July 1, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC—On the occasion of the visit to Japan by Chicago business leader and Sugihara visa recipient Leo Melamed and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum director Sara Bloomfield and their meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Museum issued the following statement:
“In the aftermath of World War II, the world was stunned by the staggering amount of destruction, death, and atrocities. Among the many atrocities, the Holocaust stands out as a unique crime—the deliberate attempt of the German Nazi state to murder every Jew in Europe. Two out of three Jews were killed as the world stood by. The few who survived did so because they were lucky—or, in a very few cases, because they were helped. One unlikely helper was Chiune Sugihara, a career Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in November 1939 just a few months after the Germans invaded Poland, launching the war.
"After occupying Poland, the Germans began severe persecution of its large Jewish community. Thousands fled east to Vilnius (Vilna) and Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania. During what turned out to be a small window of opportunity in the summer of 1940, Sugihara and Dutch honorary counsel Jan Zwartendijk created a unique route to safety in Japan. With a Dutch entry visa for Curaçao, the Jewish refugees could approach Sugihara to request a Japanese transit visa. The anxious Jews continued to line up at the Japanese consulate as the Soviets were increasingly strengthening their hold on the country.
"In this environment of escalating pressure, and in spite of the fact that Japan had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with the Germans, Chiune Sugihara chose to bend his country’s immigration rules. He issued 2,178 Japanese transit visas to Jewish refugees desperate to leave before the Soviet borders closed. Many refugees did not meet the Japanese requirement of an onward destination, yet Sugihara showed exceptional flexibility in his loose interpretation of the regulations. Working at a feverish pace, he demonstrated a kind of initiative rare in the diplomatic profession. With “Sugihara visas,” more than 2,000 Jews traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the port of Vladivostok. From there they purchased steamer tickets to the tiny port of Tsuruga, Japan, where they were warmly welcomed by the local community, before moving on to Kobe. Some, such as a young boy named Leo Melamed whose family made it to the United States, were able to leave Kobe. The rest stayed until the fall of 1941, when the Imperial Japanese government, anticipating war in the Pacific, moved the remaining Jews to Shanghai in occupied China where they survived the war.
"After World War II, Leo Melamed learned that much of his family had been killed by the Nazis. He owed his life to Chiune Sugihara. The diplomat’s deeds are remarkable under any circumstances, but he took such actions at a time when his own government was at war in Asia. Almost 70 years after the end of the war, Sugihara stands today as a model of courage and compassion and an inspiration for all of humanity.”
The full story of the plight of the refugees and Sugihara’s rescue is on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Flight and Rescue website (available in English, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Dutch).
A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.