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The incredible story of a Japanese diplomat who saved countless Jews during WWII

No amount of words could be stringed together to paint the abominable and horrifying Holocaust. Blood of innocent children was shed, families were torn apart, and dreams were shattered into pieces.

Despite it all, each cloud has its silver lining. One of the most horrifying events in human history was able to bring out people who took responsibility to help others.

Most people would not dare to risk their safety and comfortable life in exchange for helping others. Fortunately, there are people whose heart is full of kindness, compassion, and bravery. Thanks to this kindhearted people, thousands of lives were saved.

Chiune Sugihara, the first diplomat of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, is a perfect example of a person with a courageous golden heart.

He risked his career, future, and life in order to save 6,000 Jews. However, due to his selfless decision, he lost his job while his fellow countrymen lost their respect for him.

When the Germans invaded Poland, a number of Jews sought refuge in Lithuania. In order for the refugees to escape from Hitler’s hands, they needed transit visas.

Without these visas in their possession, finding a country willing to accept them is an impossible dream. On top of this, only a few countries issued a transit visa back then, one of those was the Foreign Ministry of Japan.

Equipped with this knowledge in their minds, thousands of Jews rushed outside the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania in hopes of acquiring a transit visa. Chinue Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat during this dire time, awakened to a crowd of Jews crying out for the piece of document that could add days to their life.

In order to sign numerous transit visas, Chinue Sugihara followed proper procedure and asked for permission from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Unfortunately, permission to allow Chinue to issue transit visas to Jews were denied three times. The Japanese Diplomat found himself facing one of the most difficult decisions he had to make. Would he follow the authority and keep his job, or would he choose to grant transit visas that could potentially save the lives of people? 

Being a man of conscience, Chinue did what he had thought was the right thing to do. He issued transit visas to the Jewish refugees, defying the order of higher authorities.

Chinue granted a 10-day transit visa to a great number of Jews. A lot of times, he signed and provided transit visas even to those without complete documents and travel money. In fact, Chinue and his wife were working day and night in order to issue 300 transit visas every day.

From July to August of 1940,  he was able to sign transit visas to an estimate of more than 3,000 people. These transit visas also covered an additional estimate of 300 people who are mostly children. According to some accounts, he continued signing blank transit visas even on the day he was leaving Lithuania.

When the train he was boarding was about to leave, he threw all of the blank transit visas out from his window train for the Jews who desperately needed it.

Chinue was transferred in Prague, then, later on, he and his family were imprisoned in Romania for two years. And in the year 1947, upon returning to Japan, his home country, he was forced to resign from the government.

According to his wife, Yukiko, the Foreign Ministry admitted that he was being dismissed due to his disobedience in Lithuania.

When Chinue was dismissed from his government service, he also lost the respect and admiration his fellow countrymen had for him.

In order to provide for his family, the man of conscience had taken various jobs. He tried to sell light bulbs door to door and later began to work for a Japanese trading company in Moscow, leaving his family in Japan.

Years later, Jehoshua Nishri, one of the beneficiaries of the transit visa Chinue had issued in Lithuania, reached out to him. In the year 1969, Chinue visited Israel and there he was welcomed with warmth and gratitude by the Israeli Government.

In the same year, the lives he was able to save lobbied for the recognition of his bold heroism. And in 1984, he was officially recognized with a distinction of ‘Righteous Among the Nations,‘ an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save the Jews during the Holocaust.

45 years after making the most important decision he had ever made, Moshe Zupnik asked Chinue about the reason why he chose to help and save the Jewish refugees. Chinue answered nonchalantly, “I do it just because I have pity on the people. They want to get out so I let them have the visas.”

Chinue recalled the events that he had witnessed in Lithuania.  It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes…”

In the end, I made my decision as a human being. I thought it through all night long. What I did might have been wrong as a diplomat. Still, I couldn’t abandon those thousands of people depending on me. I did not do anything special- I just did what I had to do. 

“People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.” Chinue added.

Imagine, if Chinue Sugihara did not listen to his conscience, thousands of people who are alive today would not live. If he had chosen to keep his mouth shut, if he had decided to keep a blind eye, a big difference would not be made. Because he chose to be a man of conscience, a man of courage who refused to walk away, thousands lived.

Watch Chinue Sugihara’s inspiring story below, and may he teach each and every one of us to have the courage it takes to stand up for what is just and do what is kind, in all kinds of time.

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