“She made my father promise that when and if Hitler crossed the border into Poland, we would immediately try to escape and leave Poland,” Lewin, now 84, said Monday at a virtual reception via Zoom.
When Hitler invaded in September 1939, they did just that. Lewin, then 3 years old, was “carried in the night through the forest” to Lithuania with his parents, maternal grandmother and an uncle.
But Lewin’s mother knew they still weren’t safe. A Dutch diplomat told the family they would be allowed into Curaçao without visas, but they still needed a transit visa from another country to get there.
That was when they found out about Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara. He was a Japanese diplomat who spoke fluent Russian; he had been sent to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas to monitor German and Soviet troop movements under the guise of handling consular affairs. Now, as the Soviets occupied Lithuania, all diplomats would soon be leaving.
When Lewin’s family went to the Japanese Consulate in late July 1940, “Mr. Sugihara did not hesitate,” Lewin said. In fact, Sugihara did ask his superiors in Japan what he should do. When they told him not to give travel documents to the Jews, he decided to help them anyway. With a Japanese transit visa, the Soviets would allow the refugees to take a train across Siberia en route to Japan.
The Lewins were among the first of many to get these precious documents. Over the next month, Sugihara wrote 2,000 more visas for any Jews who showed up at his office. He reportedly spent 20 hours a day that month writing as many visas as he could and was still writing them on the train platform when he was evacuated.
“He didn’t care if they were citizens of the Netherlands or Poland or Germany or Lithuania. He knew they were human beings who had to be rescued and whose lives were at stake,” Lewin said. All three of Lewin’s other grandparents were killed in the Holocaust.
It is hard to know exactly how many Jews Sugihara saved — not everyone who got a visa from him was able to use it, and others used the visa for multiple family members — but some estimate it could be as many as 6,000.
That included the students of the Mir yeshiva, who, with Sugihara’s help, rode out the war in a ghetto for stateless people in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, while every other yeshiva or religious school in Eastern Europe was decimated.
Lucille Szepsenwol Camhi and her sister had papers to immigrate to the United States but had no way of getting there. They were in hiding in Lithuania, fearing arrest because they were in a Jewish Zionist youth group. She told the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about her visit to Sugihara:
“He asked us where our parents were. We told him. My father was not living. My mother has no papers. And he looked very sympathetic at us and he just stamped, gave us the visa right there on the spot.”
She and her sister began to cry and thank him profusely, “And he just raised his hand, like saying, ‘It’s okay.’ And that’s it,” she said. They took the Trans-Siberian Express train to Japan, and freedom.
Today, descendants of those with Sugihara visas number between 40,000 and 100,000. One survivor dubbed him the “Japanese Schindler,” after Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner who saved 1,200 Jews.
When asked later why he did it, Sugihara said, “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. … I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do,” according to sociologist Hillel Levine in his book about Sugihara.
Sugihara and his family were prisoners of war in Europe for more than a year after World War II ended. When they were freed and returned to Japan in 1947, his superiors forced him out for his actions seven years earlier. “You know what you did. Now you need to leave the ministry,” he was told, according to his son Nobuki Sugihara in the Times of Israel in 2019.
For a long time, Sugihara lived an anonymous life and had no idea how many people he had helped. But in 1968, he was contacted by a visa recipient who had tracked him down. A visit to Israel followed, and shortly before his death in 1986, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, honored him with the Righteous Among the Nations title, which is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Last year, a freelance writer uncovered evidence of a second “Japanese Schindler,” Saburo Nei, who helped at least one Jewish refugee get travel documents in Vladivostok. Nei died in 1992.
After the Lewins escape through Japan, the family resettled in New York City. Nathan Lewin went to Harvard Law School and eventually became deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
On Monday, he joined B’nai Brith International and the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement to honor Sugihara ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day. He recalled the teachings of his rabbis that one “should not do a good deed with the expectation that you will be rewarded, but for the good deed itself.”
“That,” he said, “is what Chiune Sugihara did.”
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