Chiune Sugihara was born in 1900 to a middle-class family in Gifu Prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Sugihara wanted to travel, to see and experience everything the world had to offer. He was interested in foreign ideas, religion, philosophy, and language, an area of study in which he excelled. Sugihara was a humble man with no temper, self-sacrificing and fond of self-effacing humor. His second wife Yukiko, who he married in 1935, said he found it very difficult to discipline the children when they misbehaved. Samurai ethics were still firmly in effect during Sugihara’s upbringing, with the virtues of love of the family, care for children, duty and responsibility, controlling one’s emotions, resourcefulness, and not bringing shame on the family. It took enormous courage for Sugihara to defy his father’s desire that he become a doctor, instead leaving Japan to study overseas. His life took another modern turn when he married a Caucasian woman and converted to Christianity while working for the government in Manchuria. He would quit that post in protest of the government’s mistreatment of the native Chineses and openly opposed the Japanese military policies of expansion in the 1930s.
Being fluent in Russian helped Sugihara become vice-consul of the Japanese consulate in the temporary Lithuanian capital of Kovno in November 1939. The location between Germany and the Soviet Union was strategically significant and Sugihara was under orders to gather intelligence on Soviet and German troop movements in the Baltic region.
After Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Sugihara had barely settled into his post when the first wave of Jewish refugees arrived in Lithuania, with chilling tales of German atrocities against the Jewish population. They had escaped Poland without possessions or money; the local Jewish population did their utmost to help the refugees with money, clothing and shelter. Lithuania had been an enclave of peace and prosperity for the 120,000 Jews who lived there, and it was hard for people to believe the level of brutality that was being reported. Sugihara realized that, with western Europe engulfed in war, their most likely escape route from Lithuania was an eastern route through the Soviet Union to Japan.
That changed in June 1940, when the Soviets invaded Lithuania. It was now too late for the Lithuanian Jews to leave for the East. Most of Western Europe had been conquered by the Nazis, with Britain standing alone. The rest of the free world, with very few exceptions, barred the immigration of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Strangely specifically, the Soviets would allow Polish Jews to continue to travel from Lithuania through the Soviet Union if they could obtain specific travel documents.
In July 1940, the Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassies to leave Kaunas. Most made tracks immediately, but except for the acting Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, and Sugihara, who requested to stay for 20 more days. Some of the Polish refugees came up with a plan. They discovered that two Dutch colonial islands in the Caribbean, Curacao and Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname), did not require formal entrance visas. Zwartendijk got permission to stamp their passports with entrance permits.
There was still one major obstacle. To get to these islands, the refugees needed to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan. The Soviet consul agreed to let them pass on one condition: In addition to the Dutch entrance permit, they would also have to obtain a transit visa from the Japanese government. On a summer morning in late July 1940, Sugihara and his family woke to a crowd of desperate Polish Jewish refugees gathered outside the consulate. Sugihara was moved by their plight, but he did not have the authority to independently issue hundreds of visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. Sugihara wired his government three times for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees. Three times he was denied. The Japanese Consul in Tokyo sent him a telegram: Concerning transit visas requested previously STOP advise absolutely not to be issued any traveler not holding firm end visa with guaranteed departure ex japan STOP no exceptions STOP no further inquiries expected STOP K. Tanaka foreign ministry tokyo
Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. On one side, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other, he could not ignore those in need. If he defied his superiors, he could be fired, blacklisted, and disgraced, leaving his family in extreme financial hardship. He took the decision to his family. His wife Yukiko feared for their lives and the lives of their children, but they could only follow their consciences. The visas would be signed. Siguhara also spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let Jews travel through the country on the Trans-Siberian Railway, though it would be at five times the standard ticket price.
For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara spent countless hours writing and signing visas by hand. They wrote over 300 visas, a month’s worth of work, every day. Yukiko also helped him register the visas and massaged Chiune’s cramping hands. She had to make sure he was eating, because he did not want to lose a minute. People were standing in line in front of his consulate day and night for these visas. When some people began climbing the compound wall, Sugihara went out to calm them down and assure them that he would do is best to help them all. He told the refugees to call him “Sempo” – the Sino-Japanese reading of the Japanese characters of his given name – as it was easier for non-Japanese people to pronounce. Many of the ten-day travel visas went to heads-of- household, who would automatically be allowed to bring their families with them. Hundreds of applicants became thousands as he worked to process as many visas as possible before he would be forced to close the consulate and leave Lithuania on September 4.
Consul Sugihara continued handing out visas from the window of his train until the moment it pulled out of Kovno headed for Berlin. In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he prepared to depart, he said, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.” Sugihara worried there might be an official reaction to the massive number of visas he issued, that someone might call them into question and refuse to honor them, but many years later, he recalled, “No one ever said anything about it. I remember thinking that they probably didn’t realize how many I actually issued.”
