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A Debt of Gratitude After 75 Years

In 1940, Chiune Senpo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, was an agent of Divine Providence for the salvation of thousands of Jews, including 300 talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva. Last week, his son, Nobuki Sugihara, was a guest at Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim, where he was treated to a royal reception.

Chiune Senpo Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served as the consul of the Japanese Empire in Lithuania during the Second World War. Sugihara used his position to help thousands of Jews leave the country by issuing permits for them to travel to Japan, ignoring the fact that his actions endangered his career, his life, and his family’s safety.

Chiune Sugihara was born in 1900 into a middle-class family. Instead of studying medicine, as his father wished for him to do, he joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry. In 1938, he was sent to represent Japan in Finland, and one year later he was stationed in Kovno, the capital of Lithuania at the time.
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We are all aware of the miraculous salvation of the talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva during the Holocaust. Chiune Sugihara played a major role in that miracle. Shortly after his appointment, the Nazis invaded Poland and many Jews from Poland escaped to Lithuania, leaving behind all their worldly possessions. During those difficult times, as the Nazi threat drew steadily closer, Sugihara became known as a man of exceptional moral principle.

300 Visas a Day

In 1940, most of Western Europe was under the control of the Nazis. The rest of the world was free of Nazi control, but most countries placed barriers of all sorts in the way of Jewish refugees seeking a safe haven. Needless to say, the danger to Jews was at its height everywhere in occupied Europe. The Jews of Poland had nowhere to go, but then Sugihara was revealed as the agent of Divine Providence, a hero who saved the lives of thousands of yeshiva bochurim and families. As the Germans approached Lithuania, most of the consulates and embassies closed and the foreign diplomats fled for their lives. Sugihara, meanwhile, remained in Kovno.

Hitler ym”sh had already spread out his accursed net around Eastern Europe, and time was running out for the Jewish refugees. At that point, some of the Polish refugees came up with a plan that seemed to be their last chance to escape the Nazis and remain alive: They discovered that it was permissible to travel to the Dutch islands in the Caribbean – Curacao and Dutch New Guinea – without an entry permit. Moreover, the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, was prepared to stamp their passports with a permit of entry, but the fleeing Jews would have to pass through the Soviet Union to reach their destination. The Soviet consul agreed to this, provided that their Dutch visas would be accompanied by a Japanese transit permit. And that was when Sugihara stepped in.

In July 1940, hundreds of Jews gathered at the gates of the Japanese consulate. Any ordinary diplomat would have been afraid of the throng and would have driven them away. Sugihara, though, came to their aid. Since he lacked the authority to issue such a large number of permits without the approval of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, he sent telegrams to his government asking for permission to issue the permits. His superiors refused to grant entry to Jewish refugees, fearing that they would thereby arouse the ire of Hitler ym”s. Despite his rigid Japanese upbringing and his diplomatic professionalism, Sugihara followed the dictates of his conscience over the orders of his government, issuing the permits without his superiors’ approval. He signed thousands of permits for Jewish refugees to enter Japan, fully aware that he was thereby bringing professional and personal ruin upon himself. For 29 days, Sugihara and his wife, Yokiko, worked on the permits. Day after day, for four weeks straight, they signed about 300 permits each day. Their aim was to save all the Jews.

In 1945, at the end of the war, Sugihara was fired. In order to support his family, he began working as a door-to-door salesman. During the last years of his life, he led an anonymous existence in Moscow.

To Shanghai –- But How?

The developments that led to those visas to Japan are described in one of the texts that have been written about the history of the Mir Yeshiva: “It was late in the winter of 5700, and while Rav Eliezer Yehuda [Finkel] was contemplating his next step, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig entered the picture. Dr. Warhaftig, the son of the gaon Rav Yerucham Asher Warhaftig, was a well-known emigration activist and a close friend of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt”l, even before the war. On one of the days when the panic was at its peak, Dr. Warhaftig decided to present his suggestion for leaving Lithuania to the rosh yeshiva.”

The book goes on to quote one of the talmidim from the yeshiva, who describes the day Warhaftig appeared in Kaidan:

“It was the middle of the shiur, when our rebbi was sitting in the middle of the bais medrash surrounded by talmidim. Suddenly, an unfamiliar young man entered the room and began shouting urgently, ‘Why are you sitting here? How long will you remain here? Are you waiting to be killed by the murderers, chalilah?’ He introduced himself as Zerach Warhaftig. ‘I have made a special trip from Kovno in order to awaken you,’ he said. He suggested a new plan: escaping from Europe to Japan and Shanghai. Rav Eliezer Yehuda sent one of his talmidim, Reb Eliezer Portnoy, to Kovno to examine all the possibilities, and he reached the same conclusion. The destination would be the city of Shanghai in China, and Japan. During the following days, the siege conditions facing the Jews tightened. The Nazis conquered Scandinavia, and the decision was made: We would flee to Shanghai. But how would we be able to leave the country?”

