Chiune Sugihara, a mild-mannered Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps by frantically writing exit visas during the summer of 1940. He wrote and wrote and wrote well into the night; writing despite being ordered to stop. He pissed off his superiors to no end but still he couldn't stop doing what he felt was his duty.
It was a very Japanese sort of thing.
Sugihara was one of those unique human beings who couldn't fail but do the right thing because simply to do otherwise was to flirt with dishonor and given that his lineage on his mother's side was Samurai, and governed by a strict code of ethics known as Bushido, he felt challenged to live up to his warrior ethos. His weapon of choice, however, was not the Samurai sword but the fountain pen.
As a diplomat in the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, he saw an endless stream of Jews seeking to escape what they knew was a horrible fate and many of them had already been turned away by other embassies. Sugihara was their only chance.
I didn't do anything special... I made my own decisions, that's all. I followed my own conscience and listened to it. -Chiune Sugihara
He may not have thought that he did anything special but, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, his approximately 6,000 hand-written exit visas were life-multipliers when you consider how many descendants of the saved are alive today. That number is a startling 40,000 and even when the Japanese closed the embassy and moved Sugihara to another post he continued, according to witnesses, to desperately sign visas then hurl them out of the window of his departing train. The overwhelmed diplomat prior to his boarding, knowing he could never sign enough visas to save all who came begging, reportedly bowed deeply to the crowd and voiced his regret, "Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best."
That was an honorable thing to do.
For anyone who considers themselves an activist, Sugihara sets the bar very high. His quiet but determined actions in defense of his fellow humans is the gold standard, for me anyway, and in a world driven by the twin engines of money and ego; where a me-first mentality is worn as a badge of honor by many and where sociopathy among corporate CEOs is as common as the common cold it's good to be reminded that people like Sugihara lived. His actions continue to resonate as an inspirational chord played on the high moral ground; a place where you do something right because it's the right thing to do.
I've always been a bit sensitive to this sort of thing. When I was growing up in 1950s tenement Brooklyn, dinner time conversation was usually dominated by the Holocaust. Both my parents and live-in grandmother were graduates of Camp Auschwitz so I was indoctrinated early on -- emotionally -- in the consequences of seeing something evil and doing nothing. Often I'd be glued to the black and white TV watching wartime documentaries on Victory at Sea or the 20th century then suddenly find myself in the grip of an adolescent frenzy fantasizing how I'd fight Nazis and if I found some, I'd torture the hell out of them (my own version of Inglourious Basterds).
Sugihara grew up in a household where he was expected to excel. His father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine but he was much more interested in trolling the world for new experiences, new cultures and new opportunities which is how he ended up as a diplomat.
Interestingly, the best insights I found regarding Sughihara's bravery are laid out in a blog with the very non-politically correct title, The Art of Manliness, but don't jump to any conclusions: written by a husband and wife team, Brett and Kate McKay, their definition of "manliness" highlights self-worth and respect as opposed to grunting, narcissistic machismo.
The McKay's highlight a code that was taught to students in the all-boy's school Sugihara attended. The code went something like this:
1. Do not be a burden to others
2. Take care of others
3. Do not expect rewards for your goodness
Three simple rules provided Sugihara with the moral imperative to stand up and be counted knowing full well that running afoul of his superiors would have consequences -- he accepted that -- and post-war reality delivered that in spades. After being released from a Soviet internment camp and shuttled back to Tokyo he learned that there was no job available in his chosen field. He had lost face in defying orders from above and that meant an end to his career and livelihood. Sugihara was forced to eke out a living working menial jobs, at one point selling light bulbs door to door, and through it all he never talked about his war time exploits and few outside his immediate family knew what he had done. Honor, it seems, has a way of providing its own satisfaction and you can see it in the pictures of Sugihara: while his eyes convey a sense of sadness and resignation, overall, there's a feeling that he's a man at peace with himself.
To speak of honor these days is often considered not politically correct. Almost by definition, politics provides the ways and means to do the dishonorable thing and get away with it.
It was only in 1968 when one of those he saved as a teenager, Jehoshua Nishri, working at the Israeli embassy in Tokyo tracked him down and arranged for a trip to Israel. Once discovered, a legion of his survivors lobbied for recognition in the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and by 1985 he was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations. His health prevented him from attending (his wife and son appeared in his place) but by the next year he had passed away. He remained so low-key in Japan that few of his neighbors knew his accomplishments until the day of his funeral when a large Jewish delegation, including the Israeli ambassador, made a pilgrimage to the funeral to pay their respects.
Sugihara had fulfilled a destiny to live and die with honor and the McKay's, in their blog, pose an interesting question and one worth contemplating by activists of either gender:
Many men wonder if they would have the courage to make the right decision in the midst of a large challenge. The answer is simple...do you have the courage to go your own way in the small decisions of your life? It is the small choices that build your courage backbone and give you the strength needed to make the right choices when truly tested.
To follow the honorable path these days is usually to run afoul of the politicians, law enforcement, business leaders, and blow-hard media pundits and I'm specifically talking about those who pursue the whistleblowing path; individuals like Snowden and Manning, both of whom saw evil and decided to act.
For any progressive with a moral compass looking for direction I'd suggest paying a visit to a small park in the "little Tokyo" section of Los Angeles where a statue of Sugihara is placed somewhat incongruously, depicting the seated diplomat presenting a piece of paper -- a visa -- to no one in particular. It didn't matter. If there was someone in need Sugihara was there to help.
It perfectly captures what the man was all about.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on Foreclosure Diaries, a documentary about the financial crisis. He's blogged in the past for American Banker, is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post and is currently working on a book, Intent to Accelerate: Reflections on the Foreclosure Crisis.