Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara is considered an unofficial Saint by many Orthodox Christians for his heroic and selfless actions that saved thousands of Jewish refugees during WW2, with the support of his wife Yukiko.
Born in Japan on January 1st 1900, he converted to Orthodox Christianity while serving in Manchurian Foreign Office. After quitting his job in objection to the Japanese Governments treatment of local Chinese people, he became a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. As the Soviet Union occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel, yet it was impossible to find countries willing to issue them. St Chiune attempted three times to get the Japanese Government to agree to allow him to issue the visas, and when they wouldn’t, he decided to do it himself in direct violation of his orders. Yukiko, having been inspired by “Lamentations, a book of the Old Testament, written by Jeremiah” urged Chiune to issue visas to save Jewish refugees.
He also spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the refugees travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the standard ticket price.
St Chiune continued to hand write visas, reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day, until 4 September, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of households and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out of the train’s window even as the train pulled out. In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he prepared to depart, he said, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.” When he bowed deeply to the people before him, someone exclaimed, “Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!”
The total number of Jewish refugees saved by Sugihara is in dispute, estimating about 6,000; family visas—which allowed several people to travel on one visa—were also issued, which would account for the much higher figure. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive today because of his actions. Sugihara’s widow and eldest son estimate that he saved 10,000 Jews from certain death.
When asked, 45 years later, why he issued the visas, St Chiune is quoted as saying;
“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.”
St Chiune received multiple honors shortly before and after his death on the 31st of July, 1986.