In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaustby Hillel Levine, Carla Bolte (Designed by)
Levine tells the fascinating story of Chiune Sugihara, the "Japanese Schindler"--an obscure World War II diplomat who saved more than 10,000 Jews. Sugihara, a mild-mannered bureaucrat, decided to issue transit visas to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler--risking his career by directly violating official Japanese policy. photos.
Raoul Wallenberg, Oscar Schindler, and others have been justly celebrated as selfless gentile saviors of countless Jews during the Holocaust. In recent years, the name of the elusive Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (a.k.a. "Sempo Sugiwara" and "Sergi Pavelovitch") has been added to that remarkable roll. Sugihara's widow and son have reported that he rescued 6,000 Jews from certain slaughter. Levine sets the figure at 10,000. No matter. After two generations, numbers go only so far. As one of "Sugihara's Jews," displaying family photos, told the author, "I am thirty-seven people!" The rescue operation took place over a few summer days in 1940 in the Lithuanian town of Kovno. There, against all the strictures of his government and of diplomatic convention, the courtly, mysterious Sugihara issued transit visas to anyone who asked. The US consulate and that of Great Britain found reasons not to help the fugitives caught between the Nazis to the west and the Soviets to the east. Only the Dutch were cooperative. On the basis of considerable research, including interviews with survivors, friends, and relatives, official records, and Sugihara's scant memoirs, Levine presents the available facts along with much supposition and tangled, peripheral history. Why did this singular civil servant come to perform an act so selfless as to assure his place in history? Was it a conspiracy of altruism or simply the banality of goodness, as Levine puts it? The question, always worth asking, is unanswerable.
Despite an occasional lack of discipline in Levine's telling (including abrupt, inexplicable switches of tense from past to present and back again), Sugihara's story is ultimately a fascinating addition to Holocaust literature and a valuable historical footnote.
- Free Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.62(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.08(d)
Read an Excerpt
Sugihara Sr. moved around a good deal in the years immediately following the war, perhaps because of his own idiosyncrasies or the awkwardness of being a tax collector. With increasing bureaucratization of the Emperor's tax system, assignments were shifted to maximize utility rather than to maintain personal relations. In 1907, the Sugiharas lived in Kuwana City in Mie Prefecture. In the same year they moved to Gifu City, where Chiune attended the Nakatsu Elementary School. In April 1909, at the beginning of the Japanese school year, the Sugiharas relocated to nearby Nagoya, where Chiune attended the Huruwatari School. In 1912, he completes sixth grade; his report card from that year indicates he is a straight-A student and he misses only two days of classes. In 1917, he graduates from the Higi Fifth Junior High School in Aichi Prefecture.
The record is tiresomely sparse, of course. We see that Sugihara moved around a lot and got good grades. But we still know so little as to what went on in his mind. Some facts, some forces it's not enough. If we are to understand anything about his subsequent actions in Kaunas, we must know something about his personality or as some, including Chiune himself, might have called it, his soul.
Perhaps in our pursuit of Sugihara, then, we must consider other methods by which to give chase. We have touched on the alleys and rice paddies of Yaotsu, the conflicts within a modernizing Japan, the play of international relations. What influential legends, even movies, may have shaped his early thinking and aspirations?
It is an afternoon in 1907, at a first showing of The Forty-Seven Ronin, filmed on the new movie back lots inKyoto. This is an epic tale of Japan, first published in the early eighteenth century and since studied by young people for edification and inspiration. It is also based on a true story. Even for the children of the "money world" this story was among the "most popular entertainment of the time." Kosui, a cinema devotee, we recall, may well have taken his older sons with him on that particular day. From one source or another, however, it is reasonable to assume that this tale was a part of Chiune's education. How does this so very popular tale inform us of the world in which Sugihara grew up, and how might it have contributed to the making of this mass rescuer?
The legend concerns a good and mighty provincial leader, Lord Asano, who is loyal to the Shogun. Lord Asano is much beloved by his hundreds of retainers but is essentially a country bumpkin; in spite of Lord Asano's unpolished ways, the Shogun honors him by making him, on a particular occasion, one of the masters of ceremonies. One Lord Kira, a sophisticate more familiar with the ways of the court and a jealous rival of Lord Asano, has long made himself available to such provincial lords as an adviser on these occasions. But Lord Asano is so pure, naive, and unconversant with courtly procedure that he bungles his transaction with Lord Kira by not offering him the right gifts for his services.
The urbane Lord Kira decides to take revenge. He wrongly advises Lord Asano how to dress and act for the occasion. Asano's resulting humiliation is profound. When he realizes what has happened, he responds as any man of honor must: he pulls a sword against the humiliator. This only makes things worse, for Lord Asano, in that singular and restorative gesture, thereby violates a most sacred rule of the court. Kira receives only a minor wound, but the fate of the good Lord Asano is sealed, as is the fate of his many loyal retainers, too. Because of the corporate responsibility implied by the feudal contract, his retainers must surrender their property and, in good form, submit to seppuka, ritualized suicide. Asano's wisest and most loyal retainer, Oishi, who if he had been present at Kira's misdeeds would surely have corrected the advice he received, returns just in time to bid farewell to his master and take charge of the collective suicide of some three hundred other retainers.
