The Japanese Diplomat who Saved Thousands from the Nazis

On this day in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his Yukio began helping write and issue visas to help Jews flee certain death in the Second World War.

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As Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara risked his career and his life to help the hundreds of Jewish refugees that came to his consulate desperately seeking a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the hyper-nationalist Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

Aware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual—and risky—within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania—though not yet at war with Japan—he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan.

He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, often with Yukio’s help, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce.

After a couple of months, Sugihara had to leave his post, as the consulate was to be closed. He was witnessed frantically writing visas while going from his hotel to the train station. As he prepared to depart, he told those around him “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best” and bowed deeply. Having run out of paper, he desperately used blank sheets of paper with only a consulate seal and his signature Even as the train was leaving, he flung visas out the window.

There was never any official retaliation to Sugihara’s actions by the Japanese government. In 1984, he was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations for his rescue efforts. In 1985, a year before his death, he was asked why he disobeyed his orders and issued visas until the very end:

“Well. It is the kind of sentiments 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. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.

People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

As the New York Times points out in a wonderful profile of him, Sugihara’s character is par for the course of those “righteous among nations” who went above and beyond to save complete strangers.

Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.

A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.

[…]

Mr. Zimbardo calls the capacity to act differently the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. This ability is exceptional, but the people who have it are often understated. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”

As many as 6,000 people were saved by the Sugiharas, and perhaps 100,000 are alive today because of his boundless heroic imagination. The world is all the better and more alive because of it.

The First Report on the Holocaust

On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust. 

Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.

The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country. 

Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate. 

Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.

Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides). 

Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

The World’s Most Infamous Genocide is Quickly Being Forgotten

After over seventy years of proclaiming “never forget”– which goes hand in hand with ensuring that we stay true to “never again” — society is increasingly losing sight of that mantra, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April and reported by the New York Times: Continue reading

The Swiss Diplomat Who Saved Half of Budapest’s Jews

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Photo: Yad Vashem

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who, as Vice Consul in Budapest, Hungary, saved over 62,000 Jews – nearly half the Jewish population of the city – in one of the largest rescue operations of Jews in the Second World War.
Shortly after being appointed Vice Consul in the Hungarian capital in 1942, Lutz wasted no time in trying to save as many Jews as he could. Taking full advantage of his country’s famously neutral diplomatic status, he issued safe-conduct documents that allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children to leave Axis-aligned Hungary.

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The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

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The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

The Power of Stumbling Blocks

A stolperstein (German for “stumbling block”) describes one of several monuments created by German artist Gunter Demnig that commemorate a victim of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism. The idea apparently arose from an old custom among non-Jewish Germans, who, upon stumbling over a protruding stone, would say, “There must be a Jew buried here.” A stolperstein is intended to similarly divert one’s attention. 

Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of four inches that he covers with a sheet of brass and stamps with the following details: the name, year of birth, and fate, if known. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence (or sometimes workplace) of the victim. The costs are covered covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities.

Stolperstein in Bonn for Ida Arensberg “Here lived Ida Arensberg. née Benjamin *1870 – deported 1942. Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942”. Via Wikipedia.

As one historian noted: “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” Simply seeing them in pictures, I can concur. 

Here are a few more examples, many of which can be found in cities across Europe — a grim reminder of the Holocaust’s scope and scale.

You can read more about these powerful artistic works here.