Monday, March 17, 2014

The Life of Righteous Chiune Sugihara

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Iconographer Svetlana Vukmirović
(The scoll reads: The righteous shall be glad in the Lord, and shall trust in Him)

Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1st 1900. in Yaotsu to father Yoshimi Sugihara and mother Yatsu Sugihara. His mother was of samurai class. He had four brothers and a sister, and was the second-eldest son. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but he intentionally failed the entrance exam in order to study English language. Later on he was admitted to diplomatic service. Japanese Foreign Ministry assigned him to Harbin, where he became an expert on Russian affairs. He negotiated with Soviet Union regarding Northen Manchurian Railroad. His Russian contacts allowed him to correctly estimate the value of the railroad, therefore securing a contract which was much more favorable to the Japanese. However, he resigned out of prostest due to Japanese treatment of the Chinese: “They treated them like if they were animals, as if they were not human beings”. 

While he was in Harbin, Chiune converted to the holy Orthodox Christian faith, taking as his baptismal name “Paul Sergius”. There he married a Russian woman, Claudia Seimonova Apollonova. They divorced in 1935 – Chiune loved children very much while Claudia did not want to become a mother. She was a nurse, and constant exposure to child-labour struck her with fear. She even aborted their child and request abortion. Despite all that, Chiune still continued to support both her and her family.

When he returned to Japan in 1935, Chiune married Yukkiko Kikuchi, who took as her baptismal name “Mary”. Yukkiko tells of her husband: “When I met him, I noticed that he is not like other Japanese men. Peace radiated from him. He treated me as if we were equals, when most Japanese men didn’t do that. Women were second-class citizens”. The couple had four sons: Hiroki, Chiaki, Haruki and Nobuki.

In 1939, Chiune become a vice-consul in Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania. When Soviets took over Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland and many Lithuanian Jews tried to obtain exit visas. The Dutch consul had provided some of them with an destination to Curaçao, a Caribbean island and Dutch colony that required no entry visa. At the time, the Japanese government required that visas be issued only to those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds. Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria. Sugihara dutifully contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions. Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit Japan, with no exceptions.
Chiune had decided to issue visas without his government’s consent. Knowing that such an act of disobedience would cost him his job, but also that it would endanger the lives of his wife and children in the case Nazis ever attack Lithuania, he asked for advice from his wife. Rembering a certain verse from Lamentations of prophet Jeremiah, Mary supported him in his intention. They begun to issue unauthorized visas. 

From July 18 to August 28 1940, Chiune hand wrote the visas. Each visa allowed for a ten day transit through Japan, in direct disobedience to the others he received. In Japanese culture such an act of disobedience was punished severely. Nonetheless, he negotiated with Soviet officials who allowed the Jews to travel via Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the regular ticket price.
Sugihara wrote the visas by hand, writing the complicated kanji characters. He would spend 18-20 hours writing, helped by his wife and consulate staff, and occasionally even by the refugees themselves. It is reported that sometimes he would not eat so he would not waste time for issuing visas. For issuing the visas he was discharged from his duty and was ordered to leave the consulate immediately. Chiune, Yukkiko and their sons took residence in a nearby hotel. The Jews soon found them and begged them to issue more visas. By September 4, when they were supposed to leave Kaunas by train, Chiune and Yukkiko would write the documents. Each day they issued the number of visas that was issued by the consulate in a month. On the day of departure, on his way to the train station, Chiune placed his signature on blank papers , throwing the unfinished visas into the crowd so people could fill them in later on. As he entered the train, he was stamping blank papers, throwing the documents out of the window. At one moment he became extremely exhausted. He leaned through the window and said: Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.” Then he bowed to the gathered refugees. One of the Jews and Poles then yelled: “Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!” At these words, Yukkiko started to weep, crying long time after the train left the station. 

It is estimated that the holy disobedience that Chiune Sugihara toward his government saved around 6000 people, but it does not end there. In the official archive of Japanese consulate some 2100 names were written down. Those were family visas that allowed sever people to leave Lithuania. Futhermore, certain Jesuits from Poland got the hold of Sugihara’s stamp which the diplomat did not destroy, so they continued to issue “Sugihara visas.” Some Jews didn’t manage to leave Lithuania at time, perishing in the holocaust when the Germans attacked Soviet Union on June 22 1941. It is estimated that 10.000 people in total were saved by Chiune and Yukkiko Sugihara, as well as others who helped them out in their task.

Sugihara continued to serve as a vice consul in Prague in Czechoslovakia, in Koningsberg in East Prussia as well as a jurist in Buchurest in Romania, from 1941 to 1944. When Soviet troops entered Romania, they imprisoned Sugihara and his family in a POW camp for eighteen months. They were released in 1946 – Yukkiko traded her expensive kimono with the guard in exchange for their release. They returned to Japan . In 1947, the Japanese foreign office asked Chiune to resign, nominally due to downsizing. However, according to many other testimonies, including his wife’s, that was an act of revenge for his disobedience. In 1947 the family suffered a tragedy when their youngest son died when he was only 7, being weak from all the atrocities of war.

In order to provide for his family, Chiune took a series of menial jobs, at one point even selling light bulbs door-to-door. At one point he worked in Soviet Union. His son recalls: “He invited me for a supper. Of course, I had hoped we would have a nice meal. He said he would cook, so we went to a supermarket, where he bought potatoes and a sausage. He peeled the potatoes at home and boiled them on a burned which he had in the toilet. He considered it a feast.”

In 1968, Jehoshua Nishri, an attaché to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of the Sugihara beneficiaries who was saved when he was only a child, finally located and contacted him. The next year Sugihara visited Israel and was greeted by the Israeli government. In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was finally granted the honor of the Righteous Among the Nations. Sugihara was too ill to travel to Israel, so his wife and son accepted the honor on his behalf.

45 years after the invasion of Lithuania, he was asked why he issued visas to the Jews. Chiune said that the refugees were human beings and that they simply needed help.

 You want to know about my motivation, don't you? Well. 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. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent. People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives....The spirit of humanity, philanthropy...neighborly friendship...with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.

A newsreporter wrote: “I asked him why he saved all those people. He got confused. He considered it most natural so much that for a moment he didn’t know what to answer.”

Chine Sugihara died on July 31 1986.

Chiune never talked about his feat on his own initiative. In his country he died completely unknown, despite the many accolades he received from other states: Righteous among nations, Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, Lifesaving Cross of Lithuania.

He used to say: “I may have disobeyed my government, but if I hadn't I would have been disobeying God.”

Troparion, tone 8:
A great light has shone forth to us from the Orient, for thou, o righteous Chiune, suffered as Paul the Apostle for the salvation of Old Israel. Now thy spirit rejoices in the Lord who said: A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Many thanks to Reader Michael Fillmore for recording and sharing this troparion!

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