In the midst of the Holocaust, a Japanese stranger saved my family and thousands of other Jewish refugees. Over a half-century later, I found myself fumbling for the right way to give thanks.
Here are the barest outlines of the story. In 1940, a man named Chiune Sugihara was serving as the Japanese vice-consul in Kovno, Lithuania. One day, Sugihara was greeted at the gate of the Japanese consulate by a crowd of Jewish refugees. They’d come to beg for help finding a way out of Europe.
Among the crowd at the gate that day were my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-aunts and uncles. They’d already survived almost a year on the run from Hitler. They’d fled their homes in the Polish city of Krakow and traveled by foot on bomb-cratered roads. They’d hidden in barns, slept in coffins at a funeral home, and been captured attempting to cross the Lithuanian border. They’d endured interrogation in a Russian prison and then escaped, only to find themselves moored in Kovno, with war closing in and no way out.
My relatives and the other refugees at the gate that day held documents that offered a glimmer of hope. The documents, issued by a Dutch diplomat, stated that the bearers of these papers did not need a visa to enter the Dutch colony of Curacao in the West Indies. The statement was literally true—but it was also a bureaucratic fake-out. While Curacao didn’t require a visa, no one could enter Curacao without the governor’s personal permission.
But the documents at least gave the refugees an official destination—enough, perhaps, to allow them to board a boat, escape Hitler’s reach, and improvise from there.
They could board a boat to Curacao in Japan, but only if they had transit visas authorizing passage through that country. So the refugees thronging the gate of the Japanese consulate had come to beg for transit visas from Chiune Sugihara: a minor career diplomat with no connection to Jews, and no reason to help them.
Repeatedly, Sugihara wired Tokyo for permission to issue transit visas to Jews bound for Curacao. Each time, the answer was no.
But refusals from German-allied Tokyo didn’t stop the rumor from spreading among Kovno’s Jewish refugees: help might be forthcoming from the Japanese vice-consul. The crowds outside the windows of the consulate thickened. And Sugihara, watching refugees continue to stream in, made a decision to defy his government.
More than four decades later, when asked to explain his motivation, Sugihara said, “It is the kind of sentiment anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them.”
Chiune Sugihara signed dozens of transit visas, then hundreds. He ran out of visa forms and improvised new ones, and kept signing until the Japanese consulate was closed six weeks later. By the time he was through, he had signed over 5,000 visas.
With their visas, my family took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, then a fishing boat to Japan. Once there, they crossed the Pacific on a Japanese ship bound for Curacao. When the ship docked in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles in autumn of 1940, my family tried to disembark—but in accordance with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies barring entrance for refugees without visas, the ship was kept several meters from the pier, with spotlights trained on it through the night so no one could swim to shore.
Only when the ship docked in Mexico were my relatives able to bribe their way onto land, where they hid until the ship sailed on. My mother was born in Mexico, and the family lived there until they were able to enter the U.S. in 1942.
Meanwhile, back home in post-war Japan, Sugihara’s decision to save the lives of Jewish refugees cost him his job and reputation. In defying orders, he’d destroyed his career and his family’s social standing. His name was now synonymous with disobedience. His family fell into poverty; he scrambled to feed them. He taught Russian and sold lightbulbs for a living.
Each of the visas Sugihara had signed was good for one family; those he saved went on to have children and grandchildren. Even by conservative math, approximately 60,000 people are alive today because of this one person.
He died in 1986, without any official restoration of his reputation from the government he’d served.
Nearly 60 years after Sugihara issued his visas in Lithuania, my family received an invitation in the mail. Would we attend a reception at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., to honor his family?
A few months later, my mother, cousin, great-aunt, and I stood on a snaking reception line in the embassy’s atrium, shuffling toward a diminutive, silver-haired woman clad in a pink kimono. She was Sugihara’s widow, there to receive official recognition for all her husband had done, and what her family had endured.
Reasoning that my family and I were invited primarily to serve as symbols, I’d fretted inordinately that day over what to wear. While diplomats made speeches, we would provide photographers with a mute tableau of Sugihara’s legacy. My role, I assumed, was to make my appearance match the gravity of the occasion. I didn’t expect any opportunity to speak with the Sugihara family.
Only as we neared Mrs. Sugihara did it occur to me that we might indeed be able to speak to her. But I’d neglected to prepare the most important thing of all: the right words.
Reaching the head of the line, my great-aunt Lilly explained to Mrs. Sugihara through a translator that her late husband’s visas had saved her at age 16. My great-aunt pointed to the rest of us one by one: daughter … niece … great-niece. We stood on display, trying to look respectful, grateful, and friendly. And then our audience was finished.
Just beyond Mrs. Sugihara, though, stood a woman roughly my age. She was Sugihara’s granddaughter, and she spoke English. Suddenly she and I were face to face, without anyone to intercede.
I introduced myself, and said I was happy to meet her. I said something about gratitude and respect. And then I had no idea what else to say. The words thank you weren’t big enough. This woman’s family had hovered in my imagination all my life, characters in a fairytale. I’d wondered about what Sugihara’s heroism had meant for his family; I’d wondered, too, whether in moments of hardship they’d even wished that he’d kept the consulate’s gate locked instead of offering to help. I’d have understood if they had.
At a loss, and aware that I was standing there like a stalled engine, I asked Chiune Sugihara’s granddaughter what it was like to see her grandfather honored, after so many years.
“He is my elder,” she said. “I respect him.” After a moment she added, “He lives in my heart every day.”
And then the crowd separated us, releasing me into an eddy of people and photographers.
On the flight home, our exchange gnawed at me. I knew I’d failed to find the right words of gratitude.
Only as the plane descended into Boston did the right words come to me. It was too late to say them to Sugihara’s granddaughter. But it wasn’t too late to act. What I wanted to say was this:
Your grandfather also lives in my heart every day. And if you and your family ever need safe haven, I’ll turn my life upside down to provide it for you.
But since it’s unlikely you’ll ever need my help, it’s now my responsibility to recognize the people who do.