SUGIHARA CHIUNE “Visas for Life” Students Learn Japanese Diplomat’s Selfless Courage Saved Thousands of Jewish Refugees
"A Decision of One Saves Thousands: The Courage of SUGIHARA Chiune”
Pamphlet on SUGIHARA Chiune (PDF)
After watching a biographical film about a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, Canadian high school students listened to – and later engaged with – an online panel discussion on how acts of kindness and courage can have long lasting effects. "A Decision of One Saves Thousands: The Courage of SUGIHARA Chiune” centered on the titular Vice-Consul at the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, who issued transit visas to refugees fleeing Poland in 1940. It also examined the kindness extended by Toronto’s Jewish community to Japanese Canadians who migrated to this city after their wartime internment.
This event was held on the occasion of Jewish Heritage Month and Asian Heritage Month, and was organized by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), and the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto. Liberation 75, the event marking the 75th anniversary of liberation from the Holocaust, was a promotional partner.
During the war, crowds of Jewish refugees gathered at the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas to obtain transit visas that would allow them to pass through Japan to a third country. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructed Sugihara to issue such visas to applicants who met certain qualifications. However, for humanitarian reasons, he also granted the document to many who did not meet the requirements in order to save them from their plight. The recorded names of individuals who were given these “Visas for Life” total 2,140 but time constraints kept others who also received visas from having their names listed. As well, because family members were also granted entry into Japan on a single visa, the actual number of lives saved by Sugihara is believed to be much higher.
Persona Non Grata, the 2015 film depicting the life and courage of Sugihara, was made available for streaming to teachers and students from May 17 to 19. On May 20, they attended an online discussion among a panel consisting of:
Mr. Michael Levitt, President and CEO of the FSWC;
Dr. George Bluman, Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia whose parents were among those saved by Sugihara (Dr. Bluman also gave a keynote speech before the discussion);
Mr. Gary Kawaguchi, President of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, who described the kindness extended to Japanese Canadians by Toronto’s Jewish community after the war;
Mr. SASAYAMA Takuya, Consul-General of Japan in Toronto;
After the discussion, the students were invited to ask the panelists questions, resulting in insightful conversations. Mr. Eugene Kvache, a teacher with the TDSB, moderated the panel, while Ms. Melissa Mikel, FSWC’s Director of Education, acted as emcee. A video recording of the May 20 event will be made available by the FSWC for later viewing.
“This event was an important opportunity to reaffirm the courage of SUGIHARA Chiune, as well as the importance of properly studying history,” says Consul-General Sasayama.
“Sugihara’s story reminds us all of the power of one person to effect positive change. The simple act of signing a piece of paper saved thousands of lives,” says Mr. Levitt.
It is the strong hope of the organizers that by learning about the acts of kindness which took place in history between the Jewish and Japanese people, students will be able to consider how they also can affect the world in positive ways.