Beneath the delicate chandeliers of the Japanese ambassador’s residence, a queue of the saved and their descendants shuffled toward an elderly Japanese woman and her family. I had known about the woman’s late husband, Chiune Sugihara, since childhood – there could be no relationship more intimate than that between his family and mine. If not for his actions, I wouldn’t be alive. Now, for the first time, I was about to meet his relatives.
The hall was packed with dignitaries and reporters; Sugihara’s family was on display. So, too, were those of us on the line of the saved, our bodies hieroglyphs for what someone at a podium would soon refer to as Sugihara’s “undying moral stature.” A self-consciousness deeper than mere formality pervaded the hall. How, I wondered, is a person supposed to look or dress or walk as the living representative of someone else’s goodness?
In 1940, Chiune Sugihara scuttled his career and his family’s social standing in order to save the lives of strangers. Working as Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania shortly after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Sugihara was greeted at his gate one day by a throng so loud that he feared a mob had come to storm the consulate. In fact the crowd was made up of Polish-Jewish refugees who were desperate to escape the reaches of Hitler and Stalin, and they were there to plead for help.
What would become an enormous rescue had been catalyzed by Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch official in the Lithuanian city of Kovno, who had distributed paperwork declaring that no visa was necessary to enter the Dutch colony of Curacao in the West Indies. Zwartendijk’s paperwork was a bureaucratic sleight of hand, intended to create the impression that these refugees had authorization to enter a country outside Europe. While it was true that Curacao required no visa, none could enter Curacao without the governor’s personal – and rarely granted – permission. But first and foremost the refugees needed to get out of Europe; being turned away from Curacao later was a risk they were willing to take.
The next step was to get themselves on a boat headed toward Curacao. Such a boat could be boarded in Japan – but only if one had a transit visa authorizing passage through that country. The Jews thronging the gate of the Japanese consulate – my grandparents and great-grandparents among them – were there to beg assistance.
Repeatedly Chiune Sugihara contacted the Japanese foreign ministry for permission to issue transit visas to Jews bound for Curacao. His requests were denied. He consulted his family and his religious faith. And he made a decision to defy his government. He signed dozens of transit visas, each allowing a family passage through Japan en route to Curacao. Then hundreds. His hand cramped, he ran out of visas, he improvised new forms and kept signing. An old photograph shows Sugihara leaving Lithuania when the Japanese consulate closed. A man’s arm reaches down from the train window, pen in hand; a crowd presses alongside the train holding papers aloft, pleading for one last signature.
By the time the train left that station, Sugihara had signed as many as 5,500 visas. With theirs, my relatives took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, then a boat to Japan, then crossed the Pacific on a Japanese vessel. In Mexico City, a bribe to a ship’s doctor got them quarantined on land, where they found refuge until the Curacao-bound ship sailed on. At last, in 1942, they were able to enter the United States.
Home in post-war Japan, Sugihara lost his job and good name. He sold light bulbs, taught Russian, labored to feed his family. Only after his death in 1986 did the Japanese government, in a series of cautious gestures, acknowledge he’d been in the right.
Now, 60 years after the events in Kovno, the Japanese embassy was sponsoring a reception in his honor, and my mother’s family was among the many invited.
As we approached Mrs. Yukiko Sugihara, a diminutive gray-haired woman in a pale pink kimono, I realized to my horror that in my preparations for this event – plane tickets, hotel, carefully chosen outfit – I’d neglected the most important thing of all: finding the right words. The phrases available to me were insipid, each more inadequate than the last: Thank you. We think of you often. Whatever made me think I could improvise words to honor the debts I’d inherited along with my existence?
At the head of the line, my great-aunt delicately explained that she had been saved, at age 16, by Mrs. Sugihara’s late husband. A pause for translation. Mrs. Sugihara smiled. In skirt and heels I stepped forward mutely to line up beside a cousin, as my great-aunt pointed us out one by one: Here is a daughter. Here a niece. Here a great-niece. I stood on display. I tried to look simultaneously respectful, thankful and friendly. Like something other than a nodding doll.
Mrs. Sugihara smiled graciously and bowed her head. And our audience was finished.
Beyond Mrs. Sugihara stood a lovely-looking woman roughly my age with two young children. She was Sugihara’s granddaughter, and she spoke English.
I introduced myself and said I was happy to meet her. Rushing lest I miss the chance, I said something about gratitude or respect – awkward phrases I can’t now recall, too ordinary to support the meaning I wanted them to convey.
We stood there, her children watching me wearily – another in a forest of strangers. What started as a polite interval grew uncomfortable. What I really wanted to know was too personal to ask: What it was like, for better and for worse, to stand on her side of this story that united us? What had the years of isolated conviction wrought in her elders? Did she ever find the public vocabulary of good and evil difficult to reconcile with life’s daily blend of success and failure, ambivalence and distraction? I wanted to know what she and I had in common, or what separated us.
I asked her, instead, what it meant to the Sugiharas, this resurrection of her grandfather’s reputation after so many years.
She replied softly: “He is my elder. I respect him.”
Silence. I’d overstepped. I felt like an idiot. Then it occurred to me to wonder whether she, like me, was made shy by this meeting. This script of virtue and victimhood had been written by our grandparents, not by us. What roles did we play in it?
“He lives in my heart every day,” she said.
Only later, long after the crowd had separated us, did I realize what I ought to have said. The simplest part came first: If you and your husband and these children ever need safe haven, I – born in the United States, knowing almost nothing of your culture or country – will turn my life upside down to provide it for you.
But since the granddaughter of Chiune Sugihara would in all likelihood never need my help, I left the residence of the Japanese ambassador that day hoping hard that I’d have the wisdom to recognize the person who did.
I’m now close to the age Chiune Sugihara was when he signed those visas. I haven’t saved anyone. I give blood; I make donations of various sorts; I try to teach my kids about doing good in the world; every now and then I bring a meal to a community member who’s sick. When the Japanese earthquake hit, I rushed to make a donation in honor of Sugihara. Still, it feels paltry. There’s no denying that I live a selfish life.
There’s redemption, of course, in living a selfish life. That’s what Sugihara sacrificed to provide for strangers: a secure existence, a life of tending one’s own garden, a definitive answer to the wrenching uncertainties of war.
Still. By some estimates, there are now 60,000 people alive today due to Sugihara’s actions. What if each of us descendants of visa-holders went looking for ways to repay that debt, each in his own way?
I suspect most of us do, and that most of us feel inadequate to the task. Perhaps that’s one definition of survivor guilt – the sense that there’s a moral equation that never can be balanced, though that doesn’t excuse you from trying. If I could go back to that reception now, I would turn to each person on that line and ask: What responsibility comes with being saved?
I struggle with it. And the struggle, perhaps, means that Sugihara’s granddaughter and I have at least this in common: He lives in our hearts every day.Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. She lives outside Boston with her family.