Sugihara’s List

In Search of Sugihara

by Hillel Levine
Free Press, 323 pp., $25.00


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:

Transit Visa

Seen for the journey through Japan1 to Surinam, Curaçao and other Netherlands Colonies. 1940 VIII

Chiune Sugihara,
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 it. HillelLevine, a professor of sociology and religion (and an ordained rabbi), has made a long, fascinating search for solid facts on Sugihara: Who was he? Was he especially pro-Jewish? Why? How many did his twenty-cent visas save? On the last, Levine has unearthed hard evidence: a list in the archives of the Japanese foreign ministry with the names of 2,139 people issued transit visas by Sugihara, almost all in nineteen working days of August 1940, and evidence that 2,132 of them made it to Japan, and to quixotic safety. He has found many survivors, who all credit their lives to Sugihara’s visas.

There may have been many more: Levine heard of forged passports and visas, or visas written on sheets of paper, and there is an endearing story, for which Levine did not find an eye-witness, that Sugihara was still handing visas out of the window as his train left Kaunas for Berlin on September 3, 1940. Still, more than two thousand lives saved with a rubber stamp and a fountain pen, while little enough to set against the millions lost in the Holocaust, is still a welcome victory for humanity. Levine, the preliminary planner of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, had this in mind when he set out on his search for Sugihara, whom he never met. Perhaps, he imagined, there might have been a “conspiracy of goodness,” a case of bending the rules in kindness to oppose the “desk murderers” of that horrific undertaking. In this search, Levine confesses himself baffled. Oskar Schindler began his celebrated list in order to keep his factory going, which is at least an intelligible motive; Levine could find nothing to explain what Sugihara did. He did not, I believe, look in the right place; but he has nevertheless uncovered a strange story, and wrestled mightily to understand the blackest crime of our criminal times.

The future Consul Sugihara was born into a family of samurai, or hereditary warrior, origin in Yaotsu, a small mountain town thirty miles from the port city of Nagoya, on January 1, 1900. Descended from the local feudal lord, his mother was very probably the parent who chose his given name, Chiune (pronounced Chi-oo-ney), which means “a thousand furrows” and conveys the idea of prosperous, well-tended fields.2 The name was already rare in the consul’s day and has now all but vanished. Something like “Fairmeadow Cedarfield” (as “Sugihara” literally translates) would have much the same Old World, landed-gentry flavor for English speakers. All his life the consul used his unusual given name and birthdate as conversation-openers, especially effective with his fellow Japanese.

Chiune’s father, the regional tax inspector, was transferred to Korea, newly annexed by Japan, when Chiune was ten. He henceforth saw little of his second son, who was intended for medicine but, preferring languages to bandages, enrolled in the English faculty of the elite Waseda University in Tokyo. There, in 1919, Chiune saw an advertisement by the Japanese foreign ministry offering scholarships abroad for language study. He applied, and won one of three places for the Russian course at a Japanese-run college in the cosmopolitan city of Harbin, Manchuria, an important junction on the Russian-built East China Railway, a short cut from Moscow to Vladivostok through the Chinese provinces of Manchuria.

Attracted by the freer atmosphere, people of many nationalities had settled in Harbin, including a third of a million Chinese, 120,000 Russians, and 13,000 Jews, mainly from Russia, making the city ideal for Russian studies. Although he was later fluent in German, French, English, and Chinese, Sugihara gave his heart to Russian (and to a Russian) and spent the rest of his life perfecting his command of Russian culture, language, and literature, a mastery deeper than politics, amounting almost to a second personality, although he never ceased to be, unmistakably, a Japanese.

At some time in 1924, according to records Levine has unearthed at the Japanese foreign ministry, young Sugihara, newly graduated in Harbin, married a beautiful White Russian dancer, Klaudia Semionovna Apollonova, and before their lavish wedding converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity (if a Japanese of his outlook can be said to convert exclusively to anything, since he continued the Shinto and Buddhist observances that are part of being Japanese).

