Meeting the Descendents of Righteous Disobedience

To be recognized as a Ger Tzaddik, Righteous Among the Nations is a rare honor given by Israel to those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Chiune Sugihara was one such honoree. Called “the Japanese Schindler,” Sugihara was a diplomat stationed in Lithuania during World War II who gave visas to European Jews fleeing the Nazis. They found refuge first in Kobe, Japan, and then in the already crowded slums of Shanghai, China. On Monday, May 7, 2024, I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Chiune’s grandson, Chihiro Sugihara, at the Cincinnati Museum Center, followed by a conversation with Sonia Milrod, the daughter of two visa recipients. 

Chiune Sugihara’s father wanted his son to become a medical doctor, but the young Chiune was more interested in foreign languages. His father disowned him for such disobedience, leaving Chiune without family support. Undeterred, Chiune taught himself Russian with a dictionary and then learned Mandarin, English, German, and French. With these skills, Chiune helped negotiate the sale of the Northern Manchurian Railway, stretching from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok. 

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was appointed Vice-Consul to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union. Tokyo had ordered not to issue visas, and the Soviets would soon shut down all foreign embassies. Chiune spent sleepless nights wrestling over what to do. He knew he would sacrifice his diplomatic career if he helped these people. However, the tearful pleas of those who begged for help and even kissed his shoes moved him to action. In his memoir, Visas For Life, he wrote, 

“If I had simply followed orders, I would have been praised and promoted. … But I reached the conclusion that humanity and compassion must come first.” 

For twenty-nine days, Chiune Sugihara wrote more than two thousand visas by hand to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied parts of Europe. 

Following his presentation, Chihiro Sugihara sat down for a conversation with Sonia Milrod. Milrod relayed the story of how her father and his brother, the only two of seven children in the Milrod family who were still single and childless, fled from Germany to Lithuania, where they heard they might be able to get visas to safety. They were shocked when Chiune Sugihara quickly stamped their visas with no questions asked. 

As a result, the Milrod brothers were the only members of their family to survive. During the Q&A, another audience member identified himself as a product of these visas. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are about 100,000 alive today because of one man’s disobedience to the cold-hearted orders of his superiors. ( 

The evening’s presentation was a co-production of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center and the Japan America Society. The latter group has its own history of being vilified and placed in internment camps, but by the United States government, even though many were US citizens. After the Japanese-Americans were released, some came to Cincinnati, where they encountered anti-Japanese bigotry. However, they also found employment working in Jewish homes and businesses. 

The Talmud teaches us that if we save even one life, it is as if we have saved the whole world. When we destroy a life, it is as if we have destroyed the whole world (Sanhedrin 37a). Millions of lives were destroyed during that dark chapter of human history, making us all the more thankful for the lives that were saved through acts of defiance and courage by people like Chiune Sugihara.