Cover Story / The Jews of China
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Chiune Sugihara's "strange conspiracy of goodness"

by Ari Zivotofsky

In Search of Sugihara, by Hillel Levine, 323 pp. The Free Press, 1996.

In 1940, in the midst of WWII, a career Japanese diplomat raised in a typical pre-WWI Japanese middle-class household seemingly defies his superiors' orders and, as consul in Kovno, Lithuania, issues thousands of transit visas to desperate Jews, saving their lives. To Professor Hillel Levine, the story sounded too fanciful to be true. He had heard mention of it, but this story of Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) certainly had never garnished the attention afforded Raoul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler.

While in Vilna, Lithuania to attend the opening of a new Jewish studies program in 1993, Levine decided to visit Kovno to see the embassy where this heroic act of courage took place. A Harvard trained sociologist and historian, Levine undertook to find out just who Sugihara was and what it was that led him to risk life and career in order to save these unknown Jews. In Search of Sugihara is the product of Levine's research.

Sugihara was the newly posted Japanese consul and spy in Kovno, Lithuania, sent by his Nazi-allied government to gather information for the Japanese military. While there , he was confronted by the plight of displaced Jews fleeing the Nazi atrocities. For some unknown reason, he began to feverishly issue transit visas to these Jews.

Levine was intrigued by what made this mid-level Japanese spy and diplomat act so altruistically. Even more startling to Levine was that these visas worked. These illegal visas were eventually recognized by the Russians and by the Japanese stationed on the Manchurian border. In Levine's view, it was as if Sugihara "unleashed a massive goodness -- a conspiracy of goodness that in its brazenness disarmed others."

Among the beneficiaries of the rescue was the entire Mirrer Yeshiva. Rabbi Moshe Zupnick, then a student at the Mirrer Yeshiva, collected the relevant documents and went to Sugihara to request a visa for himself. When Sugihara granted it, Zupnick, with all the audacity he could muster, requested 300 more for the whole yeshiva. Sugihara was willing to comply but said he had neither the time nor manpower to write the visas. Zupnick returned with several friends, and copied over the visas by hand.

There was only one problem -- they did not speak Japanese and so they copied the visas lock, stock and barrel! All 300 Mirrer Yeshiva students were thus named Rabinovitz as far as the visas were concerned. Yet, inexplicably, the Japanese border guards let the visas pass -- a "strange conspiracy of goodness."

Levine sought the source of this wellspring. As such he went to great lengths, searching Japanese, American, and European archives, and interviewing survivors and colleagues, leaving no stone unturned.

Levine recently spoke at the Washington, D.C. JCC's Chaim Kempner book author lecture series. He described the lengths to which he had gone, literally travelling to the ends of the earth to understand what made Sugihara tick. For example, after considerable research, Levine discovered that Sugihara had been previously married to a Russian. It occurred to Levine that maybe she was actually Jewish and had kindled in him a love for Jews.

After considerable effort he discovered that his first wife was still alive. At 93 years old, she was living in an old age home in Sydney, Australia. Levine immediately traveled to Australia to interview her. As it turns out, she was a non-Jewish White Russian from an antisemitic family. But the interview was not futile. Levine believes that she shed a great deal of light on what kind of man Sugihara was. He was sensitive, caring, and understanding -- qualities that would help explain his behavior. Almost as if she had been waiting to share her 70-year old memories, Sugihara's first wife died two days after the interview.

This is not the only book on the Sugihara story. Recently Ken Mochizuki wrote a 32-page children's book entitled Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, and Sugihara's wife, Yukiko, has written Visas for Life: The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. Levine's book is definitely the most scholarly and best researched.

According to Levine, Yukiko gives herself too great a role in a self-serving book and adds unsubstantiated facts that are unnecessary to the story. She claims her husband lost his job after the war because of insubordination. True, Levine says, Sugihara did lose his job, but it was related to the post-WWII Japanese house-cleaning in the transition from empire to occupied land and was unrelated to this minor event of his stint in Kovno.

Yukiko claims her husband thrice requested permission to issue these visas and was repeatedly denied, yet persisted in issuing them. Levine counters that there is no evidence of this, although Sugihara clearly did violate standard protocol of visa issuance and "threw all caution to the wind."

The one drawback in this book is that in attempting to understand Sugihara's motives, it analyzes every minute facet of his life. There are times when these details become overwhelming.

Despite this, the story of how Chiune Sugihara saved thousands of Jews from certain death is worth knowing, and this is the most comprehensive book on the subject. Even if it means skipping pages when the details get too nitty-gritty, the book is worthwhile for the perspective it gives on an important area of Holocaust history and the light it sheds on the life of a true hero who has been declared by Yad Vashem a Righteous Gentile.

Ari Zivotofsky is a writer based in suburban Washington, DC. As of this issue, he becomes a regular contributor to JWR.


© 1998, Ari Zivotofsky