Seeing news that Israel has named a street after Chiune Sugihara, I thought I’d repost what I wrote about him in law school:
There was another excellent show on PBS this evening on Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who wrote visas for thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II. He suffered for his actions personally afterwards – his foreign career effectively destroyed as a punishment (a true shame, given his remarkable linguistic and cultural acclimation skills) – but today thousands and thousands of people and their descendants are alive because of his sacrifice, to risk sanction from his superiors and write all those visas.
The show was also interesting to me on another point: examining the relationship between the Jews and the Japanese. In particular it explained a comment I had heard in my family that previously had no explanation.
I’ve written before about my great-grandmother’s brothers who had escaped Russia in the early 1900s by running east to China. There they settled in Harbin, a city full of expatriate Europeans, including many other Jews. They thrived there, even through World War II. And that was the comment – that the Japanese treated the Jews very well. Unfortunately during that period the Japanese army treated the Chinese people very poorly, which is why there was such confused marveling over why my relatives had no problems themselves.
There seems to be two explanations: one, that there were industrialists in Japan who actively wanted to settle Jews in China, to develop industry using their skills and education. In fact, at one point the Japanese, at the urging of these industrialists, offered to Jewish leaders that it would accept all the European Jewish refugees, with or without passports, so that they could settle in Japanese territory. This offer, however, was unfortunately declined by an American Jewish leader in the misplaced hope that if the European Jews had no viable options left, Roosevelt would step in and finally let them come to the United States and England would let them enter Palestine. Sadly neither of these things came to pass. Boatloads of refugees were turned back at Palestine, many to end up immediately shipped off to concentration camps upon return to Europe, and largely at the urging of anti-Semites in the State Department, America’s borders stayed shut as well.
The other explanation stems from a conversation between Japanese officials, by then allied with the Germans, and a Jewish leader representing the large population of Lithuanian refugees who by now were temporarily settled in Tokyo. Their numbers and the irregularities surrounding their immigration were cause of some concern to the Japanese officials, and Germany was heavily lobbying for Japan to adopt its policies of Jewish extermination. So the Japanese officials asked the Jewish leaders why they should not abide by the Germans’ wishes.
“Because we are all Asians,” was the response. You from the eastern side in Japan, and we from the western in [Israel]. Besides, when the Germans talk about the population they aspire to have, it is all Aryan. It’s all about blonde hair and blue eyes, which the Japanese don’t have. Believe us, they said, when they’re done with us they’ll come for you next.
Whether this explanation was the reason or not, the Japanese chose to resist the Germans’ urgings and let the refugees stay. And Mr. Sugihara was eventually vindicated by history, being honored by the survivors, the State of Israel, and also his native Japan. In Israel, like Schindler, he is known as a righteous person, and more people should know of his deeds.
Originally posted May 5, 2005. I then had a sad update about his widow here.