31 May 2007

'Japanese Schindler' honored in Lithuania

The Independent(UK) reports on the honoring of Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania by Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

For years, few Japanese knew the incredible story of how the man dubbed "Japan's Schindler" saved about 6,000 Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War despite working for an ally of Germany. Unlike Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who turned against the Nazis and rescued almost 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust, Sugihara had to wait until just seven years ago for his bravery to be officially recognised.

Sugihara was the acting consul in Lithuania's temporary wartime capital when he was ordered to abandon his post as the Germans advanced in 1940. A fourth of the city's population was Jewish, mostly prosperous and well integrated, and few were ready to believe the horror stories from nearby Poland until it was too late to flee. By an accident of history the mild-mannered diplomat - one of just two left in the city - became their last hope for survival.

In July 1940, desperate refugees asked him for visas to the Soviet Union. Sugihara asked his superiors in Japan for permission, which was never granted. However, the diplomat, with the help of his wife, went ahead and signed as many as possible.

By the time they boarded a Berlin-bound train on 1 September 1940, still scribbling out the last visa, they had saved about 6,000 people, including hundreds of children. Sugihara's final act in the besieged city was to hand his consular stamp to a refugee, who went on issuing passes.

Dismissed in disgrace from the Foreign Ministry, he worked as a part-time translator and died in 1986. In 1985, Yad Vashem honored Sugihara for rescuing Lithuanian Jews. His family finally received a formal Japanese government apology 14 years later.

Why did he help? The story mentions how moved Sugihara was by an eleven-year-old refugee he met, Zalke Jenkins. "The diplomat spoke afterward at how moved he was by the strength of family bonds in Jewish life, which reminded him of home."

For Sugihara's family, the Emperor's approval is the highest honor Japan can give.

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