Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who saved over 2,000 Polish Jewish refugees during World War II by issuing Japanese transit visas that allowed them to escape to the Far East. Born in Yaotsu, Japan, Sugihara attended Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University. After deciding to enter the diplomatic service, he was sent to study Russian at the national language institute in Harbin, China. There, he converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity and married a White Russian woman, whom he later divorced. Sugihara then served with the Japanese military government in Manchuria, where he was promoted to vice minister of foreign affairs. Troubled by Japanese treatment of the Chinese, he resigned his post in 1934 and returned to Japan, where he met and married Yukiko Kikuchi. The following year he was reassigned to the European section of the foreign ministry, and in 1937 was posted to the Japanese embassy in Helsinki, Finland. In October 1939 Sugihara was instructed to open a consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania for the purpose of gathering information on German and Soviet troop movements along the border. Shortly after his arrival, a wave of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion of Poland, flooded into Lithuania seeking a means of escape from Europe. Towards the end of July 1940, Sugihara was approached by Dr. Zorah Warhaftig of the Jewish Agency Palestine Office, who requested that he provide Japanese transit visas to Polish Jewish refugees in Lithuania. Warhafting had recently been informed by a couple of refugee yeshiva students about the possibility of acquiring so-called "Curacao visas." These in fact were only notations stating that entry visas were not required for Dutch possesions in the West Indies. This diplomatic language meant that Jewish refugees could claim Curacao or Surinam as their ultimate destination when applying for transit visas from other countries. After checking with the Soviet authorities, Warhaftig learned that the refugees would be allowed passage across the Soviet Union if they had transit visas permitting them to continue their journey through a continguous country. It was for this reason that Warhaftig turned to the Japanese consul in Kaunas. Realizing the danger facing the Jewish refugees in Lithuania, Sugihara appealed to his superiors for permission to issue the transit visas, noting in his cables that hundreds of refugees lined up outside the consulate each day hoping to receive them. When that permission was denied, he decided to issue them on his own authority, disregarding the possible consequences for his career. For several weeks in late July and early August 1940, Sugihara issued visas at a furious pace, eventually stamping more than 2,000 passports before his consulate was closed down by the Soviet authorities. When he left Kaunas, Sugihara went briefly to Berlin before assuming a series of new postings to Prague (September 1940-February 1941), Koenigsberg (March-October 1941) and finally Bucharest (fall 1941-summer 1944). At the end of the war he and his family were arrested by the Soviet military. They were held under benign conditions until their repatriation in 1947. When he returned to Japan, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign service with a small pension. In the years after the war Sugihara never spoke of his actions in Kaunas, and it was not until 1968 that he was honored by those whom he rescued. In 1985, a year before his death, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
[Sources: Flight and Rescue, USHMM, Washington, DC 2001; Paldiel, Mordecai. The Path of the Righetous, KTAV, Hoboken, NJ, 1993; Visas for Life. Holocaust Oral History Project, San Francisco, 1995]