Even though I often brag about how many things I know about the country that has been hosting me for the last few years, I only recently came across a fascinating story featuring Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) or “Sempo”, a diplomat who thanks to his uncommon for the time language skills (English, Russian and German) served in Eastern Europe from 1939 to 1947 and who was Japan’s Vice-Consul in Lithuania from 1939 to 1941. Even though his life was rather quiet (in fact, after his resignation from the diplomatic corps he did various menial jobs and even immigrated to the Soviet Union) the time he served in Lithuania he came to be one of the heroes of the country’s Jewish population.
Seeing the desperation of Lithuanian Jews after the invasion of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the pogroms, Sugihara decided to ignore the orders he had from his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and started issuing exit visas to Japan for any Jew appearing at the Consulate. From July 18 until September 4, 1940 the day the Consulate was shut down and he left Lithuania, he handwrote 6000 visas and gave them to as many families ensuring that a still undetermined number of refugees (some estimate them up to 40,000 people) managed to escape certain death.
What is even more impressive is that nothing of all these became widely known in Japan until his funeral; that day his family and acquaintances were astounded seeing a big delegation of Jews from all over the world attending to pay their respects. And say goodbye to the man who even from his departing train was throwing bank papers with his seal and signature so people could make them into visas while at the same time apologizing for not being able to write more.