Unearthing this marriage was Levine’s first surprise. Our only previous source on Sugihara, an affectionate 1993 memoir, Visas for Life, by his Japanese second wife, Yukiko,3 does not mention her predecessor, and gives his religion, without explanation, as “Greek Orthodox.” Thinking that Klaudia Sugihara might be a “hidden Queen Esther” (who persuaded her non-Jewish husband King Xerxes of Persia to prevent a massacre of Jews), Levine found her, aged ninety-three, in a retirement home in Sydney, Australia, and had another surprise. Although she later married a Jewish doctor named Dorf, the first Mrs. Sugihara turned out to be from an Orthodox White Russian family well connected to anti-Semitic Tsarist generals. Did Sugihara have any special Jewish friends in Harbin? Levine asked the first wife. “He was very kind to people, animals, Jews and not Jews,” the old lady recalled fondly. “He was friends with everyone.” And, she added, they had kept in touch; he had sent her a kimono as recently as 1981 (when he was past eighty). Both of them, she recalled, loved dancing, and often threw parties with a hundred guests. Why had their ten-year marriage foundered? “I was a cold woman but somehow men loved me,” she said. “I didn’t want children. I regret it. I told him to marry someone and have children.” She called him Sergei Pavelovich, Klaudia recalled, and he called her, by an odd coincidence, Yukiko. After their divorce, Sugihara continued to support her and various nieces and nephews. By his former wife’s report, Sugihara was a “truly good man.”

Meanwhile, despite this matrimonial mishap his career was prospering. Attached to the Japanese consulate in Harbin as “interpreter-researcher,” Sugihara is credited as compiler of a 1926 foreign ministry study, General Survey of the National Economy of the Soviet Union. In 1931, after a fabricated incident on the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway (which Japan had acquired as war booty after winning the 1905-1906 Russo-Japanese war), the Japanese army incorporated all of Manchuria and part of Inner Mongolia into a nominally independent puppet state they called “Manchukuo”—predictably, a more dynamic (and much more brutal) version of the sleepy puppet states the British were then running in Malaya, and the Americans in the Philippines. In a typical colonial device, all the key jobs in “Manchukuo” were in fact held by Japanese.

Soon after it was set up, Sugihara was seconded from the Japanese foreign ministry to the Manchukuo foreign ministry, where, using his fluent Russian, he helped negotiate the buyout of the now-isolated East China Railway from the Soviet Union, finally completed after much haggling in 1935. This brought Harbin, with its thriving Jewish community, two synagogues, schools, and hospitals, under thinly disguised Japanese control—just as Adolf Hitler was beginning his persecution of Jews in Germany. This in turn hatched a Japanese scheme, which now seems bizarre, to attract Jews and Jewish capital endangered in Europe to Manchukuo, where, it was believed, Jewish skills and drive would soon repeat the successes of the kibbutz movement in Palestine. The scheme might also, its authors hoped, improve fast-deteriorating Japanese relations with the United States, where Jews were believed to have great, if hidden, influence. Sugihara, Levine concludes, must have known about this strange project.

In 1934, with the deal to buy out the Soviets’ now-redundant railroad already sewn up, Sugihara resigned from the Manchukuo foreign ministry to return to the foreign ministry in Tokyo, where he met and married his Japanese second wife, Yukiko Kikuchi, who was initially intrigued by his courtly manners and aristocratic given name. In her memoir she says her husband left Manchukuo in opposition to the treatment of Chinese and Koreans there. (Some 20 million Chinese and Koreans moved to booming Manchukuo to find work during the Japanese occupation, the biggest single migration in human history.) Levine, however, has interviewed an old friend and colleague from his Harbin years, Tadakazu Kasai, who told him that the Japanese army and military police suspected that Sugihara might be a secret Soviet sympathizer, in view of his “very intimate relations with Russians” while he was negotiating the purchase of the railroad. On another view, he was simply rotated back to Tokyo and the head office, a universally used precaution against diplomats “going native.”

In 1938 Sugihara was appointed Russian-Japanese translator in the Japanese embassy in Helsinki, Finland. He took his wife and sister-in-law, who was to help with their new first baby, Hiroki, on the long journey across the United States and through Germany. The Sugiharas were in Helsinki on August 23, 1939, when the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was announced, immediately followed by the German and Soviet invasion of Poland and the fourth partition of that country, which set off the Second World War in Europe. By a secret protocol attached to the pact, the two small Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, were to be included in the Soviet “sphere of influence” while the third Baltic state, Lithuania, was to be in Germany’s. The Germans tried to get Lithuania to join in the dismemberment of Poland, but the Lithuanians chose neutrality. On September 2, 1939, Sugihara was established as the first Japanese consul ever to be stationed in Kaunas, known to Jews as Kovno, then the capital of Lithuania. Within days he had rented a suburban villa, hired a local staff, put up a sign, and opened for business.

