When Nobuki Sugihara visited Hong Kong in September, local businessman Glen Steinman finally met the son of the man who had tried to save his mother’s family from extermination in Lithuania, during the second world war.
The meeting, at the University of Hong Kong, was “a very special experience”, says Steinman, an American who has lived in Hong Kong for 25 years and who sits on the board of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, which had invited Sugihara to open the “Asian Righteous Among the Nations” exhibition at HKU. “His father met my grandfather and great uncle – who I never met – and did so under the most extreme circumstances, and took an action without knowing them, to save their lives.”
Nobuki’s father, Chiune Sugihara, was a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of visas to Jews, to help them escape from the advancing Nazis. Steinman’s grandfather and great uncle received visas from Sugihara in 1940, when other consulates and countries had closed their doors to Jews.
BORN IN 1927 IN LODZ, Poland, a city not far from the German border, Steinman’s mother, Irene Dynenson Steinman, was the daughter of Benjamin Dynenson, the manager of one of Poland’s biggest textile companies. The family lived a comfortable life before the war but, on August 31, 1939, the day before the Nazis invaded Poland, they fled northwards along with tens of thousands of other Jews. They arrived as refugees in Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania but, at the time, a Polish city.
With the Soviet Union’s plans for Poland and Lithuania unclear and Germany’s intentions towards Russia uncertain, it was a precarious place to be. Like other refugees, the Dynenson family wanted to leave Europe, to be out of Hitler’s reach, but they were not ready to go – they were waiting for other family members to join them before finalising their plans, and they had to procure forged passports.
On June 15, 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. Refugees were given the option of becoming Soviet citizens or, under certain conditions, leaving the country. For Jews, who feared for their future under the Russians and also the prospect of Germany invading Lithuania – which would happen a year later – leaving seemed the safest option.
But getting out was not easy. Refugees needed a Soviet exit visa, which would be granted only if they could prove they had permission to enter another country. The Dutch honorary consul in Lithuania was willing to grant refugees visas to the island of Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean. But to prove that they could reach Curaçao, the Jews would need a transit visa for a third country.
By early July 1940, with their options rapidly narrowing, a sense of panic spread among the Jewish refugees. The Dynensons learned there was only one escape route. They would have to travel via Japan because only the Japanese consul in the temporary Lithuanian capital, Kaunas, was issuing transit visas. Irene’s father and uncle made their way to the Japanese consulate – and Chiune Sugihara – in the hope of obtaining visas for the family.
VICE-CONSUL SUGIHARA had arrived in Kaunas with his wife, Yukiko, and two young sons to open Japan’s consulate a year earlier. His mission included reporting on German troop movements near the Russian border. Sugihara was a skilled negotiator and linguist, fluent in Russian, German, French and Chinese. Becoming a diplomat had been a dream come true for him, and he had worked hard to get where he was.
Born in 1900, in Mugi district, Gifu prefecture, near Nagoya, Sugihara was the second of six children. His parents had wanted him to become a doctor and arranged for him to sit a medical university entrance exam, but Sugihara wanted to study languages and he was stubborn.
Having fallen out with his father, Sugihara enrolled in a language course but, by his second year, had run out of money. When he saw a foreign ministry advertisement offering applicants the chance to study languages abroad, Sugihara jumped at the opportunity.
He was sent to Harbin, in what was then Manchuria, for three years, to learn Russian, a language he came to love along with the culture. His negotiating skills helped Japan buy the Manchurian Railway from the Soviet Union for a fraction of the asking price. Then, appalled by the way young Japanese soldiers were treating the local Chinese, he asked for a transfer. He returned to Tokyo before being sent to Moscow, but the Russians had not forgotten the ignominy of the railway sale and refused to accept him as a diplomat. Instead, he was posted to Helsinki, Finland, and from there to Kaunas.
By July 1940, Sugihara was busy preparing to close the consulate in Kaunas, on the orders of the Soviets. But his work was interrupted. In a sparse, privately published memoir, written in the 1980s, he describes how.
