Last week I went to the Sugihara Museum in Kaunas. It is a small museum just up the hill from my house, tucked away on a neighborhood street. Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul in Lithuania at the outbreak of World War II. Hundreds of Polish Jews, fleeing the Nazi occupation of Poland, had managed to get visas to Curacao from the Dutch consul in Riga. However, they needed transit visas for Japan before the Soviet Union (which controlled Lithuania by that time) to allow them to leave the country.
Sugihara requested permission from the Japanese government to grant transit visas and was refused. The Japanese government quite rightly suspected that the Curacao visas were not valid and it was allied with Nazi Germany at that time. Hearing the stories of what was happening to Jews, Sugihara decided to disobey orders and began granting transit visas to the Jewish refugees. For four weeks, Sugihara issued hundreds of hand-written transit visas. He continued to hand-write visas and pass them out the window on the day he left Kaunas by train.
Amazingly, the Japanese government honored the 2,000 transit visas — counting family members, more than 6,000 Jews managed to escape Nazi occupation with Sugihara transit visas. Sugihara’s work went unrecognized until 1968, when researchers who had heard stories of the transit visas, found information about Sugihara in the Japanese Foreign Ministry archives. In 1985, he was honored as “Righteous Among Nations” by the Israeli government. You can read more about Sugihara on the PBS website Conspiracy of Kindness. You can watch a portion of a documentary about Sugihara on youtube: