It's with a certain awkwardness that Hiroki
Sugihara, 63, travels the world to lecture about the heroic acts of his late father during World War II.
It violates a cultural sense of modesty.
"For a Japanese, it sounds like you are showing
off," he says.
Yet he must. Too few in the world are aware of that heroism, he believes. Too few know what his father, Chiune Sugihara, "the Japanese Schindler," did in 1940 when, as a midranking
diplomat in Lithuania, against the orders of his own government, he wrote 6,000 exit visas to get desperate Polish Jews out of the way of the approaching Nazi Holocaust.
"Thanks to him, I'm alive," says George Borenstein, then a 36yearold Polish Army soldier, now 86, retired in Delray Beach, Fla. Borenstein had fled to Lithuania after the Germans defeated the Polish Army.
Ousted from the foreign ministry after the war, Sugihara lived in obscurity for decades.
Now he has been honored by the Israeli government as one of "the righteous among nations" nonJews
who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. It's the same honor given German businessman Oskar Schindler and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, whose efforts to save Jews from death at the hands of
the Nazis are far better known.
Sugihara has been the subject of an Oscarwinning documentary, and last weekend, his family was given a heroism award from The Immortal Chaplains' Foundation.
Finally his story is being told.
Hiroki Sugihara remembers it well, even though he was not quite 4 years old when it happened. It was
1940. German troops invading Poland had expelled that country's Jews, and hundreds were huddled in the square in Kaunas, Lithuania, where his father's consulate stood, seeking permission to flee to any safe
country that would take them.
The United States and Great Britain were balking at accepting new refugees.
"I asked my father why I couldn't go outside to play as usual," Sugihara says. "He told me it might be dangerous, The refugees were very agitated. I asked him what would happen to them, and he said they
might be killed.
"I was concerned for the children, because some of them were my age. So I said, 'Why can't you help them?'
"And he said, 'I might.' "
For seven fevered weeks that July and August, the elder Sugihara worked 20 hours a day, writing an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 exit visas for the refugees. Three times he wired his government for permission
to write more; three times he was told to stop. He kept writing.
Even as he and his family boarded the train to leave Lithuania for Berlin on his government's orders,
Sugihara kept writing visas, throwing them out the window to refugees running alongside.
"We will never forget you," one of them called, according to one book on Sugihara's exploits.
With documentation, the refugees were able to travel across Russia, take the Siberian Express railway to Vladivostok and eventually reach Japan or other countries.
There they were treated well during the war. Despite its alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan had little history of antiSemitism.
"When there were shortages, the people even shared their food with them," said Anne Akabori, a Sacramento librarian. In 1996, she translated into English the book "Visas for 6,000 Lives," written by
Sugihara's wife, Yokiko.
As the war ended, Sugihara, then posted in Romania, was captured by the Soviets and sent to a
concentration camp with his wife and son for 18 months. Arriving back in Japan in 1947, he approached the country's postwar foreign ministry, hoping for a sympathetic reception and perhaps even a new
assignment. Instead, they demanded his resignation.
The world knew little of Sugihara until 1968, when Joshua Nisri, economic attache to the Israeli Embassy
in Tokyo, sought him out, Nisri was a Polish teen in 1940, one of the refugees Sugihara saved. Since then, Sugiharas story has been slowly seeping into the world consciousness.
In 1985, just a year before Sugihara died, the Israeli government honored him as "A Man of Justice of the Peoples of the World."
His story spread further after the fall of communism freed Lithuania and other Eastern European countries to express their true feelings. It was only in 1991, during a celebration of Lithuanian independence, that a
monument was erected and a street named after Sugihara in Kaunas.
In 1996, Boston University religion Professor Hillel Levine published a book, "In Search of Sugihara,"
calling Sugihara's exploits braver even than those of Wallenberg and Schindler.
Wallenberg was sent to Hungary by the Swedish government with its specific backing, Levine argued;
Schindler had at least a partial economic motive, using the Jews he saved to work in his factories. Sugibara acted purely on principle, Levine said. Sugihara's story became better known in the United
States after 1994, when the movie "Schindler's List" raised the world's interest in those who had helped
Jewish refugees during the war. In 1997, a documentary about Sugihara, "Visas and Virtue" by Chris Tashima and Chris Donahue, won an Oscar in the Live Action Short Category.
More recently, Sugihara was honored by the Holocaust Oral History Project and the Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles at a ceremony attended by "Schindler's List" filmmaker Stephen Spielberg.
One of the first questions the younger Sugihara is asked during his lectures is why an obedient Japanese diplomat would risk himself and his family to help strangers.
Says Akabori, the Sacramento librarian: "I believe it was deeply rooted in the Japanese spirit called 'bushido,' which means reaching the highest level of physical, mental and spiritual attainment. When you
think something is right, you do it, without worrying about yourself." After all, she says, Sugihara's family is descended from samurai, the ancient warrior caste to whom honor came before money or personal safety.
The younger Sugibara credits that explanation: "When he was growing up, he was taught that code. You have to sacrifice yourself to help somebody else."
The elder Sugihara, in a speech in 1985, a year before he died, put it more simply: "It is the kind of sentiment anyone would have when he actually sees the refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes.
"He just cannot help but sympathize."