If you have time today, may I urge you to read this New York Times opinion piece? 

It’s by author and Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles David Wolpe. He writes of the moral courage of one man during a time when it was needed.

I will sketch his story briefly below, but the full article only takes a few minutes to read and may inspire you today.

His name was Chiune Sugihara. He was a Japanese diplomat who was sent to Lithuania in 1939 with his family.

It was there he was confronted with thousands of desperate Jews who were fleeing German-occupied Poland.

He sought permission from his embassy to issue visas to these refugees, not once, but three times.

Wolpe points out that the cable from K. Tanaka at the foreign ministry read:

“Concerning transit visas requested previously stop advise absolutely not to be issued any traveller not holding firm end visa with guaranteed departure ex japan stop no exceptions stop no further inquiries expected stop.”

Sugihara was faced with a choice — to defy his government or leave these people to their fate.

After a discussion with his wife, Yukiko, and his children, he decides to help. Knowing the damage it would cause to his career, Sugihara starts issuing visas.

Most of the world saw throngs of desperate foreigners. Sugihara saw human beings and he knew he could save them through prosaic but essential action: “A lot of it was handwriting work,” he said.

He issued as many visas as he could, writing well into the night to provide others with hope. According to the New York Times article, he issued as many visas in a day as he would in a month.

At least 6,000 visas were given to people to travel through Japan to other places. 

He was sacked from the foreign office when he returned. He worked at menial jobs. It wasn’t until 1968  that his contribution was recognised when a survivor found him.

Sugihara died in 1986. Nine years earlier he gave an interview and was asked why he did it: “I told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs it was a matter of humanity. I did not care if I lost my job. Anyone else would have done the same thing if they were in my place.”

Let’s hope so.

It is estimated that more than 40,000 people are alive today because of Sugihara’s decision.

Featured image by J W on Unsplash

8 Comments

  1. Worth noting, the article links to another about Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, who as the Portuguese consul in France did something similar, issuing about 30,000 visas over just a few days. Since he didn’t ask if the people in front of him were Jews, no one knows for certain how many lives he saved. But even after being sacked from his job and forced to return to Portugal, he carried one Jewish family across the border in his car.

    When we as individuals allow the impetus of a society to supersede our own judgment of what’s “right”, we also hand away the uniquely enlightened perspective of our own humanity. Civilizations cannot feel love or respect or compassion. Only the individual can feel and understand and choose to act on those human emotions.

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    1. That is an interesting point. There are times when those individuals get together to form a movement that can change society. However I agree with you on the need for individuals to do what is right despite what society dictates.

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