Interview with Chiune Sugihara, recorded on August 4, 1977, in a Moscow hotel by Mr. Michinosuke Kayaba,the bureau chief of Fuji TV, Moscow
Reproduced with the courtesy of Takaharu Furue, director of the Port of Humanity Museum, Tsuruga, Japan
Sugihara: In the spring of 1939 I was transferred from Helsinki to Kaunas. I was to open the consulate in Kaunas and work as the first consul there.
Q: How many people were working at the consulate?
Sugihara: No one.
Q: so you were alone?
Sugihara: I was alone. However I was told by Tokyo that they could send me staff if I requested. Be that as it may, there was not much to do so if I even got more staff, I would be looking out for them and work would not be that interesting. So I did not ask Tokyo to send me people. I thought I would wait and see, and stayed there for a year. A consulate is originally intended for Japanese people living there or those who work, trade, pass through or visit as tourists, but there were no Japanese people there. And the people there had never seen a Japanese person before.
Q: How old were you then?
Sugihara: I was 38. I was born in 1900. I did not request additional staff, but instead recruited locally to operate the consulate.
Q: Then the Great Patriotic War [the term used in the Soviet Union for World War II] started...
Sugihara: Jews fled...They came in droves through ....Vilnius. When they got to Vilnius, they heard about the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, and they came to my place in waves. I didn't know what to do. I had just been ordered by the Soviet government to get out of the country, so I had to sort out everything in the consulate. Although we had a small place, we had arrived the previous year and had settled in the place. We had three small children and one baby. That's where they rushed to telling me that they had nowhere else to go. They asked me to issue visas that would allow them to pass through the country so that they could go to other countries via Japan. Then I spoke to Japan about this and that, but Tokyo stubbornly refused to allow it. They told me that it was out of the question and that I should not get involved. We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence.
Q: How many people?
Sugihara: there were about 4,500 people…. Initially I recorded the numbers, but after a hundred it became tedious, so I stopped.
Q: Up to the 100th visa you prepared the documents on your own?
Sugihara: yes, indeed. There was an official… There was an official stamp used for the visa, and it contained the words VISA and my name. But I had to write by hand where the visa would allow a person to go to and that it allowed the person to go through Japan. To put it simply, each of the visas and the documents were not perfect. The people applying for the visa brought in all kind of documents that were not passports, for they had had to flee at once. That is why if they had a document with various conditions written on it, they could go through Japan. There was no need to let them into Japan unless they were on a conditional visit.
Q: What kind of conditions?
Sugihara: A lot of it was handwriting work. As you know, a transit visa is just for passing through a country. One must have a visa to enter the country which is one's final destinations. We had to ensure that someone would not pretend to pass through Japan, stay in Japan, become homeless and be in police custody. Unless there is proof that a person's final destination is another country, it was most likely that a person would stay in Japan. Most such people would be found to have reported to the consulate in Kobe or Yokohama. They would say that their relatives in America would support them. Some people who came to me also showed me all kind of things including such letters.
Their destinations included Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and America, but for about a third of them the destination was Curacao. They said they were going to Curacao. I had to look up where it was and found it in South America near Cuba. However it is a Dutch territory. When I asked if there is a dock there, they said that there is one, but they have no border control . They had come to me for a visa aiming to enter a country that has no border control. I wondered where they got such information and found out later that the information came from a person in Kaunas who was the honorary consul of the Netherlands. Some said that since Curacao is a Dutch territory, a lot of visas were issued for some fee. However.....
Q: After they got the visa from you, how did they go to Japan?
Sugihara: I think they went through central Asia to get to Irkutsk, Nakhodka or Vladivostok. Probably Vladivostok, since there is a Japanese ship that runs between Vladivostok and Tsuruga, they probably used that service. Around the time I was telegramming Tokyo with a request to allow me to issue the visas and being told not to do so, I got complaints from Tsuruga, Vladivostok and Japan...., saying that I can't send them so many refugees and that there is little room on the ship. They said it would be dangerous for the passengers to be sleeping on the deck. But I did not listen to such things. That is how they went to Tsuruga via Siberia and Vladivostok. In Japan the police, or to put it precisely, the Ministry of Home Affairs did not know what to do and complained to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I know it was a problem, but I couldn't help it. I told them it was a matter of humanity. I didn't care if I was axed. Someone else would have done the same thing if they were in my place. There was no other way. Then the Jews arrived in Japan via Siberia and Tsuruga, and they were taken in by the Jews of Kobe, who established a refugee committee to look after them. I head there was such an organization.
Q: when did the situation reach its peak?
Sugihara: The peak came when I had just closed the consulate and was about the get out of the country on the international train to Berlin before the September 1st deadline. It lasted about two weeks. Workers came to my place about a week before my departure to pack our things. I was still working while they packed. As the packing progressed, I had to have the boxes removed from the house as it got so cluttered. About three days before departure, we moved to the Metropolis. I was working throughout the day as consul but found refugees coming to see me regardless of what I was doing. They came to see me at such times. They even came to see me on the morning of the 1st at the Kaunas station platform where we were departing from. I didn't know what to do for I just couldn't say no to them.
Q: So you issued visas on the platform as well?
Sugihara: I signed papers for five or six people on the platform. About a few years ago the economic counselor of Israel by the name of Nishri, whom I met in Tokyo, showed me his passport with the visa I had issued.
Q: You say 4,500. but is that the total number of people you issued visas for?
Sugihara: 4,500. that's the total.
Q: Did you have to refuse some of them?
Sugihara: I don't remember refusing anyone, so I probably issued a visa to everyone.