24. The Japanese Diplomat Who Managed to Save Five Times as Many Jews as Oskar Schindler
The exploits of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986) during WWII are little-known today. That is unfortunate, because he risked his life and the lives of his family, and eventually sacrificed his career, to save the lives of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. He did it from the Japanese consulate in Lithuania, where he issued visas that facilitated the escape of Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe.
When the Japanese government caught on to what Sugihara was doing, it ordered him to stop. He did not, and continued to issue visas in defiance of his superiors’ directives until his consulate was closed and he was recalled. By the time he was done, Sugihara had managed to save roughly 6000 Jewish refugees. That was about five times as many Jews as had been saved by the more famous Oskar Schindler.
23. This Angel of Mercy Deliberately Failed an Exam to Thwart an Overbearing Father
Chiune Sugihara, was born into a middle-class Japanese family. His father was a civil servant who worked for Japan’s version of the IRS. Growing up, Sugihara hit the books hard, proved himself a model student, and received top honors. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but Sugihara had other ideas. So he deliberately failed to get into medical school by writing only his name on the entrance exam.
Instead of studying medicine, he majored in English in college, and in 1919, passed the Japanese Foreign Ministry Scholarship exams. Sugihara took a two-year break in 1920 to fulfill his national service obligations, serving as an infantry officer in the Japanese army. He resigned his commission in 1922, and took and passed the Foreign Ministry’s language qualification exams. He was then assigned to Harbin, China, where he further studied German and Russian.
22. Even Before WWII, Chiune Sugihara Was Willing to Risk His Career to Save Others
Sugihara eventually graduated from Japan’s elite training center on the USSR, the Harbin Gakuin, and became one of the Foreign Ministry’s go-to experts on the Soviet Union. When Japan seized Manchuria from China in the 1930s and established a puppet state under Japanese supervision, he became his country’s director of foreign affairs there. In that capacity, he negotiated the purchase of the North Manchurian Railroad from the USSR in 1932.
In 1935, in a display of conscientiousness that augured his willingness to risk it all to save others, Sugihara resigned his position to protest Japanese mistreatment of the local Chinese. He was too valuable a civil servant to let go to waste, however, so he was assigned to the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, and as a translator for the diplomatic legation in Finland. In November 1939, shortly after WWII began, Sugihara was assigned as vice-consul to the Japanese consulate in Kovno, capital of Lithuania.
21. The Stage Was Set for This Diplomat to Save Thousands When He Was Sent to Lithuania to Gather Intelligence
The Japanese government viewed managing relations with the USSR and staying informed about its intentions as vital, lest it stumble into an unwanted war with the Soviets. After years of provocations by Japan’s army in Manchuria, the Soviets surprised the Japanese by escalating hitherto minor border skirmishes into a serious conflict in 1939. The result was a humiliating Japanese defeat at the Battle of Khalkin Gol. Already bogged down in a quagmire of a war in China, the Japanese government fretted about possible Soviet plans to seize Manchuria, or to directly intervene in the Sino-Japanese conflict on China’s side.
Because a war between the USSR and Germany would keep the Soviets too busy on their western border to bother the Japanese in the Far East, staying informed about such a possibility was vital. Accordingly, Sugihara’s primary task in Lithuania was to provide intelligence on German and Soviet troop movements in the Baltic region, and to report on any indications of an impending German attack against the USSR.
20. To Save Those Endangered in Europe, Sugihara Began Issuing Japanese Visas in Ever-Greater Numbers
Gathering intelligence about Soviet and German military movements and plans brought Sugihara into contact with anti-German and anti-Soviet elements. They included the Polish underground, whose operations extended beyond German-occupied Poland and into Lithuania. Then, in 1940, the Soviets marched into and occupied Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, as a preliminary to annexing them into the USSR. The inhabitants were subjected to brutal repression by the NKVD – the Soviet secret police – and waves of arrests, torture, and executions swept the newly-occupied Baltic states.