While it’s hard to know exactly how many visas Chiune Sugihara issued, as many as six thousand refugees made their way to Japan, China, and other countries in the following months and escaped the Holocaust in Europe. Despite his disobedience, the Japanese government found Sugihara’s skills useful for the remainder of the war. But in 1945, the Japanese government unceremoniously dismissed him from diplomatic service and he effectively had to start his life over again, only able to find part-time work as an interpreter. For the last two decades of his life, he worked as a manager for an export company with business in Moscow.
Sugihara’s fateful decision to risk his career, and even his life, may have been influenced by a simple act of kindness from an 11-year-old boy the previous year. Solly Ganor was the son of refugees from the Russian revolution in the early 1920s. His family prospered in Lithuania in the years before World War II. Solly became concerned about the Polish Jews entering Kaunas, and gave his allowance and savings to charity to help them. Having given away all of his money, he went to his aunt’s shop to ask her for a lit (the Lithuanian dollar) to see the latest Laurel and Hardy movie. Sugihara overheard the conversation and gave Solly two lit to have a good time at the movies. Full of gratitude, Solly invited Sugihara to celebrate the first night of Chanukah with his family. Sugihara was delighted to accept, and he and Yukiko attended their first Jewish holiday. The closeness of Solly’s family reminded Sugihara of his own family, and the bounty of desserts didn’t hurt either. Sadly, Solly’s family would not be able to benefit from the visas Sugihara would issue the next year as they were still Soviet citizens. Solly and his father spent over two years in the Kaunas ghetto before being deported to the outer camps of Dachau in late 1944. Solly was actually rescued by Japanese American soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, though their story will have to wait for another day.
After the war, Sugihara never spoke of his extraordinary deeds. His story was largely unknown, until 1969 when he was tracked down by one of the men he had saved. Soon, hundreds of others came forward and testified to the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial) in Israel about his life saving acts of courage. After gathering testimonies from all over the world, Yad Vashem realized the enormity of Sugihara’s act of kindness and bravery. Today, two generations later, 40,000 people are alive who wouldn’t have been if not for him. In 1985, he received Israel’s highest honor, being recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Sugihara was too old to travel to Israel, so his wife and son went to accept on his behalf. A tree was planted in his name at Yad Vashem, and a park in Jerusalem was named in his honor. When asked why he signed the visas, Sugihara’s reason was simple, “They were human beings and they needed help,” he said. “I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them.”
Mere days after the German occupation of Poland’s western territories triggered World War II in Sept 1939, Soviet forces invaded from the east. This was not an improvement over the encroaching Nazis. The Soviet atrocities in eastern Poland included mass arrests and massacres, seizure of land and businesses, and the displacement and enslavement of the civilian population. Writes historian Norman Davies in Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, “Of the estimated two million Polish civilians deported to Arctic Russia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan, in the terrible railway convoys of 1939-40, at least one half were dead within a year of their arrest.” When the Soviets joined the Allied powers in 1941, many of the deportees were released, but because of the war, there was no homeland for them to return to. Many of the men joined the Polish Army, while the women and children were evacuated to Iran and eventually given asylum in countries as far away as Kenya, New Zealand, Mexico, and India.
As the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII unfolded in Europe, General Władysław Sikorski, the first prime minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander in Chief of the Polish armed forces, wrote to British prime minister Winston Churchill to plead for the safety and protection of the starving young children, the “treasure of Poland.” When the British decided to accept Polish refugees into India in 1942, though they were facing problems of their own, like the struggle for independence and a famine being exacerbated by Churchill (see episode 31, Mixed Bags of History), the Maharaja of the princely state of Nawanagar offered to host them. Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, known as Jam Sahib, ordered a settlement built for refugee children in Balachadi, on the coast of western India, at the site of his summer palace.
A group of about 1,000 Polish children and a number of women departed Siberia, where, lost or orphaned by the war, they had been sent by the Soviets. The ships were denied entry when they called on ports while sailing through Iran to Bombay (modern Mumbai). When their ship docked in Mumbai, the British governor too refused them entry. Jam Sahib heard of this and pressed the British government to let the refugees to disembark. Frustrated by the lack of empathy and the unwillingness of the government to act, the Maharaja ordered the ship to dock at Rosi port in his province. Thus began the story of Little Poland in India.
The Maharaja already had an abiding interest in Poland, an outgrowth of his father’s friendship with the Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski, whom he remembered meeting in Geneva as a child. In an interview, Jam Saheb explained, “I am trying to do whatever I can to save the children; as they must regain their health and strength after these dreadful trials, so that in the future they will be able to cope with the tasks that await them in a liberated Poland.”
It is estimated that nearly 5,000 Polish refugees from Soviet camps lived in India between 1942 and 1948, although researchers have not been able to establish the exact numbers. Multiple transit camps were set up in different locations in India for refugees who were crossing over from Iran to other places. Many of the children were orphans. Some parents had gone missing, while others had joined the Polish army, which was being assembled in the Soviet Union. “Please tell the children that they are no longer orphans because I am their father.”