What kind of business? Levine has found convincing proof of what has only been suspected: Sugihara was a spy. Levine leaves us in no doubt that Sugihara’s consulate was hastily opened not to issue visas or facilitate the all but nonexistent trade and cultural relations between Lithuania and Japan, but to be the Japanese foreign ministry’s listening post on what was now, for Tokyo, a critically important frontier. For more than thirty years Japan and the Soviets had been in a state of undeclared war in Manchuria, where both had colonial ambitions. It was the Manchurian rivalry, much more than ideological affinity, that had led Japan to join the anti-Comintern pact with Germany three years earlier. Now Japan’s ally, Germany, had made an alliance with Stalin, the spider at the center of the Comintern web. This, we now know, was to cover Hitler’s rear for his invasion of France in June 1940; but it could equally have been to cover Stalin’s for a lunge against the Japanese in Manchuria; or the new allies might fall out, in which case Lithuania lay athwart the direct German invasion route to Leningrad. Furthermore, while Sugihara’s wife recalls him doing some light spying in person on weekends, driving his family in the consular Buick for picnics along the Polish border and then going for solitary after-lunch hikes in the woods, the genial consul’s real job was to maintain contact with what we would now call Japan’s in-place intelligence assets in the Baltic area.

That my enemy’s enemy is my friend is among the best-attested truths of diplomacy. The intelligence organs of Japan and Poland, at either end of the Soviet Union, had been secretly in touch ever since Poland regained independence in 1918. These contacts continued after Poland had been dismembered by Hitler and Stalin, the Polish spies now reporting to their government-in-exile in London. Levine has found incontrovertible proof in the Polish military archives that they also kept in contact with Japan. In fact, Sugihara hired two Polish spies as “secretaries” in his newly opened consulate in Kaunas: Captain Alfons Jakubianiec, code-named “Kuba,” and his colleague Jan Stanislå?aw Daszkiewicz, known as “Perz.” Using invented White Russian ancestries, Sugihara procured Manchukuo diplomatic passports for this adventurous pair and, when he left Kaunas, took them with him to Berlin, where “Kuba,” with the audacity characteristic of his profession, aroused jealousy and suspicion by conducting an affair with the wife of a Gestapo officer; he was arrested, tortured, and executed. His colleague Daszkiewicz, “Perz,” survived the war to leave a report in the Polish archives disclosing that he brought intelligence across the Soviet border to Sugihara—which makes much sense, Japan’s overwhelming anxiety at the time having been an invasion by the Red Army into Manchuria.

Levine has confirmed in the files of the German foreign ministry that this did not go unnoticed by the German embassy in Kaunas, where Sugihara was a frequent and inquisitive caller: “His visits did not fail to show that his main interest was military forces, and this in such a measure that gave birth to the assumption that his functions, as Consul, were solely disguised military assignments,” the embassy told Berlin, in clotted official German, curiously mentioning no refugees gathered outside the Japanese consulate.

With the help of Levine’s exhaustive research, we can now see more clearly what happened in Kaunas, Lithuania, at the end of the 1930s. On September 2, 1939, ten days after the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced, Japan rushed its personable Russian expert Sugihara from Helsinki to Lithuania to get reports from Japan’s Polish intelligence sources. Although he served a brief spell in the (probably) cover job of acting vice-consul in Helsinki, Sugihara’s career as “researcher” and “translator” was clearly that of a spook, as we would now say. On September 15, 1939, two days before invading Poland, the Soviets called an unexpected, unilateral cease-fire in their undeclared war against Japan in Manchuria, where the future Marshal Zhukov’s tanks had just wiped out a crack Japanese army division.

With Germany and the Soviets now allies, the anti-Comintern pact between Japan and Germany was clearly in deep trouble. A huge reversal of alliances was afoot, with Tokyo more than usually undecided about which way to jump; Japan’s erratic new foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka (the American-educated former chairman of the South Manchurian Railway), was toying with the scheme to resettle Jews from Europe in Japan’s colony in Manchuria. Asked how long Jews could stay in the Far East, the new Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoe, had replied, “forever, because Japan need not be considered an enemy of the Jews.” This had led White Russian anti-Semites in Harbin to accuse Konoe, a Japanese aristocrat, of being himself a secret Jew.

