Sugihara's List

September 26, 1994|By Hillel Levine

Brookline, Mass. -- ON AUG. 2, 1940, as on every other morning for weeks, a long line of Jews -- ragtag, homeless and desperate -- waited outside the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Among them was Leon Ilutovicz, who, like others in line, had just escaped from Poland and had witnessed Nazi atrocities.

He worried about those left behind and had no illusions about what existence under Soviet occupation of Lithuania would be like.

His life, he knew, depended on a piece of paper that the man at the window could provide.

The man at the window was Chiune Sugihara, the 40-year-old consul general. It was a scene that hundreds of diplomats in countries threatened or occupied by the Nazis would witness.

Jews' scavenger hunts for visas were frequent, at least in the first eight years of Adolph Hitler's rule. In that period, the Nazis were satisfied to realize their vision of Judenrein -- a world cleansed of Jews -- as much through emigration from Europe as through the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

The lives of many Jews could have been saved not only by more considerate immigration policies but also by a diplomat here, a border guard there, willing to bend a rule.

There are very few examples of officials who became rescuers in this way. Raoul Wallenberg, the justly famous Swedish diplomat, was sent to Hungary specifically to rescue Jews.

In Kaunas, Jews may initially have turned for help to Sugihara because another compassionate man, Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch honorary consul, was issuing visas of questionable validity to the Dutch West Indies.

But Mr. Sugihara's response was unique.

What was different about this consulate was that until the Soviet Union closed it down, its door was wide open. And Sugihara was there, issuing hassle-free transit visas to Japan.

"He even smiled at me," Mr. Ilutovicz recalls. With the visa, he joined thousands of Jews who not only entered the Soviet Union but also were able to leave it and, via Japan, to begin new lives.

A New Yorker for half a century, he speaks in hushed tones of what would have happened to him without Sugihara's help. When the Nazis captured Kaunas from the Soviets, those Jews who were not immediately shot died in ghettos and concentration camps.

Instead, Leon Ilutovicz became No. 819 on Sugihara's list -- a document I discovered several weeks ago while searching for diplomatic records pertaining to Sugihara in the archives of the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.

It filled 31 pages, neatly filed -- with carbon copy -- in a folder containing lists of consular activities at various Japanese delegations. It was not what I expected.

For years I have been mystified by the story of Sugihara, who died in 1986. His deeds are becoming well-known in Japan but are little remembered elsewhere, except by those whose lives he saved.

I have crisscrossed Japan, from the rice fields of his native town to the boardrooms of conglomerates where his younger schoolmates still hold power.

There is little in his background -- a background shared with the colonial administrators and military men who brought us the "rape of Nanjing" -- that explains his extraordinary behavior.

Nor do we find clues in his primary purpose for being in Kaunas -- to spy on the Russians and Germans in the planning for Pearl Harbor.

But my sense of Sugihara, the apparent defiance and wild abandon with which he issued visas, did not encourage me to imagine him filing lists in duplicate.

Perhaps it is a forgery, I thought as I turned the pages. Yet the paper and markings were similar to other documents whose authenticity I had no reason to question.

I was distressed to think that this list now would seal Sugihara's fate: to be remembered as the "Japanese Schindler."

Though most Japanese are quite pleased to have an Oskar Schindler of their own, the comparison does not hold water. At least at first, Schindler's adoption of "my Jews" had more to do with profit and exploitation than with protectiveness and identification with their plight.

In the one piece of writing in which Sugihara does discuss his motives for saving Jews, he speaks in the abstract terms of "human justice and love of mankind."

Still, my hands trembled as I went through the 2,139 names, largely of Polish Jews, who received visas between July 9 and Aug. 31, 1940. I recognized some names. (Please tell Steven Spielberg that Nos. 1007 and 1008 may be his long-lost cousins.)

The list's compilation and preservation raise many questions. Was Sugihara acting alone or did the strength of his personal determination to save lives create a "conspiracy of goodness" -- even, perhaps, including drinking buddies among Soviet officials whose help was needed?

Sugihara's list, pulsating as it does with life, teaches me not to deprecate Schindler's identification with Jews, however self-serving it might have been.

If Franklin D. Roosevelt, like Schindler, had ranted about "my Jews," millions might not have died. Nor would it be so bad if we could walk through the streets thinking "my homeless," or watch the news and feel "my Rwandans."

Sugihara's list is ultimately an important icon and lesson: It presents us with history as it might have been as it haunts us with the question "Why?"

Hillel Levine is a professor of sociology and religion at Boston University. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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