Those who first read or hear about the rescue efforts of Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara are usually intrigued by the novelties of the story. He was an Asian diplomat in the middle of wartime Europe, and a Japanese official disobeying orders from his government by helping to rescue Jews at a time when many turned their backs.
In Visas for Life, Chiune’s wife Yukiko provides the most personal portrait yet of the man best known for his rescue of Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. Her opening chapter presents a detailed and very personal account of these rescue activities, a behind-the-scenes look at Chiune’s decision to help the Jews and the impact that decision had on him and his family.
But the events in Kovno are but a small part of the Sugihara story Yukiko reveals. She takes us back to her and Chiune’s early years, describing her dream of being an artist and his desire to travel, his gift with language, and his eventual entrance into the Foreign Ministry. She opens the door on the life of a diplomatic family, recalling the joys and struggles of a life spent on the move, as Sugihara’s assignments took them from Helsinki, to Kovno, to Prague, and finally to Romania.
Once in Romania, their struggles worsened as the family was captured by the advancing Soviet army and incarcerated in several Soviet internment camps before beginning a long journey back to Japan. Once home, Yukiko recounts, difficulties continued as Chiune was dismissed in disgrace from the Foreign Service for “that incident in Lithuania,” and the family had to adjust to civilian life in a war-ravaged economy and rebuild their lives.
But Sugihara’s life took an amazing turn when, in 1968, he received a phone call from the economic attaché of the Israeli embassy in Japan, who 28 years earlier had been one of the Jews saved in Kovno. This call led to a series of events that culminated in 1985 with Sugihara receiving the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for helping Jews escape the Holocaust. Sugihara died shortly thereafter, but he continued to be honored posthumously for his rescue activities.
Visas for Life includes many personal photographs, a chronology of Sugihara’s life, and a list of the awards he received beginning in 1985. Sir Edmund L. de Rothschild provides the forward, and Hiroki Sugihara, Chiune and Yukiko’s oldest son, has written the preface.
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