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Controversey Over Japanese Hero Sugihara

By Ernest G. Heppner,

author of Shanghai Refuge (University of Nebraska Press, 1993)

Starting in 1994, newspapers across the country have been relating the exploits of Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who in 1940 allegedly took risks to save 6,000, 8,000 or even as many as 10,000 Polish Jews from the Nazis. A book describing his exploits has been written and exhibits and movies are being shown all over the United States.

While Sugihara deserves recognition for saving lives, most of the stories about him play fast and loose with the facts. Also regrettably, they skip over the fact that Sugihara did not act alone; he could have saved but a handful of lives without the vital pace-setting role of Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch honorary consul in Lithuania, who issued some 2,193 (bogus) destination visas to Curacao, which subsequently gave Sugihara diplomatic justification for issuing transit visas allowing the Polish Jews to travel through Japan.

Sugihara neither risked his life, nor did he flout clear-cut instructions from his government, nor was he punished by being summarily removed from the diplomatic service as Yad Vashem stated in 1991 in a letter to me. To the contrary, after all consulates in Kaunas had been closed by the Soviet authorities in August, 1940, Sugihara was several times transferred and even promoted.

In the October 13, 1994 issue of the Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shinbun, Mr. Saito, vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that "His (Mr. Sugihara’s) resignation (in 1947) was one among many in the large reductions of the work force after the end of the war. He had received a raise, was offered a decoration, received a discharge allowance and a pension. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not discharge Mr. Sugihara unfairly. It had been assumed that Sugihara’s claim to have issued the transit visas against Tokyo’s orders were due to Japan’s alliance with Germany and, therefore, for anti-Semitic reasons.

Nothing is further from the facts. The Japanese government’s basic policy toward the Jews did not change during the war. It was confirmed by Foreign Minister Arita and his successor Matsuoka who stated: "I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the position of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world, issuing transit visas and permitting them to stay in Japan for as long as a year until two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, approximately 1,000 persons, who had not managed to find another haven, were transported to Shanghai.

In 1995, Ewa Palasz-Rutkowska, Assistant Professor at the Japanese Section of the University of Warsaw, Poland, who had been researching the history of Polish-Japanese relations, delivered a lecture on Polish-Japanese Secret Cooperation during World War II: Chiune Sugihara and Polish Intelligence." She presented new material which shed new light on Sugihara’s activities and revealed that he was an intelligence agent, deeply involved with Polish intelligence agents.

Recently, additional material, with a new perspective on the activities of Chiune Sugihara, has been made public. In the summer of 1997, Dr. Boris Bressler wrote two successive articles for Igud Yotzei Sin, Tel Aviv, stating that recent research suggests that Sugihara may have been not just an intelligence agent for Japan, but a double agent reporting to the Soviets at the same time.

There is now little doubt that Sugihara’s issuing of visas was based on Japan’s official policy. It is about time to lay all other myths to rest and cease the commercial enterprises’ distortion of Holocaust history.