After decades of relative obscurity, the tale of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara has become one of the best-known Holocaust rescue stories.
But his son says some accepted parts of his late father’s biography are not true.
“I noticed a few years ago there are inaccuracies in circulation about what my father had done,” said Nobuki Sugihara, 70, who was scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here.
One of the stories he refutes is the one about his father writing visas on the train as he left for Germany after being expelled from his post in Lithuania. Sugihara supposedly “threw the signed visas” through a train window.
Another myth has Chiune Sugihara giving his consular seals to refugees so they could continue making visas on their own after he was forced to leave. Also never happened, Nobuki said.
“I started speaking just to set the record straight,” he said. Nobuki recently began traveling around the world telling audiences about his father’s legacy.
His father, who issued thousands of life-saving visas to Jewish refugees in Lithuania in defiance of his pro-Nazi government, became popularly known only about 20 years ago, in part due to the 2000 opening of a museum about him in Japan. A year earlier, a Sugihara museum celebrating his actions opened in Kaunas, Lithuania.
The formation of myths around any heroic character is natural, Nobuki Sugihara acknowledged. “But my father would not have liked it. He would have not approved; he was always in favor of telling things like they were, no melodrama.”
Some Christian writers and websites have attributed religious motives to Sugihara. One quote has him saying, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I do not, I will be disobeying God.”
Yet religion never entered the picture, according to Nobuki. “The truth is, he just took pity on these people and decided to do something. This wasn’t about ideology.”
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, thinks that the younger Sugihara is actually doing a service to his father’s legacy.
“Sugihara’s legacy as a role model is more relatable and powerful when it accurately tells the reason he helped these people: human kindness. Not a political or ideological move,” Chesler said.
The life of Nobuki Sugihara, Chiune’s youngest son and the only one still alive, has been shaped significantly by what his father had done. In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was declared a Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. In 1968, the Israeli Foreign Ministry arranged for a scholarship for Nobuki at Hebrew University.
He went to Israel and eventually took a job at the Ramat Gan diamond exchange, where he learned the secrets of the trade at a time when it was dominated by Jews in Israel, Belgium and London. Now a diamond trader in Antwerp, Belgium — a city with a sizable Jewish population — he lives there with his wife, speaks fluent Hebrew (from his time in Israel) and has passing knowledge of Yiddish.
Even without the embellishments that Nobuki Sugihara insists on debunking, his father’s story is legendary. Chiune Sugihara, who died in 1986, ignored orders from Tokyo while posted to Kaunas (then Kovno) in 1940 and helped Jews flee the Nazis and travel through Russia to China, Japan and beyond.
His official title was with the consular department in Kaunas, but really he was a Japanese intelligence operative collecting information on the Russians. When the Russians invaded Lithuania in 1940, foreign diplomats, including Sugihara, were ordered to move out.
Before leaving, Sugihara and his Dutch counterpart, Jan Zwartendijk, issued the visas, including some to the entire student body of the Mir Yeshiva. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis invaded Lithuania and turned that country into a graveyard for its Jews. Mir was the only yeshiva to escape Eastern Europe.
Sugihara issued over 2,000 visas, which led at least twice as many people to safety. As many as 100,000 people today are the descendants of the recipients of Sugihara visas.