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Visit to 'righteous Gentile' in Japan yields greater understanding: Interview with Yukiko Sugihara,  Scarsdale Inquirer, July 26, 1990

Last summer I visited Yukiko Sugihara at her house in Kamakura, Japan. She is the widow of Senpo Sugihara, who saved thousands of Jews during World War Two while acting in his capacity as Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania. I learned about him a few years ago at the Wiesenthal Holocaust Center, where he is described as a one of the righteous Gentiles.

79 years old Yukiko Sugihara was waiting for me with a smile when I got there and thanked me for coming all the way to see her.  I told her how deeply I felt about her husband's courageous act and how happy I was to finally meet her.  After settling down in her living room, I asked her the questions that have intrigued me ever since I learned about her husband. How was it possible to issue Japanese transit visas to Jewish people while his own governinent was allied with Hitler's Gerniany? What made him decide to act against orders of his superiors when they were considered "absolute"?
"Before answering your questions," Sugihara said, "I like to tell you a little more about our experiences during that time.  Then you will probably understand how and why he did what he did."

”It all started early in the morning of July 27, 1940, when our consulate office was surrounded by a large crowd of people," she related.  "One of their representatives told my husband that they were Polish Jews who had escaped from Poland and needed Japanese transit visas to go to Curasao. They showed him documents issued by the Dutch consulate which permitted them to emigrate to Curacao.
"The idea of their going to Curacao apparently came from a Dutch consul in Kovno who was very sympathetic to their plight," she said. "He knew that in order to go to Curacao they had to go through Japan.  Once they arrived in Japan, he figured, they could then go to the US or Palestine.
"When my husband jokingly asked the Dutch consul if there were any harbors to receive large ships in Curacao, he answered with a smile that he didn't know anything about harbors, but he was absolutely certain that there were no customs officers there."
She continued: "If only a few visas were needed, my husband could have issued them without asking his superiors, but when people were coming by the hundreds, that was beyond his authority.  He sent a few urgent messages to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo explaining the situation and asked their permmison to let him issue all the requested visas.  He assured the government that these people had a clear destination and therefore had no intention of staying in Japan.  The Foreign Ministry turned down his request each time.  Its reason of refusal was ostensibly that they were afraid Japan's security would be jeopardized by a large number of foregners; passing through the country while it was at war.

"That made my husband feel that he had no choice but to act against his own government.  He told me that if he turned his back against those who needed his help, he would betray his beliefs as a Christian.  He had been christened at a Russian Orthodox church years earlier, when he was a student in Harbin.  He also told me that he might lose his job or might be taken by the Germans.  With three young children, aged 5, 3 and an infant, in our hands, I knew his decision was a very difficult one, so when he asked me what I thought, I told him that he made the right decision and we would follow him wherever he had to go.

"Early the next morning he visited the Russian consulate in Kovno. He explained to the consul what he was going to do for the Jewish people and asked him to issue transit visas so they could go to Japan through the Soviet Union.  Without Soviet visas, Japanese transit visas alone wouldn't work because people had to go through the Soviet Union to reach Japan.  To his relief, the Russian consul agreed with my husband's request."
"From that moment to the day we were expelled from Kovno by the Soviet Government a month later, he slept very little," she said. "He wanted to issue as many visas as possible in a limited time because he knew that his days in Kovno were numbered. Shortly after the first Jewish people came to him, Lithuania was formally annexed by the Soviet Union and he had orders from both the Japanese and Soviet Governments to leave the country immediately. He ignored the orders as long as he could, and when he was finally forced to evacuate the office, he continued to issue visas from our hotel room.

"After staying in the hotel for a few days we went to the Kovno station to catch the train to Berlin where he had been ordered to go.  Even there, many people were waiting for him, so he continued writing until the moment the train left the station. When the train finally started to move, he bowed deeply to the remaining people and asked their forgiveness for not being able to help them."

After 50 years, Sugihara said she still couldn’t forget the faces of those who stood stupified with grief at the platform. "My husband wrote over 4000 visas during that month," she said. "For this we were sure he would be fired when we went to Berlin, but nobody mentioned anything about it, and instead he was immediately posted to Prague. Six months afterwards, he wa s sent to Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) in Germany, and one and a half years later to Bucharest, Romania, where we stayed for the next three years. During all this time he worked as a Japanese consul."
Three days after Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, the family was taken by the Soviet Union and in­terned along with other diplomatic families of the defeated nations. After living in several camps they returned to Japan in 1947. 

"It was then that my husband was told that he had no post in the Foreign Ministry," Sugihara related.  "His disorderly conduct caught up with him seven years after the incident.  Apparently during the war the government could not afford to fire a person like my husband, who spoke Russian fluently. He also spoke English well."

"Life was tough for most of the people in those days, but for a person like my husband, whod spent most of his career as a diplomat in foreign countries, finding a new job in postwar Japan was particularly difficult," she said. "While we were suffering to make ends meet, cancer took our youngest son, who'd been born in Kovno.  He was only 7 years old, and we couldn't even give him an adequate funeral.  It was the hardest period in our lives.  Despite the hardships, however, my husband never regretted what he did. He never protested to the government either."
Senpo Sugihara later found a job in a US Army PX and a few years afterward moved to a private trading company, where he worked in its Moscow office until he retired.

"After our life had finally settled down a bit," his widow said, "my husband and I talked from time to time about those people whom we'd met in Kovno. We wondered what happened to them, but there was no way of knowing.  Then in 1967, 28 years after that summer, a man called my husband from the Israeli Embassy.  When they met he showed him an old visa which was issued in Lithuania.  He told my husband that he went to Palestine through Japan and that he, along with many others who'd escaped the Nazis the same way he did, had been looking for my husband for a long time. The Japanese Foreign Ministry apparently told them that they didn't have my husbancr s name in their past staff list.
"You can't imagine how happy we were to hear his story. We felt our hardship was truly rewarded. We were reunited with many other people from' that day on. My husband was later invited to Israel by the Israeli Government.  He also received various awards from Jewish organizations in the United States."

"Now, coming back to your questions about why it was possible to issue visas to Jews" she said.  "It was possible because my husband disobeyed his orders. He disobeyed because he felt he had to do it.  His beliefs did not let him see any other way.  And, thanks to these beliefs, now I am enjoying the wonderful gift he had left me. Four years after he died, many people are still visiting me and inviting me to come.  The people had told, us when we parted in Kovno that if they survived they would see us again, and they sure have remembered what they promised. Besides, a person like you also came all the way from' the States to see me."

She smiled again and patted my shoulders.  Her elegant and fragile appearance did not' deceive me.  I knew I was talking to a woman who stood firmly behind her husband and let him carry his beliefs throughout his life. For this, I thought, Yukiko Sugihara is a true heroine as much as Senpo Sugihara was a true hero.

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