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An Unsung Hero

Jan 26, 2013

An Unsung Hero

How a Japanese Diplomat, and one of my personal heroes, Saved 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust

In downtown Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo one block from the Japanese American National Museum, stands a statue of a man very few people know about or would ever recognize. His name was Chiune Sugihara, and he did an extraordinary thing seven decades ago.

Sugihara was a diplomat working at the Japanese consulate in Lithuania during the first years of World War II. As the Nazi forces threatened to overrun the small nation, thousands of Jewish refugees, who already had fled the horrors of Poland, crammed around the compound desperate for safe passage out of the country. Sugihara didn’t hesitate. Disobeying direct orders, and thus risking his own career and indeed freedom, he issued visa after visa, scribbling them out as quickly as he could and even enlisting his wife to help over the course of nearly a month, often staying up all night to process ever more. Survivors recall that Sugihara, who was forced to vacate the compound, even thrust completed, stamped visas out of his train window as it pulled away from the platform.

In all, six thousand people who would otherwise be destined for the gas chambers were spared; they fled to Japan and often on to other nations from there.

For years the survivors and their families tried to locate Sugihara, if only to thank him for what he did. He paid a heavy price for his actions; after spending 18 months in a Soviet prison camp, and finally returning to Japan, he was asked to resign his post, likely as a direct result of his incredible stance. Sugihara lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity until happily, in 1985 just a year before his death, he was honored with a “Righteous Among the Nations” award–an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. He shares this title with the likes of Oskar Schindler.

On this Holocaust Remembrance day, I share this story to remind us all that heroes come in all forms, and there are times each of us may be called upon to be heroic. Chiune Sugihara heard that call, and he answered it resoundingly.

Please share this story so that, somewhere in the heavens, Sugihara and his legacy will shine on. Thank you.

–George Takei

To read more about Chiune Sugihara: Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story