Foreign Minister Matsuoka, about to lead Japan into the Pact of Steel with Italy and Germany, wrote to a Jewish businessman: “I first want to assure you that anti-Semitism will never be adopted by Japan. True, I concluded a treaty with Hitler, but I never promised him to be an anti-Semite.” In December 1940 Matsuoka personally assured Lew Zikman, a Jewish sugar manufacturer from Manchukuo, that not only he but Emperor Hirohito himself strongly opposed the persecution of Jews. Then, as now, the Trans-Siberian Railway was looking for paying passengers, asking only for a destination beyond Vladivostok and the fare in hard currency. (Soviet citizens also had to have an exit visa as well, then all but unobtainable.) Lithuania was both neutral and a sanctuary for spies—and Jews. An improbable opportunity had opened: if Polish Jews trapped in Lithuania could show visas, they might find safety in Japan. But how could they persuade the mysterious new Japanese consul to issue them? In fact, Consul Sugihara needed no persuasion at all.

The first breakthrough was made by a young Dutch Talmudic student, Nathan Gutwirth, who was found by Levine half a century later working in the diamond business in Antwerp. Gutwirth told Levine that, while studying in Telse in eastern Lithuania in the summer of 1940, he had decided to go home. But in May 1940 the Wehrmacht had overwhelmed his homeland, and on June 15, 1940, the Red Army had occupied Lithuania. Gutwirth took his problem to the newly appointed Dutch honorary consul, Jan Zwartendijk, the Kaunas representative of the electrical firm Philips Gloeilampwerken, a businessman without consular experience (there were only five Dutch citizens in Lithuania). Zwartendijk consulted L.P.J. de Decker, the staunchly anti-Nazi Dutch consul in Riga, Latvia, who advised that, with a little tampering, Gutwirth could be issued a “permit” to enter Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies. Persons wishing to visit that distant tropical island had their passports stamped “For Curaçao…no visa is required. Only the local Governor has the authority to issue landing permits.” De Decker suggested that the last sentence be omitted, and authorized Zwartendijk to stamp passports in the shortened form.

As Zwartendijk (who died in 1976) later recalled: “The Japanese Consul at Kovno was entirely willing to issue a transit-visa to those who had my annotation for the Netherlands West Indies in their passports. A Russian transit-visa, I heard, was obtainable after the Japanese transit-visa was procured.” According to his son, Zwartendijk issued 1200 to 1400 doctored Curaçao “visas.” And after Japan, where next? Shanghai, by that time under Japanese control, was one of the few cities in the world then willing to admit Jewish and other refugees without a visa of any kind. It was in Shanghai that most of the holders of the Dutch-Japanese visa combination wound up, via Japan, to survive the war there. None is known to have made it to Curaçao.

What led to the Zwartendijk/Sugihara partnership? Ludvik Salomon from Cracow, Poland, received a Sugihara visa on July 26, 1940—one of the first to get one. In 1994, by then Lewis Salton of Boston, Massachusetts, he told Levine that he tried every consulate in Kaunas after the American consul there, Owen J.C. Norem, primly applying bureaucratic rules, had declined to extend his expired US entry visa. Sugihara, he recalled, had poured him tea, studied his passport, said, “American visa? No problem!” and wrote him out a Japanese transit visa. That night Salomon told the anxious refugees gathered at the Café Metropole about his success. “Soon, a line formed in front of the Japanese consulate. The rest is history,” he told Levine.

At this stage, at least, Sugihara was still requiring the imaginative Curaçao “end point.” Zwartendijk, with a rubber stamp, was getting far ahead of Sugihara, who had to write his transit visas by hand. Sugihara telephoned Zwartendijk asking him to slow down, but not to stop. One applicant, Mojsze Grynberg, a young Polish Bundist, or Jewish Socialist, seeing a line in front of the Dutch consulate, scaled a drainpipe to the honorary consul’s second-floor room. “The consul looked a bit surprised,” Gryndberg told Levine, “but he quickly issued me a [Curaçao] visa.” Meanwhile the Red Army, now occupying Lithuania, had staged Soviet-style “elections.” On July 21, 1940, the new Lithuanian parliament unanimously “requested” the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union. On August 3, 1940, the Supreme Soviet in Moscow declared Lithuania a constituent republic of the USSR. Foreign consulates in Kaunas were ordered to close. By September 4, 1940, the Sugiharas were on their way, via Berlin, to his next posting, German-occupied Prague.

