In Search of Sugihara by Hillel Levine

A book review by Jane Schofer, Sholom Aleichem Club, Philadelphia. Reprinted from the Sholom Aleichem Club (Philadelphia) "News and Comment."

I am sure that most of us have read at least a few of the large number of books about the Holocaust that have been published in the last 20-30 years. Most of these volumes examine, in varying degrees of detail, the depths of evil to which mankind descended in the 1930s and '40s. We have also seen photographs and films of the ghettoes, the death camps, and other physical evidence of the destruction. Much of this literature attempts to explain how and why particular men or groups of men did these terrible deeds. The horror of it all is almost unfathomable, even to a late 20th century person who knows that similar events have taken place both before and after the Holocaust, among such people as the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Rwandans, and the Bosnians. For this reason it is especially awe-inspiring and faith-restoring to read about the few individuals and groups who actually worked against the death-dealers to hide, aid, or rescue Jews or others threatened by the forces of genocide.

Books and films about these brave heroes and heroines are both inspiring and fascinating, and Hillel Levine's In Search of Sugihara is no exception. In this fascinating story we are introduced to a man who, possibly against the orders of his own government, issued life-saving Japanese visas to over 2000 Jews in the darkening days of 1940. Though it is rather long and not always as clearly written as I would have preferred, this book does present a complex and very private person, with insight obtained by very diligent and creative research.

Levine's search did not turn up any conclusive answers. The reader is left at the end knowing little for certain about Sugihara's personality or motives, although a certain amount of speculation is offered, based on comments by those who knew him, his own very brief writings, and, most of all, on his own amazing actions.

In the first third of the book the author tries to document Sugihara's early life with his family and his early career. Levine attempts this using a number of different research tools: He read widely about Japanese culture in order to be able to interpret the information he would uncover. He read the memoirs of important Japanese figures of that day in order to understand Sugihara's background and actions. He found and read a very brief memoir written by Sugihara himself long after World War II.

He conducted interviews with Sugihara's surviving family members and colleagues who worked with him at that time. And he gained access to Sugihara's work record which was on file at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. All of these documents, and even the interviews, tell us about the man's activities, but give only tantalizing hints about his personality and motivation.

These first chapters also attempt to fill us in on Japan's history as it relates to Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the other countries of Asia at that time, especially after Japan established the puppet-state of Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1932. We learn that Sugihara was perfectly fluent in Russian, having attended a college in Harbin, Manchuria, where he subsequently also taught Russian.

This college was not considered "elite," and its lower status had an effect on all of Sugihara's later career. He had increasing contact with the growing community of emigrees from "the Bolshevik paradise" who managed to get to Harbin, and he even married a Russian woman. This experience, along with various diplomatic and espionage roles, made it natural for Sugihara to be sent to Eastern Europe in 1938, at first to Helsinki and then in September of 1939 to Kovno, Lithuania to spy on the Russians, keep track of their movements and their strange relationship with the Nazis before the Nazi-Soviet Pact. It was there in Kovno that Sugihara began to issue his visas in the summer of 1940, just as his consulate was being shut down by the newly occupying Soviet army and bureaucracy. Prof. Levine describes in some detail how Sugihara came to Kovno and set up the consulate there. He pictures the many refugees pouring into Lithuania from Germany and Poland, trying to escape the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, up until the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, when they were caught in Lithuania.

The impossibility of their situation is made pretty clear, as they could move neither to the west nor to the east. For some reason Sugihara took pity on them and began to issue visas, regardless of the applicants' documents or lack thereof, slowly at first and then faster and faster, employing some of the refugees themselves to speed up the process and continuing to ask his Ministry at home for permission to do what he already was doing.

The surprising follow-up to all of this is that the visas worked throughout the Soviet Union despite the fact that refugees from Lithuania located by the Soviets themselves were being sent to Siberia, certainly not to Japan. Japanese officials, too, continued to honor these visas even though the holders were often missing other necessary documents. Levine speculates at this point about a "conspiracy of goodness." Altogether, Sugihara issued some 2100 visas in Kovno from July 9 to August 31, 1940, a fact that Mr. Levine confirmed in a list that he found in the files of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Levine describes the period after Sugihara left the Kovno consulate. Sugihara seems to have served in Konigsberg and then in Bucharest, so he was probably not under too much of a cloud at home. When he returned to Japan in 1947 he was asked to resign from the Foreign Ministry, but so were many others in a general retrenchment of diplomatic personnel that took place at that time. He was awarded a pension, so it is really not totally clear if his visa activities in Kovno (and elsewhere) did cause him much problem in later years, though he himself seemed to think that it did.

On the whole, the book is a success, though there are a few weaknesses. In the early chapters Mr. Levine assumes the reader knows what Japan was doing in Manchuria in the time period when Sugihara was stationed there as a diplomat, and what Japan's relationship was with Russia and China at this time. I found that I could not understand the context of Sugihara's activities, and I was forced to consult an encyclopedia to gain the necessary background. Another problem that surfaces is the writing style. Often Mr. Levine's sentences are full of rhetorical questions that do not seem in keeping with the academic nature of the book.

Despite these minor flaws, the reader does learn much about Japanese history and about a small corner of the history of the Holocaust, namely, Lithuania in 1940. The facts about Mr. Sugihara's actions are also pretty clearly presented insofar as they are actually known. The man as a person, however, still remains shadowy, and I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. People's motivations are usually mixed and the various strands are difficult to determine even in examining one's own behavior, let alone that of someone else. Levine's biography can still inspire readers to live the best kind of life they can and not to neglect to offer the helping hand.