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Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands from the Nazis, Gets His Own Movie

‘Persona Non Grata,’ a feature-length biopic about the Holocaust hero, premieres next week

Yair Rosenberg
January 25, 2016
Toshiaki Karasawa as Chiune Sugihara in "Persona Non Grata" YouTube
Toshiaki Karasawa as Chiune Sugihara in "Persona Non Grata" YouTube

This coming Sunday, January 31, the man who saved my grandfather and thousands of other Jews from the Holocaust will finally be getting his own film adaptation. “Persona Non Grata,” which will have its U.S. premiere next week at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul who granted 3,500 transit visas to fleeing Lithuanian Jewish refugees–including many yeshiva students–without the approval of his government.

As Yad Vashem recounts:

The Japanese consul asked for time to obtain authorization from his superiors to grant the visas. Nothing indicated that the Japanese Foreign Ministry would agree to this unusual request. However, Sugihara was very troubled by the refugees’ plight and therefore began issuing visas at his own initiative and without having obtained his ministry’s support. Nine days later the response from Tokyo arrived. The proposal was rejected, and authorization to grant transit visas was denied. Sugihara decided to continue with the distribution of the visas anyhow. His wife later described how the predicament of the desperate Jewish refugees had impacted her husband. After the meeting with the delegation he was troubled and contemplative until he decided to go ahead and disobey his orders. Within a brief span of time before the consulate was closed down and Sugihara had to leave Kaunas, he provided approximately 3,500 transit visas. Thanks to Sugihara they were able to leave Europe and the murder that was to begin a year later. Among the recipients of visas were many rabbis and Talmudic students. Their narrow escape enabled them to re-establish the Jewish traditional schools elsewhere.

Ultimately dismissed from the Japanese Foreign Service, Sugihara lived out his post-war life in obscurity, doing menial work to support his family. He was eventually tracked down in 1968 by one of the Jews he saved, then an economic attaché to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, and brought to Israel, where he received a hero’s welcome. In 1984, Yad Vashem recognized Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Two years later, he died.

Though Sugihara’s story has been the subject of several documentaries, it has not received biopic treatment until now. “Persona Non Grata” was directed by Japanese-American director Cellin Gluck, filmed in Poland, and stars Toshiaki Karasawa in the lead role.

Watch the trailer below:

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.