“It happened in the early morning of July 18, 1940, a day I cannot forget. It was a cloudy morning with lingering summer heat, nothing unusual for a Nordic country along the Baltic Sea where summer passes through at the run every year. Just before 6am, the noise of a crowd suddenly started to come in through a bedroom window of the official residence of the consulate facing the street. The yelling in an incomprehensible language started to get louder as more people started to gather. So I quickly moved to the window and peeked through the edge of the curtain, and noticed about a hundred men and women of all ages leaning against the iron railing making some kind of appeal […] They are all Jews from the cities in Western Poland. They have been running away from the arrests and atrocities of Nazi Germany and heading to Vilno [the Polish name for Vilnius] as the only way of escape and have managed to arrive in Kaunas after walking for days regardless of rain, or along the railway dragging their painful feet, or by borrowing wagons along the way.
“They are asking for transit visas to Japan to migrate to a third country via the Soviet Union and Japan.”
Sugihara met with a delegation of men from the crowd and listened to their stories. Although he was authorised to issue transit visas – not full visas – he realised the scale of the problem and that these were the first of thousands of Jewish refugees who were likely to descend on the consulate in the coming days and weeks. He asked the crowd to wait while he contacted Tokyo for instructions. In the meantime, concerned there might be a riot, he sent his family to the safety of a hotel.
He soon received a response from Tokyo. He was told he could not issue visas unless certain conditions were met: applicants had to have valid travel documents; they had to show they had enough money to support themselves in Japan; and they had to have a guarantor in Japan. Those conditions could not be met by the refugees. He asked again, explaining the situation, and then again, but the response was always the same.
Sugihara had travelled regularly by car through Poland to Berlin, to brief his superior in the German capital’s Japanese embassy, and he knew how the Nazis were treating Jews.
“He didn’t have any contact with the Jewish people, but the situation of Jews, he knew exactly,” says Nobuki, when we meet at the Asia Society, in Admiralty.
Sugihara knew the diplomatic career he so enjoyed was at stake. He believed, however, that the Jews were powerful and talented, and that it was in his country’s interest to treat them well.
“After much self-questioning,” he wrote in his memoir, “I, Consul Sugihara, came to the conclusion that humanitarianism and philanthropism should be the priority. Therefore, I carried out my work faithfully based on this belief at the risk of losing my position.”
Sugihara’s assessment of Jewish power was shared by many in Japan’s government, says Marvin Tokayer, an author, rabbi and recognised authority on the history of the Jews in Asia.
In his book, The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II, Tokayer writes that the Japanese believed the Jews were a major force in America and that their skills as engineers, architects, businessmen and artists could help strengthen Japan and Japanese-held Manchuria.
“The Japanese were not anti-Semites, they wanted to build a strong economy,” says Tokayer, speaking by telephone from his home in New York. “It was good for the Jews and good for the Japanese.”
On July 29, Sugihara began to prepare visas. It was a laborious process. He had to handwrite the lengthy conditions of transit on each passport. Soon, the nib of his pen broke, his fingers blistered and his wrist and shoulder joints ached. The queue of refugees seemed endless.
For the next six weeks, until he left Kaunas, he worked almost non-stop. Even at the station, as the train taking him and his family to Berlin pulled out, he continued to write.
He wrote in his memoir, “[…] I started at the pace of handling the daily average of 300 refugees a day. For the first three days, I recorded a serial number but I soon noticed that it would soon be impossible to handle such large number of refugees coming up. So I stopped recording serial numbers and stopped charging the visa commission for the same reason.”
Sugihara’s list contained 2,139 visa numbers but many more were not listed. Several visas were issued to families, multiplying the number of beneficiaries. Tokayer estimates that at least 100,000 people are alive today because of Sugihara’s visas.
Those who received these transit visas, along with visas to Curaçao and exit papers from the Soviet Union, were allowed to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia to Vladivostok, and from there a ship to Japan. Many went to Kobe, where there was already a Jewish community.
In 1941, as the Japanese prepared to attack Pearl Harbor, the Jews were moved to Shanghai, where many of them survived the war in the Shanghai Ghetto before moving to other countries. None are thought to have reached Curaçao.
Tokayer met Sugihara in the mid-70s. The former diplomat told him that no refugee had contacted him in the intervening years.
“I was shocked to hear that,” says Tokayer. “But they didn’t even know his name.”
Because the visas had been written in Japanese, Sugihara was not easy to identify. It was not until 1968, when an Israeli diplomat who had survived because of a visa issued by Sugihara tracked him down, that his actions came to light.
