In Search of Sugihara
For our appalling century, the scene outside the Japanese consulate in a leafy suburb of Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania, in the early weeks of August 1940, was not an unusual one. Pressed against the consulate’s iron-barred gates, a line of refugees two hundred yards long wound round the block. Some had been there for days, sleeping in tents or in the open; others, whole families, were newly arrived. A surviving photograph shows them adequately dressed and fed, but unsmiling and apprehensive. As one small group is being admitted, documents in hand, the rest shuffle patiently forward. There are no onlookers, no guards, no police; only a buzz of excited talk, in Polish and Yiddish. All but a handful are Jews from neighboring Poland, a country which, months before, had ceased to exist.
But inside the consulate the scene is like no other our age has seen: an improvised rescue operation run like an assembly line. On the consulate’s ground floor a Lithuanian-born German, Wolfgang Gudze (by repute the local Gestapo agent), sits at a desk, sorting travel documents and filling out forms. Alongside him, collecting passports and suggesting appropriate answers to queries, is a young Polish Jew, Moshe Zupnik, later a rabbi and the proprietor of a fabric shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One set of passports that they process are those of three hundred students of a famous yeshiva, a college for the study of Jewish scripture in eastern Lithuania, who wait outside. Two employees of the consulate, Poles with a brisk military bearing, help with the work. All the applicants pay the same fee: two Lithuanian lit, then about twenty cents. Some, short of money, are paid for by other applicants. No one is refused, no one turned away.
In his office upstairs the consul is busy with a rubber stamp, bearing the sixteen-petaled chrysanthemum crest of his emperor, and a fountain pen, writing out visas in neat vertical lines of Sino-Japanese characters, pausing neither to eat nor to ask questions. He writes, in less than five minutes each, visas to distant, exotic destinations, which none of the recipients ever intend to see. Many of his visas still exist, treasured for over a half-century because the recipients owe their lives to them. In a mixture of stiff diplomatic English, French, and Japanese, they read:
Seen for the journey through Japan to Surinam, Curaçao and other Netherlands Colonies. 1940 VIII
Consul du Japon à Kaunas.
As Consul Sugihara works steadily through piles of passports, his wife, Yukiko, who is expecting a third child, tends their two small sons on the floor above. At night she will massage her husband’s arm for writer’s cramp. In the top-floor apartment the tenant, a friendly Lithuanian woman, non-Jewish, prepares food for the refugees, looks after their children while they apply for visas, and lets them use her bathroom.
The scene is the stuff of legend, and many have clustered around …