The son of wartime Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara has addressed global audiences about his father’s work in saving Jews by issuing thousands of life-saving visas in Lithuania.
But speaking at a recent Limmud FSU event in Minsk, Belarus, Nobuki Sugihara downplayed some of the stories about his father, in whose name a museum opened in Japan in 2000. There is also a Sugihara museum in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Nobuki Sugihara, 70, told the JTA in Minsk that “there are inaccuracies in circulation about what my father had done. I started speaking just to set the record straight on those embellishments.”
One such story is that his father wrote visas on the train he left on for Germany after being expelled from his post in Lithuania. Sugihara supposedly “threw the signed visas” through a train window. Both Sugihara museums say it happened. The Japanese one even plays a film that re-creates it.
But the consul’s son said that the dramatic incident “never happened”. At most, he suggested: “Maybe, maybe he gave three or four visas at the hotel” just before his departure.
He also said that his father had never, as is widely supposed, given his Japanese consular seals to refugees so that they could continue making visas after his expulsion from Lithuania. Not only did this never happen, said Mr Sugihara, but he believed his father “would not have approved” of the myths which have grown up around his wartime work.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, said he thought that the younger Sugihara was actually doing a service to his father’s legacy.
“Sugihara’s legacy as a role model is more relatable and powerful when it accurately tells the reason he helped these people: human kindness, not a political or ideological move,” Chesler said.
In 1985 the wartime diplomat was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Israel and three years later its Foreign Ministry arranged a scholarship for Nobuki, the youngest of his four children, at the Hebrew University.
As a result Nobuki found work at the Ramat Gan diamond exchange, and today he lives in Antwerp, where he is a diamond trader. He and his wife have four children, and he speaks fluent Hebrew, and, usefully for someone working in a trade dominated by Orthodox Jews, a working Yiddish.
He says of his father that Chiune Sugihara had no idea for decades that he had saved so many lives. “He assumed a few people, maybe a few dozen, had actually used the visas to escape. He truly did not realise the magnitude of his actions until much, much later in life.”