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The history of the Japanese consul who saved Belarusian Jews

One of the “Righteous among the Nations” is the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. At the beginning of the Second World War, he saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jewish citizens, among whom were people from present-day Belarus.

December 22, 2023 - Ihar Melnikau - History and Memory

Inside the villa in Kaunas that functioned as the Japanese consulate during the Second World War. Today it is a museum remembering Chiune Sugihara's heroism. Photo: MoLarjung / Shutterstock

Chiune Sugihara was born into a poor family in 1900 in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. His father wanted his son to become a doctor but Chiune deliberately failed the exam at the medical academy and in 1918 entered Waseda University, where he studied English literature. Later he joined the ministry of foreign affairs. Sugihara actively studied Russian language and culture at the Japanese diplomatic mission in Harbin. Later he served in the army. In 1924, Chiune moved to work at the embassy of the Japanese Empire in Harbin. There he converted to Orthodoxy and even married a Russian emigrant, Claudia Apollonova. However, in 1935, the diplomat divorced her and married a Japanese woman named Yukiko Kikuchi. Chiune Sugihara then worked in the Manchurian foreign ministry and even participated in negotiations with the USSR on the purchase of the Sino-Eastern Railway.

Between 1936 and 1938, Sugihara worked in diplomatic missions in Moscow and Helsinki, and in the spring of 1939, as vice consul of the Japanese Empire, he was sent to the then capital of Lithuania, Kaunas. This appointment had great meaning. Tokyo, of course, knew about the plans of the Third Reich in relation to Poland, so Japan needed an additional experienced intelligence officer in the region.

Between the hammer and the anvil

On September 1st 1939, the Second World War began. Already in its first weeks, a large number of Polish citizens flocked to the eastern voivodeships of Poland. However, soon the war came there too. Polish refugees, among whom were many Jews, tried to escape to neutral countries. This included, first of all, the Baltic countries. The Republic of Lithuania established diplomatic relations with Poland only in 1938. In the first days of the German invasion of Poland, the authorities in Warsaw were afraid of an attack from the Lithuanian side, but it did not happen. Moreover, Lithuania began to let Polish refugees through its border and interned soldiers and officers of the Polish army.

Even before the start of the war, Chiune Sugihara came into contact with Polish intelligence. This was not surprising, as in the interwar period the military intelligence of these two countries actively cooperated. It was Polish cryptographers, in particular, who helped the Japanese in deciphering intercepted Soviet radio messages.

In October 1939, the Soviet authorities transferred the Vilnius Region to Lithuania. However, in the summer of 1940 Lithuania was forcibly annexed by the USSR. Polish citizens who were in Lithuanian territory again found themselves in a dangerous situation. People knew about Stalin’s repressions in the territories of the former north-eastern voivodeships, as well as about Sovietization, which concerned all aspects of life. In turn, persons of Jewish nationality (according to various estimates, at that time there were between 14,000 to 20,000 Polish Jews in the territory of Lithuania) received information about the Holocaust, which was carried out by the Nazis on the territory of the General Governorship (the part of Poland officially occupied by the Third Reich In this situation, citizens of the Second Polish Republic were looking for the opportunity to leave a dangerous Europe.

Curaçao visas

The Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk came to the rescue. He came to Kaunas in 1938 and took the post of head of the representative office of the local Philips plant. In May 1940, Germany occupied the Netherlands. However, the diplomatic service of this country continued to obey Queen Wilhelmina. The ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Latvia, a diplomat whose wife held pro-Nazi views, was then removed from the post of consul in Lithuania. As a result, the former employee of Philips took his place. Shortly after that, Polish citizens of Jewish nationality began to appeal to Jan Zwartendijk with a request to help them leave Soviet Lithuania. The Dutchman did not have the right to issue any visas, but despite this, he began to place into Polish passports a permit to travel to the overseas colonies of the Netherlands – Curaçao and Suriname.

In the period from July 24th to July 27th 1940, Jan Zwartendijk issued about 1300 visas. Another 1050 were issued from July 29th to August 2nd 1940. But that was only part of it. It was also necessary to obtain Japanese transit visas, and Vice Consul Chiune Sugihara began issuing them. Every day there was a crowd of Polish citizens in front of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, who wanted to leave Soviet-occupied Lithuania. Among those awaiting Japanese visas were many officers of the Polish army fleeing from Stalinist repression. However, most of those who stood at the consulate were Polish Jews.

The Japanese diplomat issued visas until September 1940. He violated the instructions of the Japanese foreign ministry, according to which it was necessary to issue only transit visas, and issued Polish citizens a document with the right to stay in Japan for ten days. Every day, Chiune Sugihara and his wife worked for 20 hours. At the same time, a monthly rate of visas was issued daily. The work continued until September 4th 1940, when the Soviet authorities demanded that the Japanese leave the territory of the USSR. The diplomat issued the last visas at the Kovno hotel “Metropol”, as well as at the railway station and in the compartment of the train that was going to Berlin. Researchers could not answer the question of how many people received “visas for life” in these different ways. The figure ranges from 2139 to 10,000. The fact is that when the consul left Kaunas, he gave people a visa stamp and consular forms, and they could forge Japanese visas themselves.

