Chiune Sugihara: A True Hero

Passage to Freedom – Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee, Lee & Low Books, 1997

passage cover

On Monday, January 27, many people and organizations around the world will observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring the memories of those lost to Nazi terror.  On that day in 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (On the Jewish calendar, Yom HaShoah, which will fall this year on Thursday, May 2, commemorates the Jewish lives lost to the disaster.)

I posted a blog several weeks ago about a recently released book, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, about a failed Japanese attempt to bomb a small town in Oregon during World War II.  One of the defining untruths about that book was the author’s characterization of the bomber as a “noble figure.”  I suggested that, for a true portrait of nobility during the War, readers return to a much older book, Passage to Freedom, the story of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara’s undeniable act of heroism in defying his own government when he personally took responsibility for issuing visas to thousands of desperate Jews in Lithuania, where he was serving as vice consul, allowing them to flee east, to China and Japan, and eventually to safety in other countries.

Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee, who collaborated on the outstanding historical picture book about the internment of Japanese Americans, Baseball Saved Us (1993), tell Sugihara’s story from the point of view of his son, Hiroki, a child at the time of his father’s courageous decision.  Hiroki Sugihara provides an afterword about the events described and his personal response to them.  The simplicity of the text realistically conveys the experience of a young child undergoing a chaotic experience, but finding meaning through the ethical decisions of adults who chose to resist immoral social norms by following their own moral compass.  The sepia toned pictures capture the feeling of watching an old newsreel, yet they are also both immediate and timeless.

passage-boy

A young Jewish boy stares out at the reader, holding the food item which Sugihara had given him the money to purchase. His expression echoes that of so many photographs from the era, ones in which the confusion and fear of children faced with inexplicable adult actions are manifest.  Another picture frames Sugihara and his son in a window pane.  The diplomat looks out, in the process of thinking through the ominous facts about his position.  Hiroki looks on in confusion, which the text resolves:

“My father cabled his superiors yet a third time, and I knew the answer by the look in his eyes. That night, he said to my mother, ‘I have to do something. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I will be disobeying God.’”

The final illustration shows a line of railroad tracks narrowing to the horizon.  One creased document sits in the center of the tracks at their widest point. Perhaps it fell from the departing train, as the story relates how, even as trains pulled away, “My father still handed permission papers out the window.” The picture also suggests an opposite and ghostly image, of trains which pulled away full of Jews who would never return.

In every way, Sugihara was the embodiment of heroism, in stark contrast to the “hero” of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. Although that book was supposedly about reconciliation, the bomber appears never to have come to terms to his blind obedience to a fascist government. His acknowledgement that ritual suicide might be the only response if the people of his intended target did not forgive him proves how little he had learned about courage and sacrifice.  Chiune Sugihara and his family were stigmatized even after the War, but were eventually honored at the Yad Vashem memorial to “Righteous Gentiles” in Israel. Passage to Freedom is a book to read, reread, and share with our children and students, especially as recent surveys report how knowledge of the Holocaust is receding dangerously into the past in the United States and elsewhere.

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