If you watch the news or follow social media in any capacity, it’s easy to think that the world is going to Hell and we’re all just waiting for our turn to get burned. It’s not hard to find a terrible news story that seriously dents your faith in humanity. Sometimes, it’s not even headline news. There are plenty of stories of people just being assholes.
As I’ve noted before, these types of stories can skew your perspective. In the grand scheme of things, the world is getting better. You don’t have to look that hard for evidence of that, either. The problem is few people bother looking.
To help with that, I’d like to share a brief, but uplifting story from one of history’s darkest time periods. It occurred in the early years of World War II, just as some of the worst atrocities in human history were starting to unfold. In such a time, it’s easy to see the worst in people come out.
At the same time, it can also bring out the best in people. One of those people was a man named Chiune Sugihara. Chances are you haven’t heard of him and that’s a shame because what he did was incredible. At a time when thousands of Jews were fleeing Germany and seeking refuge, Chiune used his position as a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania to issue visas to refugees.
On top of that, he did this in defiance of orders from the Japanese government. He broke rules and protocol to help thousands of desperate families escape Europe. He was even punished for it after the war. Even so, there are thousands of people alive today because of what he did.
His story is remarkable and one I encourage everyone to learn about. The Holocaust Museum has a nice summation of his actions, but there are so many more. Here is a small excerpt.
Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 hundreds of thousands of Jews and other Polish citizens fled eastward ahead of the advancing German army; many refugees found at least temporary safety in Lithuania. Options for escape were limited and required diplomatic visas to cross international borders. One route was through Asia using a combination of permits issued by foreign envoys responding to the refugee crisis: a bogus visa for entrance to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao and a visa for transit through Japan.
One such diplomat was Japanese Imperial Consul Chiune Sugihara, the first Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania. In the absence of clear instructions from his government in Tokyo, Sugihara granted 10-day visas to Japan to hundreds of refugees who held Curaçao destination visas. After issuing some 1800 visas, Sugihara finally received a response to his cables alerting the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo of the situation in Lithuania. The Foreign Ministry reported that individuals with visas headed for the United States and Canada had arrived in Japan without money or final destination visas. In his response, Sugihara admitted to issuing visas to people who had not completed all arrangements for destination visas explaining that Japan was the only transit country available for going in the direction of the United States, and his visas were needed to leave the Soviet Union. By the time the Soviets ordered all diplomatic consulates closed, in late August 1940, Sugihara had saved thousands of Jews over the course of just a few weeks. Because of his efforts, Yad Vashem awarded him the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1984.
The story of Chiune Sugihara may not completely restore your faith in humanity, but it should serve as a strong reminder. Even in our darkest hours, people can still do great things for the right reasons.