Catching up with his office work there, Sugihara prepared the list, dated March 30, 1941, of the 2,139 transit visas he had issued inKaunas, which Levine found in the Japanese archives. Neither the list nor the visas state religion, but almost all seem by their names to be Polish Jews. One was an American: Moses Beckelman, a courageous social worker sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York to see what help could be given to Jews stranded in Lithuania. Beckelman himself left via Japan in February 1941, six months after getting his Sugihara visa. Levine reports that a one-way ticket cost between $180 and $200, and that Jewish organizations worldwide provided $300,000, which would have paid for some 1,600 fares. Some refugees brought money with them, or received help from other Jews in Lithuania. On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union on an 1800-mile front, including a thrust toward Leningrad through Lithuania, cutting off the escape route to Japan. Levine estimates that upward of nine tenths of the Lithuanian and refugee Jewish community of some 200,000 were murdered by the Germans.

Did Sugihara, as his second wife has later claimed, disobey his own government or risk his life or career in issuing so many visas? Levine is puzzled to have found no reprimand in the Japanese archives, or clear instruction not to issue them, although the consul’s superiors in Tokyo say they are “confused” about some of his decisions. And, Levine discovered, Japanese consulates in Vienna, Prague, and other cities had also issued transit visas to people who were plainly Jews, since the Nazis had required them to add “Israel” or “Sarah” to their given names.

In at least one known case, however, Sugihara did take a huge risk, by giving transit visas and a spurious cover in spring 1940 to Lieutenant Stanislå?aw Kaspcik of Polish Military Intelligence and his wife, Stella, neither of them Jewish, to travel to then-neutral Japan via wartime Germany, since Kaspcik feared even more for his life in the Soviet Union (where the Soviets had murdered thousands of Polish offi-cers in the Katyn Forest in the spring of 1940). To improve the couple’s chances of survival, Sugihara sealed a pair of gloves in a package addressed to the Japanese foreign minister, which they showed to guards on the German and Italian trains, claiming to be diplomatic couriers. After “three days in fear” the couple reached a Japanese ship in Naples. “He was really a wonderful man, just a good man,” the still-sprightly Stella told Levine in London in 1994, showing him a photograph of smiling Sugihara, dapper in homburg, topcoat, and cane, seeing underground Polish intelligence and military officers off at Kaunas railway station in 1940.


Whatever else he was, Sugihara was a spy doing his job. After the Prague consulate closed, he was sent to Königsberg in East Prussia, listed in a coded cable from the Japanese embassy in Berlin as an ideal post for “collecting intelligence on the Soviets” and on “Berlin-Moscow relations.” In December 1941, when German troops were in the suburbs of Moscow, the Sugiharas were posted to Bucharest, Romania, where he spent two peaceful years, far from Allied bombing, gathering intelligence from White Russian contacts. After being interned by the invading Soviets in relatively benign conditions, the family returned to Japan, via Vladivostok, in April 1947. The following month Sugihara was asked to resign from the Japanese foreign service, with a pension at the pre-war scale of 1,613 yen per month.

In her memoir Mrs. Sugihara says she was told that her husband’s forced resignation “was because of that incident in Lithuania.” Rightly, Levine finds this hard to believe. Japan was then a country under indefinite occupation, with no representation abroad; it would not have had much use or budget for a forty-seven-year-old ex-consul with a Russian espionage background. Nor does a later report on German television that the Ameri-cans planned to try Sugihara as a war criminal seem remotely credible; by 1950 he was manager of the main US Army Post Exchange in Tokyo, one of the most coveted jobs in Japan. In the meantime, says Mrs. Sugihara, the family had to dip into the Swiss bank account they maintained during the war years to make ends meet.