That was when Sugihara began making creative use of his consular authority to help and save those at risk. He recognized that, with most of Europe engulfed by war, the most practical escape route for refugees in Lithuania was not westwards, but eastwards through the Soviet Union, and thence to Japan. So he started granting visas in ever greater numbers to those seeking to save themselves from impending doom.
19. This Diplomat Began Gaming the Visa-Granting Process to Save People
Members of the Polish underground approached Sugihara with bogus visas to Curacao and other Dutch possessions in the Americas, and asked him to help with transit visas. He agreed to help save them and facilitate their escape by granting 10-day transit visas through Japan to their destinations. That entitled the bearers to travel across the USSR en route to Japan or Japanese-controlled territory. From there, they could continue to their final destination.
Sugihara started discreetly at first, issuing transit visas, and eventually visas to Japan as a final destination, to those who had fed him intelligence. He then began issuing visas to members of the underground in general. Eventually, he abandoned any pretense. Setting aside the fiction that he was granting transit visas to facilitate the travel of those already in possession of final destination visas, Sugihara began stamping visas for all and sundry, even those who lacked any travel papers whatsoever. By the time it was over, he had stamped thousands of visas. They were most likely the difference between life and death for those lucky enough to get them.
18. Desperate to Save Themselves From the Looming Nazi Menace, Jewish Refugees Formed Long Lines Outside Sugihara’s Consulate
Most of the visas issued by Chiune Sugihara went to Jewish refugees. They formed long lines outside the Japanese consulate in Kovno, desperate for the piece of paper and stamp that would allow them to save themselves and their families. The Nazis, who had conquered Poland and divided it with the Soviets in 1939, had already begun the process of ridding their part of Poland of its Jewish inhabitants, and taken the first steps towards outright genocide.
Within months, discriminatory laws had closed most professions to Jews. They were expelled from the parts of Poland annexed to Germany, and herded into ghettos in what was left of the country. Tens of thousands were simply murdered. Poland was becoming unlivable for Jews. Against that backdrop, Sugihara’s consulate in neighboring Lithuania became a literal lifesaver for those fortunate enough to get there.
17. Sugihara’s Efforts to Save Jewish Refugees Attracted to the Unwelcome Attentions of Officials Back in Japan
After he had granted about 1800 visas to refugees, authorities in Tokyo noticed the unusually large number of visas being issued from their consulate in Kovno. Until then, it had been a backwater of a diplomatic outpost that saw little activity. Japan’s Foreign Ministry insisted that visas should be granted only to those who had gone through the appropriate immigration procedures, and had adequate funds. Most of the refugees granted visas by Sugihara did not meet those criterion.
So his superiors sent a cable, reminding him to: “make sure that they [refugees] have finished their procedure for their entry visas and also they must possess the travel money or the money that they need during their stay in Japan. Otherwise, you should not give them the transit visa“.
16. This Diplomat Defied His Government In Order to Continue His Efforts to Save Jewish Refugees
Responding to Tokyo’s cable directing that he stick to the rules when issuing visas, Sugihara acknowledged that had issued visas to people who had not satisfied all the requirements. However, he explained the extenuating circumstances: Japan was the only practical destination country for those headed towards the Americas, and visas from his consulate were needed for departure from the Soviet Union. Then, ignoring the Foreign Ministry’s demands that he stop cutting corners and stick to the rules, Sugihara continued issuing visas to and through Japan on his own.
By the norms of Japanese bureaucracy, and especially those of the Foreign Ministry, Sugihara’s disobedience and outright defiance of his superiors’ instructions were shocking. He was willing to break such taboos in order to save others. As desperate refugees crowded outside his consulate, Sugihara kept on issuing hand written-visas, spending up to 20 hours a day on the task, producing a month’s worth of visas every single day.
