Connelly of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Library who generously shared their information about Sempo Sugihara with me.
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