BreakPoint: Sugihara’s Holocaust Survivors

The High Cost of Obedience

Today, in Israel, is Holocaust Memorial Day. Here’s an amazing story of an unlikely hero, a Christian who changed the world.

Many of us have seen the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List,” about how one courageous man rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. But there are dozens and dozens of lesser-known stories, including one of a man who led the second largest rescue of Jews during the Nazi era.

Chiune Sugihara was born in what is now known as Mino City in Japan. His ambitious father wanted him to become a doctor, but Sugihara instead studied English at Wasida University. It was here that he had his first exposure to Christianity: He joined a Christian fraternity in order to improve his command of English.

Sugihara was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and while stationed in Manchuria, was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church—an unusual move for a Japanese.

By 1939, with the Nazis on the march, Sugihara was assigned to the Japanese consulate in Lithuania. As the war raged in Europe, thousands of Polish Jews escaped into Lithuania. In June of 1940, the Soviets annexed Lithuania, and ordered all embassies closed. It was now too late for Lithuanian Jews to escape, but the Soviets agreed to allow Polish Jews to emigrate through the Soviet Union provided they could obtain the necessary travel documents.

Sugihara and his wife awoke one morning in July to the sight of hundreds of desperate Polish Jews gathered outside the consulate—Could Sugihara grant them visas?

Sugihara needed permission from Tokyo. At that time, the Japanese government would only authorize visas to people who had another visa for somewhere other than Japan. This was a nearly impossible qualification to fulfill, as most countries refused to accept Jewish refugees escaping Europe. Which is why, when Sugihara wired Tokyo about providing transit visas to Polish refugees, the government’s answer was “absolutely not.”

Remember, Imperial Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany.

Sugihara faced a difficult decision. If he defied his government, he faced the loss of his job, disgrace, and financial ruin—maybe even death. What would happen to his family? Sugihara told his wife, ‘I may have to disobey my government, but if I do not, I will be disobeying God.”

Dr. Glenn Sunshine tells this story, and what happened next, in his “Christians Who Changed Their World” series at

Sugihara obtained permission from the Soviets to keep the embassy open for another 20 days. He and his wife frantically wrote and signed visas by hand, 300 a day. As the deadline for leaving approached, they sacrificed food and sleep so that others might live.

When they were finally forced to close the consulate and leave Lithuania, Sugihara continued signing visas from the train, throwing them out the window even as the train left the station.

Sugihara paid a high price for his heroism. He was drummed out of the diplomatic service, and his family lived in squalor for years as Sugihara worked at odd jobs, unsure for most of his life if any of his efforts on behalf of the Jews even made a difference.

Well, it did. Thanks to Sugihara, between six and ten thousand Jews survived. As sociologist Hillel Levine writes in his book, “In Search of Sugihara,” “thousands of Jews . . . were packed on trains bound not for forced labor camps and gas chambers but for freedom.”

And today, there are some 40,000 descendants of those that Sugihara saved. In 1985, Israel gave both him and his wife its highest honor, “Righteous Among the Gentiles.”

The story of Chiune Sugihara is a reminder of the Christian duty to love our neighbors, and of the high price we may have to pay in doing so.

This is just one of the stories in Glenn Sunshine’s excellent series “Christians Who Changed Their World.” To find the rest, come to


Sugihara’s Holocaust Survivors: The High Cost of Obedience

Find out more about Chiune Sugihara by clicking on the links in the Resources section. And discover many other inspirational accounts of committed believers by diving into Dr. Glenn Sunshine’s series, “Christians Who Changed Their World,” accessible here.

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  • Joel Stucki

    There are indeed dozens of stories about Christians (and non-Christians as well) who defied the Nazis and rescued Jews or helped them escape. We rightfully praise the efforts of such people.

    But it seems to me that the real story is the millions upon millions of Christians who did nothing, said nothing, and simply allowed the Holocaust to occur. We focus on people like Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as if that’s what the Church did during the Nazi regime. But sadly, the real story is that the Church by and large did absolutely nothing. There are a handful of individual exceptions to this, but collectively and corporately the Church was silent.