15. Sugihara Kept Up His Efforts to Save Jews to the Literal Last Minute
Chiune Sugihara had the refugees call him “Sempo” – the Sino-Japanese reading of his name’s Japanese characters – because it was easier for them to pronounce than his given name. He also got in touch with Soviet officials, and convinced them to let the Jewish refugees travel across the USSR via the Trans Siberian Railway. When they balked, he overcame their intransigence by sweetening the deal for corrupt bureaucrats when necessary, arranging for the Jews to pay them five times the normal ticket price.
It finally ended on September 4th, 1940, when Sugihara had to leave because the consulate was about to close. He kept writing visas en route from his hotel to Kovno’s train station, and continued doing so on the train, throwing visas out the window into the crowd of desperate refugees. As the train began pulling away, he started throwing blank sheets out the window, containing only his signature and the consulate’s seal, so they could be filled in and turned into visas. His final words to those he was trying to save were: “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best“.
14. Israel Labeled Chiune Sugihara as One of “The Righteous Among Nations”
Many of the Jewish refugees whom Sugihara had set out to save made it to Kobe, Japan, where there was a Jewish community. From there, most secured asylum visas to Canada, Australia, Palestine, the US, and Latin America. Sugihara’s visas – including family visas that allowed multiple people to travel together – saved the lives of roughly 6000 Jews. About 40,000 of their descendants are alive today because of his actions.
In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was named by the Israeli government as one of the “Righteous Among Nations” – an honorific used to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination. He is the only Japanese national to be so honored. He died a year later, in a hospital in Kamakura.
13. A Teenage Forger Who Helped Save Thousands From the Holocaust
French teenager Adolphe Kaminsky joined the Resistance after France’s defeat and occupation by the Germans in 1940. He was a precocious and self-taught gifted chemist, which he combined with a talent for forgery. He used those skills to make himself perhaps Europe’s best underground forger. He specialized in identity papers, and forged documents that helped save the lives of thousands of Jews. He continued his forgery career after the war, to help liberation movements around the world.
Adolphe was born in 1925 to Russian Jewish parents who had emigrated to Argentina, before relocating to France in 1932. He dropped out of school when he was thirteen to help support his family, and got a job working for a dry cleaner. That introduced him to various compounds, which led to a familiarity with, and subsequent passion for, chemistry. He started reading up on chemistry, and took a part-time job working for a chemist on the weekend. That came in handy during his subsequent career as a forger, and helped save thousands from the Holocaust.
12. A Display of Chemistry Skill Set This Teenager on a Forgery Career
When Germany conquered France in 1940, Adolphe Kaminsky was fifteen-years-old. It did not take long before he and his Jewish family felt the Nazi yoke. The Kaminsky home was seized early in the occupation to quarter German troops, and the Kaminskys were evicted. The following year, the Nazis shot Adolphe’s mother dead, without the teenager being able to do anything to save her. In 1943, his family was interned in a holding camp, preparatory to deportation to Auschwitz. They were only spared after intervention from the Argentinean consul.
By then, Adolphe had joined the French Resistance at age sixteen. Sent by his father to pick up forged identity papers from a Resistance cell, he discovered that they had trouble removing a particular dye. The precocious chemist gave them a solution off the top of his head that immediately solved their problem. Impressed, the Resistance recruited him and put him to work in an underground laboratory in Paris.
11. “The Robin Hood of False Papers” Helped Save Over 14,000 Jews From the Holocaust
Adolphe Kaminsky spent the rest of WWII working out of a secret Resistance laboratory in Paris. He specialized in forging identity papers for those on the run from the Nazis and in need of fake ID, particularly Jews. By the war’s end, he had produced fake documents that helped save over 14,000 Jewish men, women, and children, from the Holocaust. After the war, Adolphe worked as a professional photographer. He also continued his clandestine work as a master forger, lending his talents to disadvantaged peoples and liberation causes around the world.
