Remembering Yukiko Sugihara

On the Go

By Masha Leon

Published October 23, 2008, issue of October 31, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

COURAGE: Yukiko Sugihara.
COURAGE: Yukiko Sugihara.

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.

As we parted, I told Hiroki, “Tell your mother she is very beautiful.” He blanched and did not translate. It went against the grain of Japanese form. As they accompanied me to the elevator, I tried again: “I know it’s un-Japanese, but I wish I could give your mother a hug.” Both looked uncomfortable. The elevator came; I bowed, and said sayonara, good-bye. In August 1994, I returned to Japan for the first time since 1941. When my daughter Karen and I arrived in Tokyo to attend special ceremonies at The Hill of Humanity, a memorial ceremony for Chiune Sugihara, set high in the mountains near his hometown of Yoatsu, near Tokyo, I finally got to hug and kiss her.

The ceremony turned into a media blitz, with dozens of cameramen and reporters from American, European and Japanese networks and press. Beneath a blazing sun, hundreds of spectators and representatives of American, Israeli and Japanese governments sat on tiered cement bleachers, and watched as the stoic, frail, still beautiful 80-year-old Yukiko Sugihara was presented with flowers, as a Japanese church choir sang “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold). During our stop at Tokyo’s Jewish Community Center, former American vice president Walter Mondale said: “Schindler got into [rescuing] to make money… and to his credit saw the horror of it and ended up saving those on his famous list. Raoul Wallenberg, who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews, knew that his career was not at risk if he returned to Sweden. What is unique about Sugihara was that he and his wife were risking their lives and career future… When asked why he did it, [Sugihara] said, ‘I did what we as human beings should do.’” In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, as Righteous Among the Nations. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986.

In her memoirs and lectures, Mrs. Sugihara would continue to remind that it was she who urged her husband to keep signing. That when her husband’s hand got tired and he could not go on, she massaged his arm so he could continue. In “Visas for Life,” Mrs. Sugihara writes: “My husband and I are Christians of the Greek Church, so we desired earnestly to help the Jews … My husband and I talked about the visas before he issued them. We understood that both the Japanese and German governments disagreed with our ideas, but we went ahead anyhow… The Jews who passed through Kaunas … shouted when we were leaving Kaunas station. ‘We will never forget you. We will never see you again.’ I’ve heard that, as a people, the Jews never forget a promise.” Mrs. Sugihara was the inspiration for “Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats Project,” which was founded by and has been curated since by Eric Saul. The “Visas for Life” project, which has traveled all over the world, was a part of that special 1994 trip to Japan. In his note to me about her death, Eric Saul wrote: Mrs. Sugihara was an inspiration to me and all those whom she met. She spent the last 20 years of her life telling the story of the Sugihara life-saving visas. We had the honor to know her and to have her inspire us, and we will continue her work.”

Mrs. Sugihara’s funeral took place at Fujisawa, Japan. Her ashes will be buried on November 8 at Kamakura where (her husband) Chiune (and sons) Hiroki and Haruki are buried. A son and grandson of hers in the past have lived in Israel, spoke fluent Hebrew and were in the diamond business.


Gary Ginsberg, one of my trusted advisors and friends, raised the ratio of menorahs to crèches in our hallways,” joked News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, presenter of the Scopus Award to honoree Ginsberg at the September 25 American Friends of Hebrew University gala dinner. Ginsberg, the corporation’s executive vice president of global marketing, said, “Assuming he was Jewish, a reporter for a Jewish weekly asked Rupert what he had learned at his Yeshiva in Australia. Rupert answered the question with a question; ‘What’s a yeshiva?’ Rupert… you are a great friend of Israel… because you are a believer in freedom.” Ginsberg recalled: “This is a long way from my childhood in Buffalo, a gritty immigrant city… In my class of 550 we could barely scrape together a minyan… We were so few that the public school closing for Yom Kippur was inconceivable until my mother successfully petitioned the school board to recognize the day as an official holiday.” Gala chair Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of U.S. News & World Report, presented the Truman Peace Prize to Ambassador Dennis Ross, who was introduced by Richard Plepler, HBO co-president. Among the evening’s H.U. supporters were: Howard Rubenstein, Harvey Kreuger, Bernard Nussbaum and Charlie Feldman.

“Thanks to my mother and father, I grew up with an appreciation of what it means to live a Jewish life,” continued Ginsberg, whose kvelling parents were among the guests in the Plaza ballroom. “Being part of a tiny Jewish minority within a strong Christian community was, in a way, a blessing. My mother’s activism heightened my sense of Jewish identity. I wanted to be the first Jewish president. Even in Buffalo, back in 1973 as an 11-year-old, I saw our Hebrew school principal cry at Yom Kippur services after announcing that Israel had been attacked and was fighting for its life.” Ginsberg recalled: “I remember a number of my teachers flying to Tel Aviv to volunteer… including Mrs. Post bearing a number tattooed on her arm, telling our class that without a strong Israel we would all be as endangered as she was a generation earlier. Ten years after Mrs. Post spoke to our class, I found myself atop Mount Scopus at Hebrew University. In those classrooms overlooking Jerusalem, I began to appreciate how integral Hebrew University was to the intellectual lifeblood of Israel… Hebrew University produces more Nobel Prize winners, prime ministers, ambassadors, jurists and legislators than any other institute in the country, and educates nearly a third of all of Israel’s doctoral candidates.”

Keynote speaker Ross, whom Plepler described as “a national treasure, a mensch,” launched his extensive incisive overview of Israel’s recent diplomatic history, and failed negotiations, with a bit of humor. “I went to my rabbi and told him I’m going to talk tonight and I need a story. The rabbi’s offering: A man has a foul-mouthed parrot, a trainer rewards the parrot but the parrot refuses to speak, so the man puts the parrot into a freezer. Finally a contrite parrot promises he will never again use foul language. ‘But,’ asks the parrot, ‘What did the chicken (in the freezer) do?’” Ross stressed: “It was important not to give up about peace.” He underscored, “There is no such thing as a one-state solution… Israel will survive by democratic (means).”

Founded in 1918 by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, the university opened its doors in 1925.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.