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Discusses why a little-known Japanese diplomat named Chiune Sugihara risked his career during World War II by issuing transit visas to thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany, concluding that mercy, like evil, often has no visible roots. 20,000 first printing.
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Hillel Levine, a professor of sociology and religion, is the co-author of The Death of an American Jewish Community (Free Press, 1991). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Young Man Sugihara
The Summer of 1905 in Yaotsu, Kovno, and Portsmouth and the Making of a Mass Rescue
He was born, as throughout life he would proudly recall, on January 1, 1900. From what we can tell about Sugihara, he would not have been impressed by the pedants who debate whether 1900 was the last year of the nineteenth or the first year of the twentieth century. But over the course of his life he did discover opportunity in being caught between, bridging, as he did, such very different experiences of geography, culture, and temperament -- just as he straddled the centuries. It was what marked him the most.
Both his parents were Iwais, not an uncommon name around Sugihara's hometown of Yaotsu, in Japan's Gifu Prefecture. But his mother's family was among the few Iwais who could trace their lineage back to the feudal lord of the region. This lent them considerable pedigree. Yatsu Iwai, Sugihara's mother, was also the town beauty -- some would claim unrivaled in the entire prefecture. She seemed to have married beneath her station in choosing Mitsugoro Iwai, for he descended from the untitled and unscrubbed Iwais.
Family legend has it that during Mitsugoro's military service in Manchuria and Siberia, in 1895, he contracted tuberculosis. In his confinement, he received an extra measure of care from an officer named Kosui Sugihara and, in gratitude, offered to become this man's adopted son, not an atypical practice in those years. But some family members attribute the name change to less noble reasons. Around this time, Yaotsu initiated a new postal delivery service; one Sugihara had a better chance of getting the right mail than dozens of Iwais.
Yaotsu lay at the "navel" and between the two lobes of that island-country of Japan. Gifuites, as I learned in my travels there, are very proud to point out how they compose the heartland of their country. This centralized location was prized by many feudal warriors: "Control Gifu and you control Japan!" they would proclaim, while devastating its countryside. The region was coveted for its rich agriculture and thick forests.
Sugihara was also born precisely between the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. In that first war, Japan, like the Western powers that it both admired and resented, became a colonial powerhouse of its own, attaining degrees of control over Chinese and Korean territory. The war's outcome set the stage for Sugihara's early career as a colonial administrator.
In the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese were justifiably impressed by their military triumph over the "Western" power of Russia. But many believed they were unjustly deprived in the diplomatic war that followed, under American sponsorship, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The treaty signed there raised Japan's international status but deepened its distrust of the West. This twin result set the stage for the second half of Sugihara's career in Europe and Russia, as he struggled mightily to understand his country's position between East and West.
We twist the kaleidoscope of Sugihara's life and discover such fascinating shapes and configurations. Take his birth year, 1900, when his country was placing itself, once more, between a Western power and an Eastern neighbor. At the time, the Japanese joined the British in trying to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China, but not without experiencing profound confusion in choosing allies. That confusion continued into the 1930s, when Japan again had to opt between alliances with the United States and Great Britain or Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In each case, much of Japan's decision depended on who would best protect it from its dreaded neighbor, Soviet Russia.
Sugihara would become one of Japan's top experts on the Russian language and the Soviet Union, someone who thrived at the geographic and cultural stress points, at the intersection of East and West. Hence his assignment in Kaunas, some thirty-nine years after he was born in Yaotsu, where his skills came to their utmost fruition. He was ideally equipped for his roles -- the official job, that is, and the unofficial one of rescuer that he assumed. For the former, he was to monitor developments that would determine on which side of the erupting conflict -- soon a world war -- Japan should place itself. For the latter, he created strange and wonderful alliances with remarkable agility.
In short, there came a moment when Chiune Sugihara stopped investigating what was good for his country and ended up plain doing good. We want to comprehend that golden moment, but we must approach it from yet another vantage. To understand the makings of a mass rescuer, we must try to understand the circumstances of the mass rescue. This includes most specifically the background and active involvement of those rescued. For Sugihara, in becoming a rescuer, entered into a relationship. A rescuer, in other words, needs "rescuees."
For instance, what historical forces brought Jewish rescuees to Kovno? What forces shaped East European Jews? What were the psychological and cultural sources of their unrelenting initiative? As chaos prevailed, where did they find courage to leave the warm, the loving, the familiar behind? What fortified them against the comforts of denial or fatalism? What "facts" and "forces" brought Sugihara together with those whom he tried to rescue, and what was the nature of their interaction? In short, why did thousands line up outside his door?
We will try to understand the lives of rescuer and rescuees backwards, as Kierkegaard helpfully suggests. To understand that mass rescue, we must understand another point in time and several points in space. It is 1905, and we are visiting Yaotsu, Japan, Kovno, Russia, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This itinerary will help us understand the relationships among Japan, Russia, and the United States, as well as to chart the path that leads to that fateful meeting between Sugihara and the Jews who converged with him in Kovno in the summer of 1940. Along the way, there are many ironies for us to savor, and mysteries to contemplate.
Yaotsu: Provincial Origins of a Japanese Cosmopolitan
It is the end of the late spring rainy season and I moistly wonder how the young man Sugihara endured the humid heat. The mayor of Yaotsu, having heard of my interest in this favorite son, has planned a reception and tour in my honor. The festivities begin with the ceremonial exchange of business cards; all the mayor's assistants bear cards with laminated photos of the Sugihara monument, with its chimes and reflecting pool. It's all quite genial, but soon I perceive some nervous stirrings. In misdirected faxes over the past weeks, the mayor's office has been trying to ascertain whether the honored guest would prefer bread or rice with his lunch. This now had to be resolved. "Ours" and "theirs," Japanese and foreign are still laden with explosive meaning, hard to comprehend for those of us accustomed to walking out our doors on any day and finding within a sphere of five blocks a global variety of foreign eateries. That the young man Sugihara chose such a cosmopolitan existence more than three quarters of a century ago suddenly takes on new implications. At lunch, I demonstrably savor both bread and rice.
I am taken to the site of the Sugihara home, close to the Kiso River in town, and then to Grandma Iwai's home up in the mountains, not far from the monument constructed in the early 1990s. Joe Iwai, a second cousin on Sugihara's maternal side, accompanies me. As we drive through Yaotsu, I try to picture scenes from Sugihara's childhood.
Of course there's no record. But if our knowledge of Chiune's early years is so scant, still there is much we can infer. In truth, for a child growing up in a provincial town such as Yaot
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