He created documents for thousands of freedom fighters, such as the Algerian FLN, refugees, exiles, and pacifists. As the Jerusalem Post summed his career: “He grew to be a humanist forger, a utopian outlaw, the Robin Hood of false papers, preparing passports and identity cards for the world’s oppressed.” He continued forging until 1971, before moving to Algeria. He lived there for ten years, married a Tuareg woman, and had five children with her, including a well-known French hip-hop artist known as Roce.
10. This Future Resistance Heroine Grew Up In One of Paris’ Most Intellectual Homes
In 1925, Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz was born in Paris to a Jewish family, with a Romanian mother and a Belorussian father. She was raised in an intellectual household – one of her grandfathers was an anthropology professor. Charlotte grew up in a mentally stimulating environment, and her home had a weekly salon that often hosted French luminaries of the arts, letters, sciences, and academia. Little in Charlotte’s background gave hint that one day she would turn to guns and bombs to fight evil, or that she would save numerous Jewish children by smuggling them from beyond the Nazis’ clutches.
Her life took a drastic turn for the worse after the Nazis defeated France in 1940. The collaborationist Vichy regime enacted discriminatory laws that revoked the French citizenship of naturalized Jews, and authorized the internship of foreign Jews or the restricted of their residence. When out in public, Charlotte and her family were forced to wear yellow stars of David sewn to their clothes to identify themselves as Jews.
9. After Her Mother Was Sent to Auschwitz, This Teenager Joined the French Resistance
By 1942, Charlotte Noshpitz’s father was in hiding. Later that year, her mother was sent to Auschwitz. Her father and brother fled to Nice in southern France, and were followed soon thereafter by Charlotte. She joined the local Resistance when she was seventeen years old.
After her father stumbled upon her stash of weapons, Charlotte arranged false identity papers to get him out of the country and out of her hair. She told him that she would go with him to Switzerland, but when they reached the border she handed him to a guide to escort him the rest of the way, bid him adieu, then turned around and returned to the fight.
8. This Teenager Guided Fugitives to Safety Beyond German Reach
Charlotte Noshpitz’s Resistance work included stashing and transporting weapons and money, often beneath the Germans’ noses, and creating and supplying fake documents. She also helped save fugitives from the Nazis by guiding them to the French border and safety beyond in Switzerland or Spain. Her charges included many Jewish children.
She also took part in direct action such as planting explosives – including a bomb that went off in a Paris movie theater where SS members were gathered. During the 1944 Paris Uprising that preceded that city’s liberation, Charlotte was in the thick of the fighting.
7. After the War, This Heroine Befriended Ernest Hemingway, and Went on to a Rewarding Professional Career
For her wartime services and efforts that helped save the lives of so many, Charlotte Noshpitz was awarded a slew of decorations. They included the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre, and the War Commemoration Medal. After the war, Charlotte resumed her education. She studied psychology at the Sorbonne, art history at the Louvre, and languages.
She sailed to America to further her mental health studies and to examine a model health treatment center in Kansas for replication in Paris. During a rough crossing of the Atlantic, she met and befriended Ernest Hemingway. After her return to France, she married in a ceremony attended by her Resistance compatriots, and settled into family life and a rewarding professional career.
6. Before He Became the World’s Most Famous Mime, This Teenager Used His Miming Talents to Save Jewish Children
Marcel Marceau (1923 – 2007) was the world’s most famous mime, and his white-faced character, the melancholy vagabond Bip, became known around the globe. Before he was famous, Marcel spent his teenage years hiding from the Nazis and fighting for the French Resistance during WWII. As part of his underground activities, Marceau managed to save numerous Jewish children from the Nazis by smuggling them to safety. He had aspired to become a mime ever since he first saw a Charlie Chaplain movie as a child. Miming talent came in handy to distract and quiet the tiny tots as he smuggled them past German guards and across the border to safety in Switzerland.
