If You Save the Life of One Person: The Sugihara Family Story

May 8, 2016

 

As the dawn light streamed through the window, young mother Yukiko Sugihara heard the first disturbance interrupting her quiet morning.

 

Frantic voices began calling out. She froze, and then moved to the curtains, twitching aside a panel to look out.

 

One hundred people stood at the front gate of their home, the Japanese diplomatic consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her husband, Chiune, soon joined her at the window. They stood together, looking out into the overcast morning of late July 1940.

 

The voices continued to rise and fall like turbulent ocean waves. Pleading words came from men, women and children of all ages. Yukiko found one similarity in the expressions on all the faces.

 

Desperation.

 

Yukiko looked up into the face of her husband now. As the Deputy Consul General representing Japan, he was a rising star in diplomatic circles. No one appreciated her husband’s intelligence, compassion and artistic spirit more than she did, as she had a similar nurturing and artistic bent.

 

 The former Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania

 

Yukiko’s hand made a fist as she gripped the curtain. She understood that everything they believed in would be put on the line from now on. As a couple, they had wanted to make a positive difference in a world gone mad with war. They also wanted to take good care of their own family of three young sons and watch out for their safety.

 

One hundred choices stood before her as she looked out the window, weighing these lives against the lives of her own sons. She knew why the frantic and terrified people had come to her home.

 

They needed a way out.

 

 Refugees outside the Kaunas consulate in 1940

 

Word of atrocities committed by Germany against the Jewish population had been reaching the outside world. She could now see the faces of those who might be killed—the children clinging to their mothers and the wrinkled faces of the grandmothers.

 

After Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, those of Jewish heritage fled if they could. Now a group of desperate refugees stood outside the gate in front of her.

 

Her husband had become “increasingly worried about the brutality of the Nazis in their occupation of Northern Poland.” He believed “that the Jews were suffering cruelly.”*

 

The reality of that suffering now faced them. Turning away from the window, she knew the growing group of refugees had come to appeal for transit visas. These visas would provide a way of escape from the Nazi’s plans to murder them.

 

Her husband could issue those visas.

 

With characteristic resolve and compassion,  Chiune took action by applying to the Japanese government for permission to issue the life-saving visas. The government said no. Two more times he asked the government to change its mind. Each time the government replied with an emphatic denial.

 

Chiune called a family meeting with his wife and three young sons. Yukiko now faced a gut-wrenching decision. Should the family defy the government they had sworn to serve? Yet the faces would not leave her mind.

 

Their decision that day would affect all of them. Going against their country’s expressed wishes could have far-reaching consequences. It would certainly put her husband’s career in jeopardy, leaving them to struggle for necessities as well as their identity and place in the world.

 

Yukiko knew it could also place her young sons in physical danger. It was the hardest decision a mother would be called on to make.

 

The family made a unanimous choice that day. They would defy the government and help the men, women and children outside their home escape almost certain death

 

Chiune began writing out visas like a man who was literally driven by life and death. He wrote the complicated visas all day, seven days a week. He also wrote late into the night, his hand cramping so badly that Yukiko had to massage it in order for him to continue.

 

 A visa issued in 1940 by Chiune Sugihara

 

In less than one month, he wrote out by hand 2,000 transit visas to Jewish families.

 

 

Finally forced to leave their post in Lithuania, the Sugiharas boarded a train to exit the country. As the train left the station, he tossed more life-saving documents through the window into the waiting hands of the refugees.

 

After the end of World War II, Chiune Sugihara, the young father with so much potential in the diplomatic corps, was summarily dismissed for what the government called his “incident in Lithuania.” He indeed struggled in obscurity to find his place in the world, often separated from his family. For many years, the Sugihara’s courageous efforts went unrecognized.

 

Then, in the late 1960s, Chiune was found by Yehoshua Nishri.  He had escaped using one of the visas Chiune had written during that desperate month and had long wanted to thank him. More and more survivors began testifying to Yad Vashem in Israel about what Chiune and the Sugihara family had done for them.

 

In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was honored as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for his extraordinary effort to save Jewish lives during World War II.

 

 

A year later, on another late July day in 1986, Chiune Sugihara passed away. No longer shrouded in obscurity, his name and identity are now associated with the light of courage, compassion and an unselfish act of far-reaching kindness.

 

From the 100 individuals Yukiko and Chiune first saw on that overcast summer day in 1940, the numbers grew to the thousands. The Sugihara family helped save 6,000 people who would otherwise most likely have perished in the Holocaust. Today, the descendants of the “Sugihara Survivors” who found life through their efforts is estimated to be 100,000 souls.

 

Yukiko Sugihara

 

This Jewish proverb is most associated with the heartrending decision a young mother helped make on that summer day:

 

“If you save the life of one person, it is as if you saved the world entire.”

 

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