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Kol HaMekayem Nefesh Achat

Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara

The Mishnah in the tractate of Sanhedrin (4:5) states: "כל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם ומלואו" ("Anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world.") All the more so, someone who saved thousands of Jewish souls. The late Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, who passed away 33 years ago today (July 31st, 1986), did just that, and was recognized by Yad VaShem as a Righteous Among the Nations, the only Japanese national to have ever been awarded this title. Sugihara was a diplomat at the Japanese consulate in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, during WWII, when one day he saw a large group of people waiting by his consulate gate, with tattered clothes and desperate looks on their faces. He asked for representatives of the group to come into his office and tell him who they were and what it was that they wanted. Among those leaders were Zerach Wahrhaftig, who would later become a Minister of Religions in the Israeli government and would help find Sugihara and grant him the recognition he deserved. The men told Sugihara that they were Jews fleeing from the Nazis, and that their lives were in danger. Their only possible hope to survive was to travel to a neutral country, but to do so - they had to have a transit visa via Japan. Sugihara telegraphed his foreign ministry a few times asking for permission to do that, but there was no reply. Finally, he received an answer, but it was not encouraging. Japan, after all, was an ally of Germany at the time. The answer stated that Jews could be granted a transit visa through Japan only if they met certain very strict criteria, which most of them did not. After serious deliberation he decided to disobey his foreign ministry's orders and issue transit visas to as many Jews as he could. It happened at a time when the consulate in Lithuania had to close and he had to relocate. Sugihara continued writing visas as he was sitting on the train with his family, ready to leave the country. As the train was leaving, some of the recipients called after him: "We will never forget you, Sempo Sugihara!" His survivors, among them the entire student body of the glorious Mir Yeshivah, stayed in Japan for a very long time, until they moved to a safe neutral country. After the war, Sugihara was fired from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and had to work different jobs, some of them menial and overseas, away from his family, to support them. He lost his health while doing so. When asked about his heroic act during the war, Sugihara said that what compelled him to do so was the realization: "I may have had to disobey the government, but if I didn't, I would be disobeying God." The recognition of his tremendous acts of kindness for the Jewish People came in his later years and different initiatives to commemorate him and his heroism have taken place in different parts of the world, including a street named after him in the city of Netanya. This text is yet another such tribute.
In his memory.


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