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 Appeal 18 June

On this day in 1940, French army officer and future president Charles de Gaulle made his “Appeal of 18 June“, where he urged the French to join his army overseas or continue resisting the Nazis at home.

De Gaulle had just arrived in London after the Fall of France. He had a distinguished war record and had long advocated for France to adopt the sort of tactics and weaponry that, ironically, allowed Germany to prevail. He personally led an armored division during the Battle of France, achieving one of the country’s few victories in the month-long fight.

For his efforts, de Gaulle was quickly promoted to Brigadier General and named Under-Secretary of State for National Defence and War. After the French prime minister resigned, Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, became the new Prime Minister, pledging to surrender to Nazi Germany. De Gaulle staunchly opposed any such action and facing imminent arrest, fled France on June 17th; other leading politicians were arrested before they could leave to North Africa to continue the war.

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De Gaulle’s appeal is widely considered to have been the start of the French Resistance, which played a significant role in facilitating the invasion of Normandy, providing intelligence and aide to the Allies (including downed pilots), and sabotaging the German war machine. His speech likely inspired the French sentiment, “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”.

The speech is well worth a read in its entirety:

The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of the French armies have formed a government. This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, has made contact with the enemy in order to stop the fighting. It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it is the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans which are causing us to retreat. It was the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today.

But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States.

This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a world war. All the mistakes, all the delays, all the suffering, do not alter the fact that there are, in the world, all the means necessary to crush our enemies one day. Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force. The fate of the world depends on it.

I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialised workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.

Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on the radio from London.

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Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.

As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.

In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.

Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)

This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.

For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.

Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.

Ochi Day

On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).

Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.

Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.

Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).

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My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).

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 Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading

Mexico’s Forgotten World War Two Posters

Mexico hardly comes to mind when one thinks of the Allied powers. But it was one of dozens of countries that joined together to defeat the Axis, doing so just months after the United States.

Following the losses of several ships — most notably the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, which are referenced in the propaganda — to German U-boats, Mexico declared war on the Axis on May 22, 1942 Though most of Latin America joined the Allied cause, Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (along with Brazil) to send troops overseas to fight the Axis.

According to SplinterNews.com, like most countries that participated in the conflict, Mexico sought to mythologize its role with hundreds of posters and political cartoons. To that end, the government commissioned an existing artistic, Taller de Gráfica Popular, which had been founded in 1937, to glorify its role in this just war.

The most famous Mexican contribution was “Escuadrón 201“, also known as the Aztec Eagles, a group of more than 300 volunteer pilots who trained in the United States to fight against Japan. It was the first Mexican military unit trained for overseas combat, and it partook in close to 100 combat missions and nearly 800 sorties.

Mexico also signed a series of agreements with the U.S., known as the Bracero Program, which sent much-needed Mexican labor to the U.S. to support the war economy.

Even though its contributions were small in the grand scheme of things, the efforts of Mexican artists were creatively outsized.

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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