Thousands of Jews made their way to the Japanese consulate, where Chiune Sugihara was the man chosen by Divine Providence to facilitate the escape of thousands of Jews from the death trap awaiting them in Lithuania.

The process began with the approval of permits for the Jewish refugees to enter Curacao. Those permits later served as the basis for the visas that allowed them to enter Japan, as Sugihara recognized their destination of Curacao as a valid basis for permitting them to pass through Japan. One of the talmidim of the yeshiva, Moshe Zupnik, even went so far as to ask the Japanese consul to provide a group permit for all the talmidim of Mir. He explained that the rosh yeshiva had requested the group visa in order to spare the talmidim from having to interrupt their studies to visit the consulate. He also told Sugihara about Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz’s efforts in America to raise funds to support the bochurim. “We won’t be a burden on Japan,” he assured the consul. “All we want is to get out of here and to move on.”

For Sugihara, that request marked a turning point. His dilemma was no longer whether to help a single individual in need; instead, he was asked to permit a large group of refugees to enter Japan. His superiors were in favor of locking the country’s gates to the displaced Jews. What would he do when he was finally put to the test?

Ultimately, Sugihara agreed to provide the lifesaving visas. Moreover, he did not charge the exorbitant fees that most countries collected for visas at the time; many countries raked in huge profits from their fees for issuing visas.

The Consul’’s Son Studies in Yerushalayim

Despite his fame in Israel and in other countries, Sugihara remained an obscure figure in his own country. It was only when his funeral was attended by a large delegation of Jews from all over the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, that the nature of his heroism became known to his own people.

Incredibly, Sugihara actually came to Yerushalayim in 1969 to visit his son, who was studying economics at Hebrew University. On that visit, he agreed to accept a certificate of recognition from Yad Vashem, but he refused to accept any other gifts or awards. There was only one other form of recognition he accepted: a government scholarship to Hebrew University for his son. On that visit, Sugihara also met with the Minister of Religious Affairs of the State of Israel, who was none other than Zerach Warhaftig himself.

Nobuki Sugihara is the son who was studying in Yerushalayim in 1969. Sugihara was survived by three sons. The eldest, Hiroko, is involved in commercial dealings with the State of Israel, while the youngest is an artist whose creations include paintings of Israeli landscapes. Nobuki is Sugihara’s middle son, who attended university in Yerushalayim, speaks Hebrew fluently, and considers himself half Israeli.

In 1985, after many survivors who owed Sugihara their lives had made extensive efforts to locate him, he was finally honored by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

““I Followed My Conscience””

An announcement released by Yad Vashem at the time presented an overview of Sugihara’s actions during the war, making special mention of the rescue of the talmidim of Mir: “Senpo Sugihara served as the General Consul of Japan in Kovno, Lithuania. In the summer of 1940, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities planned to remove all the foreign consuls from Kovno. The Japanese consulate was also slated to be closed. There were many Jewish refugees in Kovno who were stuck there and wished to escape from Europe, but the gates of the rest of the world were locked, and it was impossible to cross through the Soviet Union without a valid visa to a specific destination. It became known, though, that it was not necessary to have an entry permit in order to travel to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean ocean, which was under Dutch jurisdiction. The Soviets agreed to allow the refugees to pass through the Soviet Union on their way to Curacao, provided that they would have transit visas allowing them to travel through Japan. As a result, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, one of the leaders of the Mizrachi movement, asked Consul Sugihara to issue those visas.

“Even though his government rejected the request, Sugihara decided to take action and began issuing the visas to the Jewish refugees who had flocked to the doors of his consulate. In the final weeks before his departure from Kovno, which was scheduled for August 31, he devoted the majority of his time to issuing those permits. Many yeshiva talmidim, including the talmidim of Yeshivas Mir, who had also escaped to Lithuania, took advantage of the opportunity to leave. They ultimately arrived in China, where they remained throughout the years of the war, and later made their way to the United States and to Israel. It appears that at least 1,600 visas were issued (and by Sugihara’s estimate, the number was nearly 3,500). Included in this number were the visas issued to all the 300 talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva, who traveled first to Kobe, Japan, and continued learning Torah there, and then moved on to Shanghai eight months later.

“Upon his return to Tokyo in 1947, after he had been stationed in several other consulates in Europe, Sugihara was asked to resign from the diplomatic service due to his refusal to obey his government’s instructions seven years earlier.”

Many years after his time in Kovno, on one rare occasion when Sugihara spoke about himself, he related, “It was a very difficult time for me, and I lost a lot of sleep. I said to myself: I have the ability to issue visas as part of my authority as a consul. I can’t allow these people to die. These are people who came to me for help, with death looming over their heads. Regardless of the punishment I will receive for this, I must act in accordance with my conscience.” Sugihara passed away one year later, on July 31, 1986.

