If you ever doubt your faith in mankind, this true story will restore it for you.
Passage to Freedom tells the amazing story of Chiune Sugihara, who single-handedly saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. His story was told by his son Hiroki to the author, based on Hiroki’s recollections. Hiroki was five in 1940 when his father, Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Lithuania, was begged by Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught for visas to escape. The Sugiharas were stationed in Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Jews who came to them were from Poland. Ironically, the Lithuanian Jews were not allowed to leave, but at this time, in June, 1940, the Soviets agreed to let Polish Jews leave if they could get travel documents.
Chiune cabled his government for permission, but it was denied. He cabled twice more, and again his government said “absolutely not.” But he could not say no to what was right. As the Japanese proverb said, “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that comes to him for refuge.” He gathered his family together and explained to them:
“I have to do something. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I will be disobeying God.”
As Ron Greene reports in a book on the Sugiharas (Visas for Life: The The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara):
“For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, for these three weeks, they wrote and signed visas. They wrote over 300 visas a day, which would normally be one month’s worth of work for the consul. Yukiko also helped him register these visas. At the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches.”
As Passage to Freedom ends, the family is being transferred to Berlin. Even as the train pulled out, Chiune was still signed visas, handing the permission papers out through the windows of the train. Hiroki said,
“Back then, I did not fully understand what the three of them [his mother, father, and aunt] had done, or why it was so important. I do now.”
An afterword by (the adult) Hiroki explains that following their departure, the family was imprisoned for 18 months in a Soviet internment camp, and thereafter, Chiune was asked to resign from diplomatic service. In the 1960’s, Chiune started hearing from people who called themselves “Sugihara survivors” and he received a “Righteous Among Nations” Award from the Holocaust organization in Israel. He was the first and only Asian to receive this honor.
The sepia-toned illustrations by talented Dom Lee are excellent, and seem very realistic. Resembling photographs from the 1940’s, they were created by etching on beeswax applied to paper, and then painting over the etchings.
Evaluation: I cannot stress how inspirational this story is. As Hiroki says, “It is a story that proves that one person can make a difference.” And in fact, the book is dedicated not only to Chiune Sugihara and his family, but also “to all others who place the welfare of others before themselves.” Today, two generations later, it is estimated that there may be more than 40,000 who owe their lives to the Sugiharas.
Although I recommend this book for all ages, it would make an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for children. (There is nothing explicitly frightening here; just the acknowledgment that these people would die if not helped by the Sugiharas.)
Certainly more people would know about this story if Steven Spielberg made a movie about it! (Sugihara has been called “the Japanese Schindler.”) But PBS did make a documentary. You can watch an excerpt here. Even that 6 minute clip will affect you powerfully.
Published by Lee & Low Books, Inc., 1997
Note: The author is the son of Japanese parents who were sent to an American internment camp in Idaho during World War II.