BORN IN JAPAN AFTER the war, Nobuki Sugihara says his parents never spoke of the visas. All he knew was that his father had been a diplomat during the war. In 1968, Sugihara Snr was working in the Soviet Union for a trading firm. His wife and children remained in Japan and he returned to see them for a week or two each year. It was during one of these visits that his father received an invitation from the Israeli embassy in Tokyo. Sugihara took his 18-year-old son with him.
“I had no idea what the call was for,” Nobuki says. “Father and I went to visit and met the diplomat Joshua Nishri. He said his family had been saved by my father, by receiving a visa in their passport. I think it was Mr Nishri’s parents who received the visa. Slowly, slowly I learnt about it.
“My father said he hoped at least one or two people would survive,” says the silver-haired Nobuki, slowly and deliberately. “He never thought hundreds or thousands of people could survive the journey.”
Following the meeting at the embassy, Sugihara Snr was asked if there was anything the Israelis could do for him. He asked for a university scholarship for his son. A month later, Nobuki moved to Israel. There, he became interested in the diamond business and dropped out of university. Having been a salesman in Israel for 18 years, he moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where he set up his own diamond business and remains to this day, with his wife, Esin Ayirtman-Sugihara, and four daughters.
Explaining his father’s reticence to talk about the visas, Nobuki says he believes Sugihara was deeply disappointed about his treatment after the war, and wanted to put the whole affair behind him. In 1947, the Sugihara family had returned to Japan. Six months later, the diplomat was summoned to the foreign ministry and asked to resign.
“The reason, he said, was, ‘You know the reason,’” Nobuki says. “Nothing was explained. My father said immediately, ‘Yes, OK.’ He signed the resignation paper.
“The memory of the dismissal by the ministry, even though he saved people, this was not really recognised so I think he didn’t want to talk about it. He received a medal before the end of the war, but every diplomat received [one], so it’s not an award – a service medal, I think.
“There was a kind of apology from the ministry of foreign affairs after my father passed away, to commemorate what he did. They made a plaque about my father, and they hung it in a storage room in the ministry. Nobody could see it. It was also the time that Lithuania became independent from the Soviet Union, so it was more a gesture to Lithuania, nothing to do with my father.”
But Nobuki could not forget. He has met dozens of people who owe their lives to Sugihara’s visas. He is gathering as many of these tales as possible, to ensure the truthfulness of his father’s story, which has been told inaccurately in films and books, including, he says, Visas for Life, written by his mother and one of his brothers.
Sugihara died on July 31, 1986, in Kamakura, Japan, at the age of 86. His wife died in 2008 and the two sons who spent a part of their early lives in Lithuania, Hiroki and Chiaki, died in 2000 and 2010, respectively.
Says Nobuki of his father, “When he was 75 or 80, I asked him why he had issued the visas. He said there was no reason not to issue visas. If people ask for help to save their lives, it’s very simple for him … no matter the race or religion.”
But a Sugihara visa did not ensure survival, as Irene Dynenson’s family found to their mortal cost. Once her father and uncle had procured Japanese visas, they believed they would be able to escape.
“I do remember, however, the feeling of elation and hope that we will be able to escape,” wrote Irene many years later. But for reasons they could not ascertain, the family did not receive the crucial exit visas from the Soviets.
“I well remember the feeling of anxiety, anguish and hope as we waited for these visas,” she wrote. “Time was running out.”
As their worry increased, Irene’s parents decided to send her to stay with her cousin in eastern Poland, for a “holiday”. She never saw them again.
Towards the end of her life, Irene learned that her parents, uncle and the rest of her extended family had probably been taken into a forest and shot, either by the Nazis or Lithuanian collaborators. After the war, Irene was reunited with relatives in the US and lived there for the rest of her life.
Steinman, her youngest son, says Sugihara “was an absolutely remarkable human being”.
“He had to make a decision between doing right and wrong, knowing that one would be very, very disadvantageous to his own life and career, and he still chose to do the right thing,” he says.
It’s not hard to imagine how an immigration official would fare today if he were to single-handedly facilitate the arrival of, say, Syrian refugees.
“[Sugihara] did pay a terrible price for his courage, in material and family [terms] – he ended up having to spend so many years living in Russia, he was not a wealthy man at all,” Steinman says. “It was a remarkable act, what he did, to save so many people.”