A Royal Reception for the Consul’’s Son

Why am I telling you this story now? Because Sugihara’s son was a guest at Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim just two weeks ago. In his honor, a delegation of the yeshiva’s senior figures greeted him at the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, among them Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel and the rebbetzins of the yeshiva’s rabbeim, including Rav Nosson Tzvi’s widow, the “mother” of the yeshiva. Even Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mother was there.

What was the reason for all this? Quite simply, it was hakoras hatov.

Rav Eliezer Yehuda began the reception by delivering a brief address: “One of the points that was always emphasized by the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, who was a member of the yeshiva’s administration during its time in Lithuania and Japan, was the great importance of hakoras hatov. He would always speak about how important it is for a person to remember others who have benefited him, and to recognize that he is indebted to them. Our holy Torah,” the rosh yeshiva added, turning to the guest, “requires us to have an elevated sense of gratitude.”

This abiding sense of hakoras hatov is indeed part of the legacy of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. One of his most well-known shmuessen centers on a Medrash regarding Moshe Rabbeinu and the daughters of Yisro. After Moshe saved Yisro’s daughters from danger, they reported to their father that “an Egyptian man saved us.” Rav Chaim quotes the Medrash, which comments on this, “This can be compared to a person who was bit by a wild donkey and ran to put his feet in water, but as he placed them in the river, he saw a child who was drowning, and he reached out and saved him. The child said to him, ‘If not for you, I would be dead.’ He said to him, ‘It is not I who saved you; it is the wild donkey that bit me, for I ran away from it. That is what saved you. Similarly, the daughters of Yisro said to Moshe, ‘Thank you for saving us from the shepherds,’ and Moshe said to them, ‘The Egyptian I killed is the one who saved you. Go and tell your father that an Egyptian man saved you.’”

This Medrash, in Rav Chaim’s view, illustrates the incredible scope of the obligation of hakoras hatov. The child in the parable was required to be grateful to a wild beast because its actions had led to his rescue; likewise, the daughters of Yisro were told to be grateful to the Egyptian for the same reason. And this was despite the fact that both the wild donkey and the dead Egyptian played only an indirect role in their salvation, had no intent to contribute to it, and actually intended to cause harm. That is the level of hakoras hatov that is demanded of us.
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Rav Chaim would often quote another Medrash when he spoke about hakoras hatov. The Torah states that when Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to go to Mitzrayim to liberate the Jewish people, he first went to his father-in-law, Yisro, to ask for his permission to go. The Medrash comments on this, “When Hashem said to him, ‘And now, go and I will sent you to Paroh,’ he said to Him, ‘Master of the Worlds, I cannot, for Yisro took me in and opened his home to me, and when a person opens a door to someone else, he owes him his life.’” Rav Chaim would point out, “Hashem was sending Moshe to Mitzrayim to save the Bnei Yisroel, yet Moshe couldn’t accept that mission until he had received permission from the man who had taken him into his home. Once again, this highlights the importance of hakoras hatov.”
The Consul’’s Son is Moved to Tears

Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel explained to his honored guest from Japan, “Hakoras hatov is one of the foundations of a human being. That is the reason that we have gone to such great lengths to honor you. For the same reason, our rabbeim always demonstrated tremendous gratitude toward everyone who contributed to the wondrous salvation of the talmidim of the yeshiva during those arduous years when it was displaced from its home – the town of Mir, Poland – and sent into exile at the farthest reaches of the civilized world, in the city of Shanghai, China. One of the people who deserves the most credit for the salvation of the yeshiva’s talmidim, along with thousands of other Jews, was the Japanese consul in Kovno, Senpo Sugihara, a righteous man among the nations who risked everything to issue the visas that enabled the talmidim of the yeshiva to leave Lithuania and make their famous journey to Japan. Our rabbeim showed gratitude to him until the very end of his life.”

It was a highly unique event. Rav Eliezer Yehuda, who has inherited his father’s unique nobility and refinement, was highly emotional, and Nobuki Sugihara was clearly impressed. It was evident that the visitor was moved by the reception. He listened with amazement to every word, he thanked everyone who had come to honor him, he kissed the rosh yeshiva, and he expressed his gratitude to the rebbetzins. Sugihara then set out on a tour of the yeshiva, accompanied by Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi. He was escorted to each of the yeshiva’s buildings, all of which were overflowing with thousands of bochurim and yungeleit immersed in Torah learning, and he took in the sights in disbelief. Tears streamed from his eyes as he took in the yeshiva’s grandeur.

Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim offered the world a powerful demonstration of its respect for a righteous member of the nations of the world.