How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives

Published September 1, 2021
Updated March 12, 2024

Chiune Sugihara: The Japanese Diplomat Turned Holocaust Hero

Chiune Sugihara

Wikimedia CommonsAs a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara helped save thousands of Jews.

Many of the heroes on this list are Europeans. But Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara also recognized that Jewish people in Europe were in desperate need of help — and he saved as many as he could.

Assigned to work at a consulate in Lithuania, Sugihara had initially come to Europe to keep tabs on German and Soviet troop movements. But before long, he found himself faced with a humanitarian crisis. After Hitler invaded Poland, Jewish refugees poured into Lithuania in hopes of escape. Then, many of them showed up at Sugihara’s door, begging him for help.

Sugihara came up with a plan: He could help the Jewish refugees by issuing them Japanese transit visas. That way, they could escape Europe safely by taking the train through Siberia to Japan. But his superiors adamantly refused — and forbade him from issuing documents to Jewish refugees.

Undeterred, and convinced of the necessity of his actions, Sugihara got to work. He and his wife labored feverishly over the course of just one month in 1940. Working nearly around the clock, they issued up to 300 visas per day.

Sugihara Visa

Wikimedia CommonsA visa issued by Chiune Sugihara.

During this time, Sugihara hardly slept or ate. He even filled out visa forms at the train platform when he was forced to evacuate his post. Sugihara was then reassigned to other consulates throughout Europe — and he was later held as a prisoner of war for over a year after World War II ended.

Though he was freed and sent back to Japan, Sugihara was soon pressured to resign from the foreign ministry. “You know what you did. Now you need to leave the ministry,” his superiors told him, according to Sugihara’s son.

But Sugihara never regretted his actions. “It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them,” he later said. “I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do.”

In all, Sugihara saved up to 6,000 people. As a result of his actions, between 40,000 and 100,000 descendants of the rescued people are alive today. And in 1986, Yad Vashem honored Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. He is the only Japanese national to receive such an honor.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives.", September 1, 2021, Accessed May 29, 2024.