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  1999-06-11 Chiune Sugihara,  Rescuer of Jews




Searching for Sugihara 

Biographer of Japanese diplomat uncovers a 'conspiracy of goodness'  to save Jews 

San Diego Jewish Press Heritage, June 11, 1999:


By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego, CA (special) -- Perhaps if Dr. Hillel Levine came from a different religious background, he might have titled his book "The Spy Who Was a Saint," but instead Levine, a sociologist who holds a Conservative rabbinical degree, named the biography In Search of Sugihara. 

Levine, a Boston University professor, was the featured guest Tuesday, June 1, at a joint meeting of the San Diego Chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana. The groups joined in the Manchester Conference Center at the University of San Diego.

Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese vice consul stationed in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1940. Following the division of Poland by nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas to Jews from nearby Poland who were fleeing from the nazis. The visas enabled the refugees to cross the Soviet Union then take a ship from the Russian port of Vladivostok to Japan, where they were permitted to stay a short time, before heading for other countries. 

Sugihara's story has been told by his widow, Yukiko, in the book, Visas For Life , and was the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary Visas and Virtue, which was shown earlier this year at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. 

Levine suggested that Sugihara needs to be understood not just as a Japanese version of rescuer Oskar Schindler, but as a man who stood in the center of a "conspiracy of goodness," an official who not only did good deeds himself but inspired others to do so as well.

Had historians directed their attention to this minor diplomatic official earlier in his career, before he ever got to Lithuania, they would have been struck by his ability to empathize with people of many different backgrounds, Levine said.

The Japanese reign in Manchuria (northern China) generally was known for its brutality, but according to Levine's research Sugihara's conduct there was marked by its humanitarianism.

"One time there was a flood in northern Manchuria and so many Chinese were losing their homes and losing their lives," Levine told his USD audience. "Sugihara went to northern Manchuria; he organized welfare for people; helped them drain their fields; he brought in doctors; he brought in food. He spent several months there."

Taking such a personal interest was not at all required, Levine said. Writing a simple report about the situation would have sufficed so far as the Japanese foreign ministry was concerned. But Sugihara went far beyond requirements.

Sugihara immersed himself in the Russian language and culture. It was said he could drink more vodka than any Russian commissar. He converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity. He also married an expatriate from neighboring Russia, whom he later divorced. 

Having heard whispers that there was a "first Mrs. Sugihara " in Australia, Levine asked the only two people he knew with contacts in that nation to help him get a line on her: Martin Indyk, the Australian-born former U.S. Ambassador to Israel who today is a ranking official for Middle Eastern policy in the U.S. State Department, and Levine's aunt, Ella, who had lived "down under" for a year.

"Martin certainly had good resources, and he is a good friend, and he tried, but guess who really found Mrs. Sugihara? My dear tanta Ella," Levine said. "She got all the Hadassah ladies mobilized and in six months they went virtually door to door and they found Mrs. Sugihara in an old age home." 

When Levine went to Australia to visit Klaudia Apollonov Sugihara Dorf, she was 93 years old, had been remarried, and hadn't seen her first husband in over 60 years. Yet, she was quite lucid about their life together, making it clear to Levine that she "was still madly in love with him" and had been in correspondence with him as late as 1980, when Sugihara already was near death.

The first Mrs. Sugihara had been a White Russian, whose family had fled to Harbin from Russia following the Communist revolution. Sugihara had a tremendous empathy for the family, who had enjoyed some wealth in Russia but who were living in reduced economic circumstances in Manchuria. 

Perhaps, did the first Mrs. Sugihara teach the Japanese diplomat to value friendships with Jews? Did she impart valuable lessons which bore fruit so dramatically in Lithuania? To the contrary, according to Levine, the first Mrs. Sugihara came from a "multinational family of anti-Semites." More likely, it was Sugihara who taught her and her family to reach out to other people.

Levine wondered why Sugihara and his wife were divorced. Did Sugihara feel he had to jettison a foreign-born wife to advance in Japan's foreign ministry? Was he guilty of such opportunism? Levine almost was afraid to ask the first wife, but as the interview was ending he mustered his courage. "Why did your husband divorce you?" the professor finally asked. She sat up in her bed. "My husband didn't divorce me," she said. "I divorced him!"

After apologizing to her for his "male chauvinism," Levine asked her reason for ending the marriage. She explained that she had witnessed women going through horrible labor, even dying in child birth, in box cars packed with refugees fleeing the Bolsheviks. The sight was traumatic, she said. She decided she never wanted to give birth, notwithstanding Sugihara's desire to have a family. 

Upon becoming pregnant she had abortions without telling Sugihara. When the subject of having a family again came up, she told him to marry one of his own kind. The first marriage ended after 12 years. But Sugihara stayed in touch with his first wife and helped to provide support for her and her family.