But then the loyal and grieving Oishi decides that even these three hundred acts of devotion will not restore Lord Asano's giri, his good name and honor. Only vengeance against Lord Kira will do that. The plotting will require much delicacy. Kira himself is close enough to the Shogun to be somewhat protected, so first, then, Oishi must ascertain who is indeed loyal. Like the biblical Gideon, he separates the men from the boys, then he instructs those who have proven to be the most loyal in actuality, only forty-six to divorce their wives, sell their daughters, wallow in drunkenness, and do everything to appear other than a well-organized, goal-oriented conspiracy.
This ruse is perpetrated with great deliberateness during a period of twenty-one months. The "masterless men" indulge in lives of "debauchery" to make their "enemy relax in watchfulness," to throw Kira off their trail. This will make the surprise attack more dramatic, Kira's murder more painful, and the revenge for the ronin all the sweeter. On the snowy night of December 14, 1703, they slay Kira and then commit suicide. Their graves in Takanawa, near Tokyo, are visited by many pilgrims to this day.
Many Japanese, I was astonished to find out in my travels, staunchly associate this story with uncompromising loyalty. It deeply moves them. It symbolizes a central tenet of their culture. But those sharing the Western Enlightenment tradition, not raised in a system that sentimentalizes certain courtly traditions, are likely to respond to the tale with a troubled sense, even a measure of indignation. "All that bloodshed and misery," we might ask, "because a practical joke went awry, because someone had to restore honor?" Ruth Benedict emphasizes the zealous concern with giri, with honor, name, "face," the "initiative and ruthless determination" with which, in this "non-Western" society, a hero "finally settles incompatible debts to the world and to his name by choosing death as a solution." The American anthropologist's book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, with whatever flaws, continues to be influential in Japan and abroad to this very day. But an older contemporary of Sugihara's comments on The Forty-Seven Ronin might provide more insight into the meaning of this story for Sugihara himself and the mentalité with which he becomes a mass rescuer. Inazo Nitobe spent the post Russo-Japanese War years as Tokyo University's first professor of colonialism, training administrators who would become Sugihara's colleagues and providing legitimacy for Japan's rising empire. He sees this saga as "representative" of the tendency of the Japanese to be "spontaneous and guileless" in their responses. "In times when cunning artifice was liable to pass for military tact...this manly virtue, frank and honest, was a jewel that shone the brightest and was most highly praised."
Nitobe, we puzzle, is the man who dismisses baseball because it promotes "stealing bases." Yet he lauds Oishi and his co-conspirators, who even sell their sisters into prostitution to "catch off base" their enemy Lord Kira! They are "spontaneous and guileless"? What's going on here? Is this really a tale about impulsiveness, immediacy, and pure action? In fact, every move in this story appears carefully planned. Why should spontaneity be considered more of a "manly virtue, frank and honest"? What inhibitions are there for Japanese to strategize action? Or, as is more likely the case, why is it so important to conceal from others and even oneself that a reaction is carefully planned?
Each scholar finds a conflicting subliminal message, particularly as to whether guile is good or bad. But neither pays attention to the "aesthetics" of the cover-up. The loyal disciple Oishi's dissembling may be exquisitely choreographed, but his disloyalty to his family (especially the female members) is far less enchanting.
Sugihara is so often seen as a rule-breaker operating with defiance and directness, so uncharacteristic of most Japanese. Yet perhaps his behavior was actually extremely Japanese. In understanding his mass rescue effort, we must try to answer not only why he did it but also how he did it. For like Oishi, Sugihara not only enlisted others to his cause but also concealed his strategy. He acted very much like a ronin.
End of Childhood, End of an Era
Chiune's later childhood was bound by two events accompanied by loss. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, and his father, soon thereafter, joined the colonial civil service there. For Kosui this may have been a good resolution of personal and professional problems, a fresh start, but his departure left the family divided. From then on, Kosui was little more than an intermittent presence in Chiune's adolescence.
On July 30, 1912, another event took place, the death of the Emperor. The month of funeral rituals and public mourning created a solidarity in the "money world" unknown since the threatening days of 1904-05. But just as the Meiji Emperor, whose reign had become synonymous with Western-oriented reforms, was about to be buried, Japan's foremost hero of the Russo-Japanese War stole the show, as it were. General Maresuke Nogi, whose picture Chiune had seen in the Yaotsu alleyways, kneeled before a photograph of the Emperor and, with his wife beside him, committed suicide in the traditional samurai manner outlawed some 250 years before.
To this day, the Japanese periodize their lives in accordance with certain years of imperial reign. The death of an Emperor is deeply experienced as the end of an era, and his passing might have entailed a solemn celebration of Japan's modernity. But the general's suicide cast too long a shadow, and mourning quickly turned into questioning. Which direction would Japan follow? Backward or forward?
In the late summer of 1912, uncertainty and anxiety prevailed in Kovno and Portsmouth as well as Yaotsu. In Kovno, revolt against Russian domination, in the name of one "-ism" or another, was in the air. At the Portsmouth Naval Yard, fitters were working extra shifts to build the new battleships that would enable Teddy Roosevelt's America to cement its leadership under Woodrow Wilson, and through the world war that was a few years off.
In Yaotsu, the young Chiune felt distinctly unmoored. Not only had he lost his own father to the Emperor's colonial administration but also two more father figures in the Emperor and the general. Here was impending manhood and he had no guides. But a new father figure, himself a ronin of sorts, would provide for Kosui Sugihara's precocious second son. Chiune would learn to be a "masterless man," in his own unique ways, full of "ruthless determination."
Copyright © 1996 by Hillel Levine
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews