Madoka Sugihara never had a chance to hear directly from her grandfather, Chiune Sugihara, about his heroic effort as a diplomat during World War II to issue visas allowing thousands of Jews to escape Nazi persecution.
But through the stories of the offspring of the survivors, who were offered the visas to flee from Europe, Sugihara, 51, feels the ongoing significance of what her grandfather did in defiance of the Foreign Ministry’s policy at that time.
“In an age when conflicts show no end, I want to speak out about the value of human life and the importance of having the courage to take actions,” she said, adding that her mission is to pass on the stories about her grandfather, often dubbed Japan’s Oskar Schindler after the German who provided Jews with a safe haven during World War II.
In September, she was in Australia to meet Susan Hearst, 70, whose mother was among the so-called Sugihara visa survivors. In tears, Hearst said she would “not be here” had her mother not received the visa.
“Thank you for the gift of life,” Hearst was quoted as telling Sugihara, who is vice chair of a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization seeking to publicize her grandfather’s activities.
Originally from Poland, Hearst’s mother, Maria Kamm, who is now 97, fled to neighboring Lithuania, as many other Jews did following the German invasion of their country in September 1939.
At the time, Chiune Sugihara was Japan’s acting consul in the then Lithuanian capital Kaunas. Jewish refugees, desperately seeking a way out of Europe as persecution escalated, approached the Japanese Consulate to seek transit visas allowing them to pass through Japan and move on to another country.
He sought permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to issue the transit visas, but the request was denied. He then started writing thousands of visas himself, risking his own career, for about a month until just before departure from Lithuania in 1940, according to the website of the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall.
With her transit visa, Kamm traveled through the Soviet Union, Japan and China, eventually arriving in Australia.
Hearst said it is now difficult for her mother to recount exactly what happened, but that she is always grateful. “My mother spoke of Sugihara as a hero to whom we owe our very existence.”
Seeing Kamm smiling with her family, Sugihara said she too could feel her grandfather’s footprint.
The younger Sugihara has also met Daniel Grynberg, 48, whose grandparents left Poland and temporarily stayed in Kobe before arriving in Australia.
His relatives in Poland were all killed by the Nazis. Touching on Judaism, which teaches that someone who saves a single life saves the entire world, Grynberg told Sugihara that he appreciates the “gift of life.”
Up to 6,000 lives are believed to have been saved through the Sugihara visas, according to the nonprofit group Chiune Sugihara Visas for Life.
Chiune Sugihara, who was a Christian, later wrote in his memoirs about how he struggled to reach his decision to issue the visas.
“I deliberated all night long until I could not think any longer. … Finally, after soul-searching, I concluded that humanity and generosity are above all things and, fearing nothing, I issued the visas risking my career. I still believe I was right,” he wrote, according to the English website of the memorial hall.
He is also said to have told his wife that he would “betray God” if he did not save the people.
But the incident put him in a difficult position at the Foreign Ministry, and he was forced into retirement in 1947. The story from Lithuania was seen as taboo for the family, and Chiune Sugihara never talked about it with his granddaughter.
It was only after he died in 1986 at age 86 that the ministry apologized to the family and Chiune Sugihara became officially recognized as a courageous diplomat who acted as a humanitarian.