In the early 1950s the Sugiharas built a new seaside house and the ex-consul joined NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the BBC, as a Russian translator. In 1960 he moved to Moscow, without his wife—he believed it was too cold and dangerous there for her, she says—to manage a Japanese trading company, among his beloved Russians, until he retired back to Japan in 1976. Sugihara visited Israel in 1969 on the invitation of the minister of religion, Zorach Warthaftig, who had received one of his visas. Sugihara’s son Nobuki was awarded a scholarship at Hebrew University (he is now in the diamond business in Antwerp), but his father was not elevated to the ranks of “Righteous Gentiles” because, while he saved many Jews, he had not risked his life sufficiently to qualify for the award. In 1985 Yad Vashem, the Israeli government’s authority for research into and commemoration of the Holocaust, reversed its decision, and the title was awarded to a frail Sugihara in Tokyo by the visiting Israeli foreign minister and future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. All this time Sugihara asked nothing for himself, was reluctant to talk about events in Lithuania, and seemed surprised by his late-in-life fame. He died on July 31, 1986, exactly, as he often reminded his friends, the same age as the century.

It is easy to see why Levine finds Sugihara so troubling, and why he has given his book such a modest title. Why, he frets, did Sugihara do it? As Levine complains: “This is all he has to say: ‘I acted according to my sense of human justice, out of love for mankind.’ No ‘-isms,’ no evocation of great ideas. A moving and earnest statement about goodness. But—dare I say it—is it not somewhat banal?” It is not, indeed, easy to fit Sugihara into any moral system we can readily recognize. Apart from attending a Chanukah celebration in Kaunas soon after he arrived, reportedly out of curiosity, the man who was interested in virtually everything showed no special knowledge of, or concern with, Jews and Judaism. Indeed, the language and culture of his greatest love, Russia, are those of the homeland of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, where so many of the attitudes behind the Holocaust originated. The pioneer of the Curaçao connection, the Dutch Talmudic student Nathan Gutwirth, years later confessed to Levine that “we were more afraid of the Russians than of the Germans”—not an absurd outlook in 1940, when the death camps were as yet unbuilt, the Soviets were allies of Germany, and the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller still seemed to be staging no more than Russian-style pogroms, only with Teutonic efficiency.

Levine does not conceal his suspicion of Sugihara’s motives: “Why do you and your wife claim that you were working in opposition to your government?” he wonders. Here Levine makes much too much out of a fond widow’s pardonable portrayal of her husband. Party-goer and ballroom dancer, dutiful parent and loyal spouse, Swiss bank depositor and diligent spy, Sugihara is at once a simpler and more appealing figure than Levine wants him to be, and there is nothing mysterious about his actions. All accounts confirm what his given name tells us: Sugihara was a Japanese-style scholar, spy, and gentleman, a product of classical bushido, the much-misrepresented Way of the Gentry of the Sword. The bushido taught in the consul’s youth was very different from the debased version promoted by the Japanese military during the Second World War, and different again from the caricature denounced by Japan’s enemies. The virtues inculcated into the old-fashioned bushi included—along with the duty of revenge and the nobility of suicide, repugnant to us—compassion, moral honesty, disdain for compromise, belief immediately expressed in action. The beau geste, heedless of consequences, undertaken in defense of the weak, is very much part of the bushido tradition, a point made by the director Akira Kurosawa (Sugihara’s near-contemporary, from a similar background) in Seven Samurai.4 Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the samurai code puts loyalty to superiors ahead of the Judeo-Christian ideal of personal responsibility, in normal circumstances; but when there is no clear line of command, action cannot be postponed. Procrastination or going by the book, the universal bureaucratic self-defenses, are forbidden by the code. Sugihara himself explained:

People in Tokyo were not unified…. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain to me in the future. But I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong with saving many people’s lives. If anybody sees anything wrong in the action, it is because something “not pure” exists in their state of mind.

These words from an unpublished postwar interview explain Sugihara’s visas. He did as his inherited values told him to do, expected no reward or punishment beyond “complaint,” got none, and thought no more about it. Left to his own judgment, and seeing what he should do, he went to the limit. This is not heroism for a cause but something much rarer, disinterested good will. Sugihara showed us that there can be merit in a code very different from our own, that human solidarity can surface in unlikely surroundings, that there may yet be some hope for our sad species.

  1. 1

    Underlined in the original.

  2. 2

    Or “Sempo.” This is an alternative reading of the same name, more easily pronounced by non-Japanese. Sugihara did not, as Levine says, change his name.

  3. 3

    Translated by Hiroki Sugihara, self-published from 774 Alto Loma Drive, San Francisco, CA 94080.

  4. 4

    Donald Richie’s masterly The Films of Akira Kurosawa, in a new edition (University of California Press, 1995), makes this clear.