Born Marcel Mangel, the future star was sixteen when WWII began. When the Nazis conquered France, Marceau’s father, a kosher butcher, had to hide the family’s Jewish origins and fled with them to central France. Marcel’s father was captured, however, and sent to his death in Auschwitz. The teenager moved to Paris, and with forged identity papers in which he adopted the surname “Marceau” after a French Revolutionary War general, joined the Resistance.
5. After Using His Miming Skills to Save Children, Marcel Marceau Used them to Become a Global Star
Marcel Marceau’s mime skills were not only good enough to save children from the Holocaust, but to also made him a star. After the Allies landed in France, Marceau gave his first major performance before an audience of 3000 soldiers in a liberated Paris. He then joined the Free French army for the rest of the war. His talent for languages and near fluency in English and German got him appointed as a liaison officer embedded with George Patton’s Third US Army.
After the war, Marceau had a long and eventful career. His accomplishments included winning an Emmy Award, and getting declared a national treasure in Japan despite not being Japanese. He also became a member of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and forged a decades-long friendship with Michael Jackson, who borrowed some of Marceau’s moves in his dance routines. In 2020, Resistance, a biographical drama about his life, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, was released.
4. This Resistance Heroine Grew Up in an Antifascist Home That Sheltered Fugitives From the Nazis
Dutch Resistance Heroine Truus Menger-Oversteegen was born into a left-wing working-class family in 1923. She grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. Before WWII, her family actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped save Jewish and political refugees from the Nazis by facilitating their escape from Germany.
Truus grew up accustomed to fugitives hiding in her home from Dutch police, who were likely to return them to the German border and hand them to the dreaded Gestapo. She was thus already an antifascist long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was fifteen-years-old.
3. This Heroine Joined the Resistance When She Was Sixteen
When the Nazis began deporting the Netherlands’ Jews, the country’s communists and socialists came together in February 1941, to lead a massive strike in protest. It was one of the few successful nationwide protests against the Germans, and it encouraged the rise of the Dutch resistance.
The widespread protests against the deportation of Jews led the Nazis to ramp up their repression and brutality, in order to cow the Dutch into obedience and toeing the line. The repression increased the alienation of the Dutch people, and drove them in increasing numbers into the arms of the budding resistance. Truus Menger-Oversteegen joined the Dutch Resistance when she was sixteen. She began by distributing leaflets and illegal newspapers, and offering assistance to fugitives seeking to save themselves from the occupiers.
2. An Attempt to Save Jewish Children That Ended in Tragedy and Massacre
In 1941, following a massive Dutch workers’ strike, the Nazi occupation authorities cracked down hard. That further radicalized Truus, and spurred her to join an armed resistance that engaged in direct action against the Germans. After receiving military training and learning how to operate a firearm, Truus’ early assignments included flirting with and seducing German soldiers, and leading them into the woods, to be killed by her comrades. Before long, the teenager was shooting Germans herself, and using explosives to blow up bridges and railroad tracks.
Life as an armed partisan was a difficult row to hoe, full of dangers and marked by tragedy as often as success. Early on, Truus was present at a failed mission to save Jewish children from German clutches. It ended with the fugitives caught in searchlights in an open field, where most were massacred, mown down with machine guns.
1. Despite a Nazi Bounty on Her Head, This Heroine Survived the War to Become a Respected Artist, Sculptress, and Public Speaker
By the time WWII had ended, many of Truus-Menger-Oversteegen’s Resistance comrades had been arrested and executed, with her unable to do anything to save them. Suspicion was rife that Truus’ and other left-wing cells had been betrayed by conservative members of the Resistance. The right-wing of the Resistance was perceived as having been backward during the actual fight, only to come forward at the hour of liberation to claim the lion’s share of the credit.
Despite the setbacks and daily dangers, Truus courageously soldiered on and kept up the fight, evading capture despite a sizeable reward that was placed on her head. After the war, she put down her arms, and beating swords into ploughshares, raised a family and went on to make a name for herself as a respected artist and sculptress, and as a public speaker at war memorial services.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading