Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved Jews in the Shoah

 

Chiune Sugihara is hardly a household name. A partnership of Holocaust educators in Milwaukee wants to change that.

A staged reading of a play, “Chiune Sugihara: Unsung Hero of the Holocaust,” will be presented at Cardinal Stritch University on Wednesday, March 21, thanks to the efforts of Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and Michael Sattell, president and chief executive officer of Ovation Communities.

Beginning in 1939, Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat working as his country’s vice counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania.

By 1940, Germany occupied much of Europe and many Jews had come to Lithuania for safety. Then the Russians annexed Lithuania. Synagogues and schools were shut down, Jewish leaders were arrested and the embassies were ordered closed.

Just as he was closing his embassy in the summer of 1940, Sugihara worked around the clock preparing exit visas. Aware of the grave danger they faced, he issued an estimated 10,000 exit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews despite not having the authority to do so. Many did not get out on time but it is believed some 6,000 were saved. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that because of his actions, the recipients eventually had some 40,000 descendants.

The diplomat’s actions not only endangered his job, his life and that of his family, but also were countercultural. His upbringing stressed honor, duty and loyalty to family and country.

“Sugihara came from a culture in which disobedience was not tolerated,” said Sattell. “In a sense he broke the law and that put not only his job but his life and the lives of his family in danger.”

Indeed, Sugihara had asked for permission to issue the visas but it was denied.

At the end of the war Sugihara and his family were living in Romania. They were arrested and imprisoned in a Russia internment camp. After his release, he was fired by the foreign ministry, his wife saying she believed it was because of the visas. For a time after that he had to work at odd jobs to support his family.

In 1968, he was found by a survivor and brought to Israel. Pilnik noted Sugihara was always humble and long resisted accolades. Nonetheless he was officially recognized in 1985 as Righteous Among Nations, the highest honor that can be bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. It was not until 2000, long after his death, that Sugihara was recognized and celebrated in Japan.

“He was the only Asian to be recognized,” Pilnik said.

The Sugihara story is the latest in an ongoing series of events Pilnik and Sattell have introduced to the community. Pilnik said the partnership has included dozens of organizations across the state including a number of secular colleges and universities. The late Nina Widell, herself a Holocaust survivor, left a bequest to HERC to support Holocaust educational programs. Pilnik said Daniel Haumschild, a fellow at Cardinal Stritch University, suggested the play.

“He is our bridge for a number of programs,” Pilnik said. “He did research that helped us identify a Sugihara survivor. The past is very present in our community. This is an important story to help us remember.”

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Chiune Sugihara: Unsung hero of the Holocaust

  • Wednesday, March 21
  • 7 p.m.
  • Cardinal Stritch University, 6801 N. Yates Road, Glendale
  • Free and open to the public