The Courage to Defy
Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Consul in Kovno
"I may have to disobey the government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.”
Following the German attack on Poland and the beginning of the persecution of the Jews there, many fled eastwards; some 15,000 Jews from Poland reached Lithuania. Caught between the Nazis and the Soviets, they were desperately seeking ways to emigrate.
Chiune-Sempo Sugihara, a Japanese career diplomat, arrived in Lithuania in 1939, when the country was still independent. 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. Although he was about to leave his post and could have very well ignored the request, Sugihara agreed to meet with the delegation for a brief conversation. The Jewish delegation had come with a desperate request: as it had become practically impossible to obtain immigration visas to anywhere in the world, the only possibility was to go to Curacao – a Dutch colony – that required no entry visas, but they needed Japanese transit visas in order to obtain permission to cross the Soviet Union.
The Japanese consul cabled his superiors in the foreign ministry of Japan, asking for instructions, but, troubled by the refugees' plight, began issuing visas at his own initiative. He did not stop, even when he received a negative response from Tokyo. Within a brief span of time before the consulate was closed down and Sugihara had to leave Kaunas, thousands of Jews received visas. It is said that he was stamping passports even at the railway station, as he was leaving Lithuania.
Eleven months later the small window of escape was slammed shut. Lithuania was occupied by Germany, and the majority of the Jews in that country were murdered.
On October 4, 1984, Yad Vashem recognized Chiune Sugihara as Righteous Among the Nations.