He was raised in Gifu on the islands of Japan
He was sent off to Manchuria, that’s how this tale began
For his next assignment in the diplomatic corps
Was far-off Lithuania and the European war
My grandfather was from Krakow – the Nazis came, he fled
He took his family to Vilnius so they might not end up dead
But the Panzers were advancing and he knew they had to go
But he had to have a visa and all the embassies said no

There was only one final possibility
The last consulate left open, the Third Reich’s Asian ally
There in Lithuania there was no time to lose
They came asking for a visa, thousands of Polish Jews
The diplomat called Tokyo, “can I grant them this reprieve?”
Three times he got his answer, “tell them all to leave”
He looked into their eyes, talked to his family
He and his wife decided we must set these people free

Although I never met him, when all is said and done
I am Sugihara’s son

Disobeying orders that they knew to be wrong
Sempo and Yukiko started writing all day long
A month’s worth of visas in every twenty-hour day
Sempo and Yukiko could turn no refugee away
Word came from the empire, it’s time to turn it in
You’re closing down your consulate and moving to Berlin
They knew they did the right thing, of this they had no doubt
They threw visas through the window as their train pulled out


My grandfather crossed Siberia for five times the normal cost
Fearing for the future with every minute lost
He got the ferry to Kobe then to Occupied Shanghai
There he spent the war years while back home his people died
Sugihara-san did not seek any praise from anyone
When he died the paper said his neighbors knew not what he’d done
But there are forty thousand people living lives today
Without Sempo Sugihara I would not be here now to say


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“Sugihara” originally appeared on the Soundclick album, Ten New Songs (2010), then on Troubadour:  People’s History in Song (CD, 2010), and Big Red Sessions (CD, 2011).

I first heard about Chiune Sugihara from my friend Ben Manski, when Reiko and I were visiting Ben’s home town of Madison, Wisconsin.  Ben’s grandfather, Samuil Manski, was a Polish Jew who was desperately trying to get of Europe as the Nazis were advancing.  He and thousands of other Polish and Lithuanian Jews were able to get out of Europe via the port of Kobe, Japan as a result of the efforts of Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko.  Despite Sugihara’s superiors in the Japanese Empire repeatedly ordering the diplomat not to help Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi advance across Europe, he did.  There are an estimated 40,000 people alive today who are descendants of those whose lives were saved by this diplomat, and they often refer to themselves as Sugihara Survivors.

Half of my family are also of eastern European Jewish descent, but this song is not autobiographical.  (People often assume it is.)  The “me” in this song is Ben, the grandfather referred to is Ben’s grandfather, Samuil.  Ben also sings the song, and sang it to people at a museum dedicated to the memory of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara in Japan.  I think the museum has the lyrics to my song in their exhibition now, too, if I recall correctly.