Far from the ravages of the war, life in Balachadi was warm and cheerful. Every effort was made to create a home away from home. A school and a hospital were built. The children were free to enjoy Jam Sahib’s gardens, squash courts, and pool. Concerned that the children were not eating enough, Jam Sahib brought professional chefs in to cook for them. Preserving Polish culture and tradition was a priority and a Polish flag was raised at the site. Scouts and church, institutions that were integral to Polish life, were also built in “Little Poland.”
What the Maharaja did was an example of the ancient and popular Sanskrit philosophy of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (“the world is one family”). Decades later, Jam Saheb is considered a Polish hero. He was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest honors in Poland. In the heart of Warsaw lies the Square of the Good Maharaja. Not very far from it is one of Warsaw’s foremost private schools, the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. In 1999, 10 years after the end of communist rule, the Bednarska High School chose the Good Maharaja to be its patron. It was the fulfillment of a promise made long ago. General Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of Polish Government in Exile, had asked the Maharaja, “How can we thank you for your generosity?” The Maharaja replied, “You could name a school after me when Poland has become a free country again.”
“The Maharaja set an extraordinary example of generosity and acceptance. This story is our inspiration,” says Barto Pielak, vice principal of Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. The school emulates the Maharaja’s example, by accepting children of political refugees and migrants in difficult economic or social situations. “Each year more and more people learn about the attitude shown by our patron Jam Saheb, which is specifically significant while Europe struggles with the issue of massive migration.”
If pop into the show notes for this episode on your podcast app or go to yourbrainonfacts.com/righteous, you’ll find a link to the documentary “A Little Poland In India.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid” and the misquoted “Play it again, Sam” are all that most people know of the movie Casablanca, released 77 years ago, which immortalized quiet acts of resistance against fascism in wartime Morocco. The legendary scene at Rick’s Café where refugees drown out Nazi officers by singing “La Marseillaise” became an instant inspiration to moviegoers as World War II was raging. The setting of the film was no coincidence. Casablanca was a haven for those fleeing for their lives and the city saw a real life act of heroism: the protection of the Jews of Morocco by the young Sultan Mohammed V at a time when both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise globally.
Mohammed V was born the third-born nephew of the sitting sultan. A series of international disputes between France and Germany led to the Treaty of Fez in 1912 and French control of Morocco. The sultan abdicated because of the treaty and Mohammed’s father took the throne. After his father’s death, 16-year-old Mohammed was named sultan largely because the French thought he would be more docile than his older brothers. This was, to put it lightly, a misjudgment.
When Paris fell to the Germans in July 1940, the sultan, then 30, found his nation under the rule of the French Vichy government, which cooperated fully with the Nazis and sought to enforce anti-Semitic laws in Morocco. Jews had lived there since the Roman empire battled Carthage and over a quarter-million Jews called Morocco home in 1940. Jewish men had served the sultanate as ministers, diplomats, and advisors. One aspect of being sultan was to act as commander of the faithful, which Mohammed V took very seriously. He viewed all “people of the book,” meaning everyone belonging to the Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Christians and Muslims, as being under his protection. He publicly refused to assist in the persecution of his own citizens. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he declared. “There are only Moroccan subjects.”
Vichy authorities forced Mohammed V to enact two laws restricting certain professions and schools to Jews and requiring them to live in ghettos. The sultan declined to enforce the laws. He was a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and would not be intimidated. In 1941, Mohammed V made a point of inviting senior representatives of the Jewish community to the annual banquet celebrating the anniversary of his sultanate, and placing them in the best seats next to the French officials. “I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with,” he told the French officials. “I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”
Although there were limits to his power, Mohammed V ensured that Jews in Morocco were never rounded-up and that they have a haven there, as much as possible. During the two years of Vichy rule, no Moroccan Jews were deported or killed. No Jew in Morocco was forced to wear the yellow star. When Allied troops liberated North Africa in November 1942, the Moroccan Jewish community was essentially intact.
The sultan was a distinct exception among leaders in the middle east, who rallied to the side of the Axis powers in hopes of driving the Jews from Palestine and the British from their remaining colonies. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini, for example, spent the war years in Berlin, courting Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, plotting the extermination of the Jews and recruiting Eastern European Muslims to fight for the Nazi cause. Mohammed V, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of the Allies and welcomed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French President Charles de Gaulle for four days in 1943 at the historic Casablanca conference, to plan the Allied European strategy for the next phase of World War II. Even after the war, he continued to protect his Jewish subjects. When the Arab world reacted violently to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, the sultan reminded Moroccans that Jews had always been protected in their country and were not to be harmed.
And that’s … Mohammed V died suddenly in 1961, just four years after Morocco became an independent constitutional monarchy and he gained the title king. The outpouring of grief was immense. Some 75,000 Jews publicly mourned, the chief rabbi delivered a memorial address by radio, and Jews were prominent participants at the coronation of his son Hassan II and at the new king’s initial prayer services.
Thanks for spending part of your day with me. This is Moxie LaBouche saying, it’s always okay to punch Nazis. Always.