Do you have a principle for which you’d risk your job, your financial security and even your life? During World War 2, a Japanese couple acted on principle and saved more than 6,000 lives. But they paid a big price for their courage.
In 1939, Japanese Consul-General Chiune Sugihara opened a tiny consulate in Lithuania. But several months later, Adolph Hitler’s forces conquered Poland and began executing thousands of Jews. Jewish refugees fled for their lives to nearby Lithuania, taking only what they could carry.
By 1940, the Nazis had conquered most of Western Europe, leaving few other nations aside from Lithuania that would allow Jews to come.
Meanwhile, the Russians captured Lithuania and all the consulates closed except Holland’s and Japan’s. Desperate Jews found on a map two Caribbean islands Holland controlled and Holland’s acting consul issued entrance permits to them.
But to reach those islands, the Jews had to go through Russia. The Russians agreed if the Jews got transit visas from Japan’s consulate as they had to go through Japan to get to those islands.
Sugihara suddenly had crowds of frantic Jews surrounding his consulate, some with their children in hand, pleading for transit visas to escape the rapidly approaching Nazis. Three times Sugihara urgently wired his government for approval and three times he was told no.
Sugihara knew the fate of those Jews if the Nazis got them. He told his wife Yukiko and their three children that to issue those visas would defy his government and bring harsh repercussions to their family.
He’d likely be fired which would bring disgrace and financial hardship to the family. Worse yet, if the Nazis found out they were helping the Jews flee, they might execute the Sugiharas.
Despite the repercussions, his family supported him. Starting on July 31st, Sugihara with a deep sense of compassion devoted himself 16 hours a day, filling out and issuing those transit visas. His wife soon assisted him and unofficially, so did at least one Jewish person.
But on August 28th, the Japanese government shut the consulate and assigned Sugihara and his family to Berlin, apparently unaware at that time, that he was issuing those visas. Yet even as the train pulled out, he hung from the train window, issuing more visas.
He then tossed the visa stamp to a Jewish person so that still more Jews could be saved.
The Sugiharas issued 2,139 visas which saved about 6,000 Jews. None of them went to the Caribbean. Most went to Japan and were then sent to the Jewish settlement in Shanghai for the rest of the War. Today, it is estimated that 40,000 descendants are “Sugihara Survivors.”
But Chiune Sugihara paid a price. In 1947, he was fired from a promising career in diplomatic service. To take care of his family, he took various jobs. He worked in a grocery store, worked as a translator and spent 16 years with a Russian trading firm, often living in Moscow, and sending money home.
His grandson told PBS (5/15/05) that in his modest apartment he cooked his meals on a hot plate near the toilet.
Sugihara, who died at 86 in 1986, didn’t discuss his extraordinary actions, nor accept money or seek awards for what he had done. He said, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I would be disobeying God.”
The passage of time brought Sugihara the respect he had earned. This humble man was honored for his courageous actions in Israel, the U.S. and in Lithuania and very important to the Sugihara family, in Japan. And most of all he received and has the gratitude of thousands of Jewish people whose lives wouldn’t exist but for his courage.
Success Tip of the Week: Sometimes it takes great courage to act on principle, Sugihara being a fine example. If you have a principle burning within you, act on it. Even if what happens does not change the world, it will change you. You will learn from the experience and gain a higher level of self-esteem knowing you did what few others would have the gallantry to do.
In the next KazanToday, A remarkable lesson Gandhi learned by helping litigants settle a difficult lawsuit that could make a big difference in your life today.