It was with the second Mrs. Sugihara that the Japanese diplomat was dispatched to a new consulate in Kovno. Levine said that the appointment had been arranged by Japan's Ambassador to nazi Germany, Hiroshi Oshima, because Sugihara, like Oshima, was from the province of Gifu and also because Sugihara's knowledge of Russian was so fluent. 

Oshira also wanted Sugihara to gather intelligence on the real status of the German-Soviet alliance, by which the two nations had split Poland. Prior to that point, Oshima confidently had been predicting that the Germans would attack the Soviet Union, and thereby would cause Japan's rival for dominance in Manchuria and elsewhere in Eastern Asia to have to move its troops west, to the European front, to fight the Germans.

When Germany and the Soviet Union signed their non-aggression pact and then gobbled up Poland, Oshira was ridiculed by officials in Japan's foreign office. Some of them said he had been wrong to advocate a pro-German foreign policy; Japan's real interests may have lied with developing an alliance with the Western democracies.

Before returning home from his post in disgrace, Oshima instructed the new vice consul to try to learn the Germans' true intentions. On the Polish border, between Germany and Russia, Lithuania was an ideal listening post. According to Levine, the vice consul was able to detect that the Germans were buying fleece for heavy overcoats, and many coffins-- indications that a military offensive was planned.

To maintain his cover of being a consular official, Sugihara had to issue visas. The fact that he issued visas to Jews was not all that remarkable in 1940. Many consulates were issuing visas to wealthy Jews who had money and who had relatives to vouch for them in their countries of destination. At that time the nazis wanted the Jews out of Europe, whether via emigration or murder. So the fact that Sugihara was helping Jews leave was not in itself all that remarkable.

But just as Sugihara did not simply fill out routine reports in Harbin, but instead became involved in the lives of the people there, so too did the Japanese official become deeply involved with the plight of the Jews.

He kept a 31-page list of all the visas he issued. There were 2,139 names, many of them heads of households. That means the 2,139 names "probably could be multiplied by a factor of three or four," when computing how many lives Sugihara saved, according to Levine.

Most other diplomats "closed their hearts, closed their doors, and just didn't want to look at what was going on," said Levine. "What did Sugihara do? He opened his heart. He opened the doors and he began letting Jews into the consulate." And "he responded to them in a most extraordinary way. He personified them. I have interviewed hundreds of people who were in the situation. I was absolutely astounded to hear the way this man responded to them. He offered them a chair. He said, 'Mr,' 'Miss,' or 'Mrs.' He offered them cups of tea. 

"Have any of you been to the immigration service in San Diego or in Boston? These are venal, venal places: horrible, rude, making people jump through hoops, today, not 50 years ago. The processing of immigrants is the worst thing. Sugihara offered them cups of tea! What was going on? Why was he doing it?"

A yeshiva bukher by name of Reb. Moshe Zupnik had the chutzpah to ask Sugihara not for one visa, but for 300, to distribute among other yeshiva students. Sugihara sent Zupnik to the basement of the consulate, and with a secretary named Gudze (a Lithuanian of German origin), Zupnik mass produced visas for distribution.

"What Sugihara didn't know, and what Moshe Zupnik didn't know, and what I only discovered in 1993...was that Gudze was a Gestapo plant," Levine said.

Nevertheless, something about the situation apparently affected even Gudze positively. Levine said Zupnik told him that during the two weeks he spent with Gudze in the basement producing visas, "they sat around and talked theology and philosophy--all kinds of wonderful things--and at the end of two weeks, this Gudze did a teary farewell to Zupnik and said to him 'life is like a big wheel: sometimes the people on the top end up on the bottom. Don't lose hope.'"

Levine suggested that "there was something going on in that consulate... Something in the consulate that was magical: Polish spies, Gestapo spies, Yeshiva bukhers sitting there, giving out visas through the inspiration of a little Japanese man from a small town in provincial Japan...

The "magic" spread from the consulate to the Soviet railroad lines where bureaucrats accepted the visas, even though they often were written on less than official looking forms, and onto Japan, where officials noticed that many of the names on the visas were duplicates -- perhaps because Zupnik did not understand the Japanese characters he was copying-- yet nevertheless permitted the Jews to enter their country.

"I believe that there was a conspiracy of goodness," Levine said. "I believe in conspiracies of goodness. I believe that there are special circumstances in which people can come together and instead of bringing out the worst in each other, they bring out the goodness. Generally when we think about conspiracies, we talk about gangs, mafias, terrible people ... But could it be that the moral opposite is also true? Could it be as the rabbis say, 'a good deed drags out our capacity to do another good deed?'

"This is what I have learned from Chiune Sugihara; I have learned that a man who is a moral presence, a man who is full of kindness and understanding, not only for people like him, but who makes an aggressive effort to understand other people .... that out of these people, something very special emanates. These people are the center of goodness. There is no other way to explain what happened in Kovno."