    And therefore, on this day in particular, we should be in collective and corporate repentance.

    • Scott

      Or perhaps we should celebrate their actions as something we (the Church) can all aspire to. Let us not forget the reason why Corrie Ten Boom told her story in the first place… and that she attributes her faith to her actions. God forbid something like that ever happens again, but if it does, I would prefer there to be thousands like her rather than a dozen.

  • Thank you Lord for calling CS into your service at such a time in history, where he would risk his own life for the jewish people he loved.

  • Helen Louise

    So good to read such an inspiring and heartwarming story.

  • Scott

    “That Joel S. came back to us a few hours later with a positive application/aspiration for us to think upon is commendable.”

    I’m not sure what you are referring to here? I missed the “having now turned the focus from lamentable lack of action in the past to a hope in Christ for more fruit from godlier saints” part. He mentions our rightful praise at the beginning and then follows with a “but” and his “real story.”

    I meant no disrespect to Joel. He makes a very good point about the “lamentable lack of action.” We are right to lament over inaction. My point was that I believe Corrie told her story as motivation for action. Positive stories of heroic acts of faith motivate and inspire people to do the same. I believe that is the point of this and other articles like it.

    • Joel Stucki

      My point was not that stories like this are not inspiring. Of course they are. My point is that (in my perception) we the Church often act like the stories of Corrie Ten Boom and Sugihara were the norm, as if the Church stood faithfully against the atrocities of the Nazi regime. In fact those were exceptional cases; the norm was that the Church was silent.

      I love reading stories like this as much as anyone. But where are the laments over the silence of Christians in the face of evil? It seems a glaring omission, and I thought it needed to be said.

      • Scott

        Your point is good and lamenting the failure of inaction is important. I am sure some of the church is guilty of silence… but how much? I don’t have the answer to that question.

        I wonder how many people knew of what was happening before it was too late? I also wonder how many spoke out in opposition and were executed before any chance to act out in defiance? I imagine When a gun is pointed to someone’s head, fear might freeze them.

        I don’t know if it is fair to say that millions upon millions did nothing… I wish the U.S. would have gotten involved sooner. Many Christians did volunteer to stand up and fight back against Germany. Your statement just seems so condemning of so many people. After all… so many people did loose their lives fighting the Nazis. My grandfather lost more than a few friends in WWII.

        I am with you when you say you would like to see more Christians take a stand against evil. There is great evil in the form of genocide going on in the world right now. Are you and I silent about it?

  • Scott

    Again you make good points… It seems like you have a compassionate heart for justice.

    I’m not sure how the church can take credit for government actions though. When the U.S. turned back a ship full of fleeing Jews, it was a lamentable government act. Also the church in germany is a complicated and larger conversation which we can discuss if you like, but I really would like to address your point about western culture.

    I would like to compare your statement to human nature and Christ’s message in the New Testament. Lets take another look at your use of the word anti-Semitism. We can define it as “hostility or prejudice against Jews.” The Christian-Jewish conflict stems from Christ’s ministry. Jesus himself was a Jew. If we know the story in the Bible then we know where the devision lies. But isn’t the New Testament filled with stories of Christ and His disciples loving their Jewish brothers? Didn’t Jesus try to convince the Jewish leaders by convicting their hearts rather than forcible action? In Jesus ministry we do not see any hostility or prejudice as those words are found in the definition of anti-Semitism. Instead, when He spoke against the practices and teachings of the Jewish pharisees and teachers of the law, He did so out of love that He later demonstrated on the cross.

    In contrast to this, Jesus was tortured and crucified by the very hostility and prejudice that created our definition of anti-Semitism. So then isn’t this the connection with human nature? If we look at the tragic/genocidal oppression caused by other non-Christian dictators… Egyptian Pharos, Kahn, Stalin, Mao (Hitler is included on the list and it is quite large), what does this say about the human constructs in anti-Semitism vs. Christ’s message?

    I only offer this as a suggestion: Blaming all humanity for its sinful human nature might be more appropriate… after all the good and bad of that very nature can be found in each of us, whether we are Christian or not.

  • Scott

    Interesting… how do you know?