Friday, October 24, 2008

Remembering Yukiko Sugihara

Masha Leon

Were it not for Yukiko Sugihara, who died on October 8 at age 94, I might not be writing this column, nor would there be some 55,000 descendants of the Jews her husband helped save from the Holocaust.

Wife of Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1940, she supported her husband’s issuing 2,139 visas for 6,000 Jews despite his government’s objections. I first met Mrs. Sugihara in May 1989, when she and her son Hiroki came to New York to accept the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith’s posthumous “Courage to Care Award,” presented to her husband. Across the table at the Summit Hotel, Mrs. Sugihara responded to my questions in whispered Japanese, which Hiro translated. Unexpectedly, I began to weep. I explained that, like others, my mother and I had been helped by agencies such as the Jewish Labor Committee, American Joint Distribution Committee, the Red Cross, yet here I was with an individual — someone who changed history, who could have told her husband not to put his family and career in peril by issuing “illegal” visas to Jews at a time when Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany. In her book, “Visas for Life,” Mrs. Sugihara describes the crowds of Jews waiting outside the consulate for visas. “My mother was one of those,” I told her. While I slept in our hiding place in Vilnius, fearing arrest by Stalin’s NKVD, my mother took the night train to Kovno to wait outside for one of those life-saving visas— #1882.

Read it all here.

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