Those who were saved

Among those who received Japanese visas in the summer and autumn of 1940 were many natives of Belarus. Yakau Banay was born in March 1920 in Baranavichy. In 1938, he graduated from the local gymnasium and entered the University of Vilnius. In 1940, he received a Japanese visa from Chiune Sugihara and travelled through Turkey to Palestine, where he became a member of the Jewish armed forces, and later the Israel Defence Forces. Leo Melamed was born in 1932 in Bialystok into a family of teachers. At the beginning of the Second World War, Melomed’s family moved to Lithuania. In the summer of 1940, these Polish citizens received a transit visa to Japan and ended up in the United States in 1941. Leo Melamed made an excellent career as a lawyer and a trader in stock futures.

In 1906, the Israeli politician and lawyer Zorach Warhaftig was born in Volkovysk. In September 1939, his family fled to the Republic of Lithuania, and later, thanks to visas received from the Japanese vice consul, ended up in Canada through Japan. In 1947, Zorach Warhaftig moved to Palestine, and in 1949 he was elected to the first Israeli Knesset. The native of Volkovysk was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.

The visas issued by Chiune saved the lives of dozens of students of one of the most famous Jewish religious educational institutions in the Belarusian lands – the yeshiva in the town of Mir. In the autumn of 1939, its students and teachers moved to Vilnius. When Lithuania became part of the USSR, Jews from Mir began to look for opportunities to leave. The consulate of the Japanese Empire tried to help them. After receiving transit visas in the autumn of 1940, the yeshiva students, through the territory of the USSR, left for Shanghai, where they lived until 1947. After the war, the students of the yeshiva were divided into two groups: some went to Brooklyn while others went to Jerusalem.

Escape from the Soviets

Samuel Mansky, a native of Lida, has talked about how Polish citizens of Jewish nationality received Japanese transit visas in his memoirs. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was not mobilized into the Polish army, and later, after the arrival of the Red Army in Western Belarus, he even managed to serve in the People’s Militia. However, the arrests of the “Polish contingent”, which began shortly after the annexation of the Polish territories to Soviet Belarus, frightened the Mansky family, and they decided to leave for Lithuania.

This is how Mansky describes those events: “In August 1939, we were registered for emigration visas at the US Embassy in Warsaw. My father went to work overseas in 1937. Later, the American authorities gave him the opportunity to take his family. However, after the outbreak of the war, we could no longer travel to the United States to my father legally. Then my mother decided to move from Lida to Eišiškės – a place that was part of the Second Polish Republic before the war, and later passed to Lithuania. We had relatives there, and we wanted to “escape” to the States. Mother started looking for people who would take us across the border. My uncle and his family decided to go to Lithuania too. While we were preparing to escape, the NKVD arrests in Lida continued. […] I was a policeman and knew the schedule of border patrols well. We crossed the border in the morning and headed for a house on the outskirts of Eišiškės. However, Lithuanian border guards were waiting for us there. I was wearing Polish officer boots and my fathers’ leather military pass, and the Lithuanians thought they had caught a Polish officer. But we paid them off by paying the border guards 100 US dollars. […] Later I went to Vilnius and began to prepare for emigration to Palestine. […] In June 1940, Lithuania became part of the USSR, and we found ourselves on Soviet territory again. We soon found out that the Japanese consulate in Kaunas issues visas to Japan to people who have permission to travel to other countries. My mother, her sister and other people began to look for the possibility of obtaining a Japanese visa. In Kaunas, the British consul, acting on behalf of the Polish emigrant authorities, issued us temporary Polish passports on August 1st 1940. From there, my mother and her sister went to the Japanese consulate in order to obtain a visa to the Dutch colony of Curacao in the Caribbean. On August 9th 1940, Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara issued visas.”

The transit was paid in US dollars

In the autumn of 1939, the Lithuanian government tried to help Polish citizens of Jewish nationality leave the territory of Lithuania. To do this, negotiations were held with Soviet diplomats to obtain permission for transit through the territory of the USSR. It was planned to use the port in Odesa as one of the corridors, but the Soviets refused this offer from the Lithuanians. On March 29th 1940, the Lithuanian foreign ministry again appealed to the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs with a request to allow 5,000 Polish Jews to travel through the territory of the USSR. On April 21st 1940, Deputy People’s Commissar Vladimir Dekanozov addressed his boss Viacheslav Molotov with a letter in which he offered to allow refugees to travel through the territory of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, the official pointed out that the Soviet side could earn 180,000 US dollars from this case. At that time, it was a very significant amount. However, the Kremlin still waited. In summer of 1940, Lithuania became a Soviet republic, and the refugee situation worsened even more. At that moment, the Zvartendijk-Sugihara diplomatic tandem started to work.

