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10,000 Acts of Kindness

A Huntington Beach woman and her family were among those saved by a Japanese diplomat who issuedvisas to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied land. The 'mystery' of such goodness intrigues Hillel Levine, whose new book tells the vice consul's story.

November 06, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hanni Vogelweid of Huntington Beach doesn't remember seeing Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who provided her family with transit visas so they could leave Lithuania in early 1941. But she'll never forget what Sugihara did.

She's alive because of him.

Vogelweid, a 73-year-old German-born Jew, is one of as many as 10,000 who received transit visas from a man who risked his own life to help Jews avoid the Holocaust.

As Japan's vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara used a combination of strategy and subterfuge to stretch his government's policy for issuing visas during the chaotic days between the Soviet annexation of Lithuania and Nazi occupation.

As word of Sugihara's actions spread, hundreds of desperate Jews, most of them Polish refugees who had fled their German-occupied homeland, thronged outside the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania's capital city of Kaunas each day. Vogelweid, the then-17-year-old daughter of Moritz Sondheimer, a German factory owner in Kaunas, was among the mob.

Sugihara--and others under his direction inside the consulate--issued transit visas at a furious pace for 20 days in August 1940. Even after the 40-year-old Japanese diplomat was reassigned to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and then to the Baltic Sea port of Konigsberg, he continued issuing visas to Jews.

Sugihara, who died at age 86 in 1986, has come to be known as "Japan's Oskar Schindler."

But unlike Schindler, the Nazi industrialist who initially profited from exploiting the Jewish factory workers whose lives he saved, Sugihara was never motivated by personal gain.

So what spurred Sugihara's supreme act of moral courage?

Why was a Japanese consulate established in Lithuania, an eastern European backwater, for the first time in September 1939?

Why did the Japanese government recognize Sugihara's torrent of transit visas?

Those are some of the questions author Hillel Levine asked when he began researching the life and times of the elusive Japanese diplomat, whose story was virtually unknown in his own country for four decades.

Levine's new book, "In Search of Sugihara" (The Free Press; $25), sheds new light on the Japanese man honored by Israel in 1985 with its Yad Vashem Prize for Righteous Gentiles.

Levine will discuss his "investigation into the mystery of goodness" at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. He also will speak at the Community Jewish Relations Council in Los Angeles and at UCLA on Monday. A Brookline, Mass., professor of sociology and religion, Levine is the first historian to examine in detail the story of Sugihara and analyze it based on documentary evidence--a paper trail that took Levine to foreign ministry and spy agency archives around the world.

It was in the Nazi archives in Germany that Levine confirmed what he suspected was the reason Sugihara was sent to Lithuania in 1939: Sugihara was a spy for the Japanese army and foreign ministry.

A Soviet expert fluent in Russian and experienced in spy work from his years serving in Manchuria, Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to monitor Soviet and Nazi troop movement on Lithuania's German and Russian borders in the days before Japan's alliance with Germany and Italy.

As a spy, Sugihara was naturally spied upon--by the Gestapo and other Nazi intelligence agencies, Levine says.

"They wrote in great detail about what he was up to, but no one bothered to write anything about his rescue effort on behalf of the Jews," Levine says. "It wasn't of interest to anyone. They wrote about his conversation with the Italian ambassador, about his personal life, but nothing about this great public act."

The reason, Levine says, is that at that point the thrust of Nazi policy was largely to get rid of Jews--"to scare them, kill a few, to make life miserable for them, to get Jews out of Europe. They didn't care that he was helping get rid of Jews."

And the implications of that are immense, Levine says.

It means, he says, that as late as 1940 and early 1941 there were enormous opportunities to save Jews if there had been more people like Sugihara: If one man was responsible for the rescue of 10,000 people, what if there had been a hundred like him?

"That's what haunts me all the time," says Levine, 50, a fourth-generation Jewish American. "Sugihara proved that the Holocaust could have been stopped up to the last moment had there been more Sugiharas."

*

Various accounts of the Sugihara story say that three times he defied orders from his government telling him not to issue visas to Jews.

But Levine found no documentation showing that Sugihara sent urgent cables asking governmental permission to issue the visas and nothing to show that the Japanese government ordered him not to accommodate the Jews.

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