History had many unsung heroes. Individuals who rose to the occasion in nearly impossible circumstances but are rarely talked about. January 27th was Holocaust Memorial Day. This year one such individual is finally being recognized, Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat during World War II. He would go on to save thousands of Jewish people from a fate most could not escape.
During a time when most of the major world powers were at war, Sugihara had placed himself in the epicenter of what would be one of the darkest moments in history. Adolf Hitler had just come into power in 1942. His hateful and racist rhetoric of the Jewish people resonated through out Nazi Germany. Soon after, Hitler would go onto enslave, starve, torture, and kill millions of Germany’s Jewish citizens.
One family who had fortunately escaped the grasps of Hitler’s attempted genocide were the Lewins. Nathan Lewin credits his and his family’s safety to Sugihara and his bravery. More importantly, Sugihara’s empathy and the plight for the Jewish people.
Prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Lewin’s mother was born in the Netherlands region. Here she would eventually attend the University of Berlin. Soon after she would go on to marry a Polish Jew, Lewin’s father and immigrate to Poland. At this time Lewin’s mother became particularly vigilant of Hitler and his motives.
“She made my father promise that when and if Hitler crossed the border into Poland, we would immediately try to escape and leave Poland.” Said Lewin, now 84, in a Zoom interview with Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post.
The hyper-vigilance of Lewin’s mother is ultimately what had saved herself and her family from catastrophic tragedy.
Before they would be in the clear, Lewin’s family needed visas to help them transit safely. It was at this moment the family was told of a Japanese diplomat who would be able to assist. Sugihara was fluent in Russian; and had been sent to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas to observe the moments of Soviet Troops.
The Lewins arrived at the Japanese Consulate in late July 1940. Sugihara’s superiors refused to help provide travel documents to the Jewish family. However, this did not deter Sugihara from doing the right thing and helping the Lewins regardless. Because of this defiant act of kindness, the Lewins were able to take a train across Siberia to Japan. The family would eventually reside in New York City.
Sugihara would go on to provide more than 2,000 visas for any Jewish persons who would show up to his office. Reportedly spending 20 hours a day writing as many visas as possible before his imminent departure.
Sugihara continued the remainder of his life living in anonymity. Prior to his death in 1986, he was contacted by a visa recipient in 1968. He would be honored with the Righteous Among the Nations title. An accolade which is given to non-Jews who selflessly risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.