In addition, the Japanese vice consul met with Soviet diplomatic representatives in Kaunas and demanded that a corridor be opened for Polish refugees through Soviet territory. In turn, the Bolsheviks said that if Polish citizens had Japanese visas, then the Soviet authorities would let these people go to Japan. On June 25th 1940, Vladimir Dekanozov again voiced the “problem of Polish refugees” to the Kremlin, emphasizing that “Polish citizens are provided with visas and money.” Finally, at a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on July 29th 1940, it was decided “to allow Jewish refugees from the former Poland to transit through the USSR”.

Excursion to the mausoleum and a trip through the Urals

Samuel Mansky recalls in his memoirs how Polish citizens moved through Soviet territory. “The Soviet state agency “Intourist” checked the visas and started preparing our departure. They accepted payment only in American dollars, despite the fact that it was forbidden to have foreign currency on the territory of the USSR. Grandma was 82 years old, she could not stand such a long journey, and it was decided that she would stay in Eišiškės. […] Sad news came from Lida. Many acquaintances were arrested and exiled to Siberia. They were accused of being “landlords”, “exploiters” or “counter-revolutionaries”. The Bolsheviks finally showed their true face. […] In January 1941, we left Eišiškės, moved to Vilnius, where we boarded a train to Moscow. In the compartment, I tried to sit down so that no one would recognize me.

In Moscow, we were put up in a very nice hotel. We went to the US Embassy to get an American visa. But we were informed that there is not enough time to process our documents, so they will be transferred to the American consulate in the Japanese city of Kobe. We spent several days in the capital of the USSR. The metro, the Museum of Religion, Lenin’s Mausoleum – we saw it all with guides from “Intourist”. […] We left Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express. We passed near the Ural Mountains, through Chelyabinsk and Omsk. Before Vladivostok we passed Birobidzhan – the Jewish district of the USSR. I remember a conversation with a Russian on the train. He said he didn’t care who ruled Russia – Stalin or the tsar. The main thing is that bread is on the table. In Vladivostok, we were searched by Soviet customs officers. They took my mother’s gold watch and gave her a certificate. At the same time, the customs officer said that she would receive the watch when she returned to the USSR. As soon as the Soviet border guards checked our documents, we boarded a Japanese steamer. We were in Japan in February 1941. It was a fabulous country with small houses, flowers, clean streets and very polite people.”

Later Polish citizens moved to Kobe. In May 1941, the Mansky family finally found themselves in Washington. This path was followed by the majority of Polish citizens of Jewish nationality, who in 1939-41 tried to evacuate from the former eastern voivodeships of the Second Polish Republic.

Since autumn of 1940, the NKVD had been pursuing an investigation under the general name “manufacturers”, which concerned the registration of exit documents for Polish citizens. At the same time, several persons were arrested for making seals and consular documents. In February 1941, in Vilnius, Soviet security officers arrested Raymond Rayevsky, who had Polish passport forms and Japanese visa stamps. Arrested persons were accused of espionage and working for British intelligence.

The Righteous

And what fate awaited the Japanese and Dutch consuls? The Bolsheviks did not let Zvartendijk leave Lithuania for a long time, but later he still left by train to Holland. Throughout the Second World War, he worked at the Philips factory and did not tell anyone about his activities in Lithuania. After the war, the company’s management sent him to Greece. Only in the early 1960s in the United States did publications begin to appear that told how the Dutchman saved people in the 1940s. In 1997, Jan Zvartendijk was awarded the title of “Righteous among the Nations”. This happened twenty years after Zvartendijk’s death.

As for Chiune Sugihara, after Kaunas he worked in Czechoslovakia, Konigsberg and Romania. In Bucharest, he also rescued local Jews. At the end of the Second World War, the diplomat found himself in Soviet captivity and spent 18 months in a camp. In 1946, Chiune Sugihara was allowed to return to Japan. A year later, the former consul was fired from the foreign ministry. Later he worked for various companies.

In 1968, Chiune Sugihara came to Israel for the first time and was accepted at a high state level. In 1985, the former vice consul of the Japanese Empire received the title of “Righteous among the Nations”. Sugihara died in 1986. Today there are streets named after Sugihara in Vilnius and Kaunas, and in the house where the Japanese consulate in Kaunas was located there is now a museum. Shortly before his death, Mr. Sugihara was asked what motivated his activities in the 1940s. The diplomat said: “What would you do if you saw people with tears in their eyes asking for help. There were old men and women among the refugees. They were ready to kiss my boots. I saw it with my own eyes. And I decided not to wait for a response from Tokyo.”

Ihar Melnikau is a Belarusian Ph.D. historian, essayist, journalist, blogger and editor of the history portal Historia Pobach. Associate Professor of Wrocław University. He is the author of various academic and journalistic articles and 18 books, including The border was near Minsk 1921-1941 and Forgotten Corps. The Polish Army in the Bobruisk Area 1918-1920, The death of Empire. The history of the Battle of Baranovichi in 1916, Collaboration. The anatomy of betrayal фтв щерукы in which he addresses little-known aspects of Belarusian history and Belarusian-Polish relations during the Second World War.

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