Rear Window: The Japanese Schindler: Thousands saved by an honourable consul

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The Independent Online
JULY 1940: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway had fallen to the Germans; Hitler was preparing his attack on Britain, and Italy had entered the war on his side. In the east, Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, Russian troops occupied much of Finland and Stalin had seized the Baltic states.

For Jews in Lithuania - residents and the many refugees who had flooded in to join them - it seemed there was no escape. A young Dutch Jew, however, identified a long and unlikely route to freedom. He wanted to cross the Soviet Union to Japan (which had not yet entered the war) in the hope of eventually reaching America. He knew the Russians would not allow him in unless he had a permit for onward travel to Japan, and the Japanese would not issue such a permit without proof that the traveller had an ultimate destination that would accept him. It was impossible to get hold of American papers.

The young Dutchman identified a loophole: the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao, almost alone in the world at this time, did not require an entry visa. He persuaded the Dutch consul to put a stamp in his passport stating this fact. Then he presented himself at the Japanese consulate and asked for a transit visa on the basis that he needed to pass through Japan on his way to Curacao. The visa - in effect, a passport through the Soviet Union and Japan to possible safety in America - was granted.

An escape route had been found. Word spread quickly among Jews in Lithuania and three days later, on 27 July, a crowd laid siege to the Japanese consulate.

The consul's name was Chiune Sugihara. He had been in Lithuania for almost a year but he knew little about visa matters because his real job was to spy on military activities. He had issued one visa to the young Dutchman without demur, but he was now confronted with hundreds of requests. Three times over the next few days he cabled the foreign ministry asking for permission to issue the visas, and three times his request was denied.

By 1 August, however, he had made up his mind to do 'what we as human beings should do', as he put it later. For a month, he worked day and night writing visas. When the Russians, angry at what was going on, closed the consulate, Sugihara continued to issue transit papers from his hotel. Even as he and his family left Lithuania by train, he was still handing visas out of the window to pleading refugees on the platform.

On their own these documents could not guarantee a passage to America but they offered Jews a chance. Many took it and reached safety. It has been estimated that Sugihara issued 1,600 visas in August 1940. Given that many more were later forged and that one visa was often served for a whole family, it is possible that this one Japanese diplomat enabled as many as 6,000 people to escape the Holocaust.

Sugihara spent the rest of the war in diplomatic posts around Europe and was eventually repatriated to Japan in 1947. There he was called to the foreign ministry and fired. 'It was specifically because I went against their policy and issued the visas to the Jews seven years earlier,' he recalled later.

It was not until 1968 that his actions were acknowledged, thanks to the efforts of some of those he had saved, and in the years that followed he received a succession of honours from Israeli bodies and Jewish organisations.

He died in 1986. A further five years passed before Japan saw the light about Chiune Sugihara. In 1991 the foreign ministry apologised to Sugihara's widow for firing her husband and the then Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, admitted in parliament that the country's treatment of Sugihara had been 'very regretful'.

This proved the catalyst for Japan's belated discovery of its unassuming war hero. There was soon a play, a school book and a television dramatisation of the Sugihara story, and in his home town a park has been dedicated to his memory.

(Photographs omitted)