Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, saved thousands of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Above is a picture of Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko, who will be speaking at the Japanese Cultural Center on April 4.

Isle center to honor
Holocaust hero

Japan's former consul general
saved Jews trying to escape Nazis

By Rosemarie Bernardo

Hundreds of Polish Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught in 1940 huddled in front of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, forcing Consul General Chiune Sugihara to make a moral decision.

They needed visas from Sugihara to escape to Russia and eventually to Japan. The Japanese government denied him permission to issue the transit visas, but Sugihara defied his government and saved up to 6,000 lives.

Today, it is estimated that there are about 40,000 descendants of the refugees Sugihara helped escape Lithuania.

A series of events sponsored by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii will be held next week to honor Sugihara.

Sugihara's widow, Yukiko, will speak about her husband and his heroic acts.

"Here's a man who was extraordinarily understated and had yet overachieved," said Rabbi Avid Magid of Temple Emanu-El.

Despite his worries about his family's safety and the likelihood of ending his career, Sugihara believed it was an ethical and moral thing to do to help the Polish Jewish refugees, according to Jewish historians. For 29 days the Japanese diplomat and his wife wrote and signed visas.

When Sugihara was ordered to go to Berlin, he continued to issue hundreds of visas to the refugees from his hotel room and through his train window as he left the country.

Waialae Nui resident Seymour Kazimirski, whose mother, Ann, is a Holocaust survivor, said: "Especially in these times, we find people of different nationalities helping other people. He's an example of what the world should be.

"Even though the Japanese were not our allies during World War II, here's an example of a man who understood the importance of saving lives," said Kazimirski, who will be a panelist at one of the Sugihara events.

A copy of a transit visa that Chiune Sugihara issued to thousands of Polish Jews in Lithuania during the German invasion of Poland.

Sugihara and his family were imprisoned at an internment camp in Romania after the war. When he returned to Japan in 1947, he was dismissed from diplomatic service for issuing the visas.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Sugihara would say, "I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn't I would be disobeying God."

"Those people told me the kind of horror they would have to face if they didn't get away from the Nazis, and I believed them. There was no place else for them to go. They trusted me. They recognized me as a legitimate functionary of the Japanese Ministry. If I had waited any longer, even if permission came, it might have been too late," he told Stars and Stripes in 1985.

Sugihara has often been referred to as "Japan's Schindler." However, Kazimirski said he would not compare Sugihara to Oskar Schindler, who employed Jewish people at his factory during the Holocaust.

"With Mr. Sugihara, he was a very special case. Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko, believed it was their moral duty to save the Jews. This was very different from what they were told to do," he said.

"He was shunned afterward because he didn't follow orders. He took it upon himself to escape the tyranny and was totally against the will of the government. That in itself makes him a total different person."

In 1985, Sugihara was honored by Israel's Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' Remembrance Authority with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations." A year later, he died at his home near Tokyo.

"Here's a man who for 40 years had no idea that the visas he had given had been honored. It wasn't until 1985 that he realized it," said Magid. "It wasn't until 1985 that people have realized what he had done."

For more information on Chiune Sempo Sugihara, go to the Jewish Virtual Library's Web site at

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