Today, there are over a hundred thousand decedents of the Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk.
Despite being a member of the Axis powers during World War II, Japan was considered to be a safe place for Jews fleeing from the horrors of the Holocaust. In 1938, a resolution was passed by a high government council prohibiting the expulsion of Jews from Japan.
In September 1939, Hitler conquered the western part of Poland, while Stalin occupied the eastern part. Over 10,000 Polish refugees fled to Vilnius (Vilna),Lithuania, which was neutral at the time.
When the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in late July 1940, the Orthodox Jewish community realized that they would be actively persecuted under Communism. They tried to escape to the free world. Sweden, which was the only accessible neutral country, refused to let them in. The obstacle was getting an entrance visa to another country. No country was willing to accept the Jews.
Through the efforts of Jan Zwartendijk, the Jews trapped in Lithuania were able to get “revised” Dutch visas to Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. This gave them a way to leave the USSR through Vladivostok. Once in Vladivostok, they needed a country that will accept them, even if it was just temporarily, by providing them transit visa.
Two yeshiva students, were the first to acquire the “revised” Dutch visas. They went to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas and asked for transit visa through Japan. He issued them transit visas valid for ten days in Japan. Other Jews heard about the Dutch-Japanese escape route and quickly followed it.
Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese spy was sent to Lithuania as a Japanese consul to learn what were Nazi Germany military intentions in the region. On the morning of August 1st, Chiune Sugihara saw a group of Jews standing outside his fence, begging for transit visas. For ten days he telegraphed Tokyo asking for instructions. He received no answer. On August 11 he issued the 10 days transit visas. He continued granting transit visas while in Lithuania, ignoring official orders from his superiors to stop. He issued as many transit visas as he could to fleeing Jews; sending them to Japan and the Dutch West Indies.
Chiune Sugihara was expelled by the Soviets. He requested an extension claiming illness, then continued to issue visas until the last moment. He was deported on August 31, 1940. Even when he was on the departing train, he threw transit visas to waiting Jews through the the train window.
He is credited with saving 6,000 lives. Throughout the war, the Japanese government resisted German calls to institute Anti-Semitic policies and to exterminate the Jews living in the Shanghai Ghetto in Japanese controlled China.
In chapter 15 of his book, Paper Silk & Ivory, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, describes an interview he had with Mr. Chiune Sugihara. To the question why did he write so many visas to people that so few people, other than him, were willing to help, Mr. Sugihara replied:
“Everyone in life has an opportunity to do a good deed. Do it and leave it alone. Don’t write about it or publicize it; don’t make money from it. Just do what’s right because it’s right.”
More information about the interview, and how the Japanese helped Jews to survive the holocaust, is available in book Paper Silk & Ivory.