Mrs. Yukiko Sugihara, who had helped her husband, Chiune, rescue thousands of Jews from Lithuania during World War II. They were a diplomatic family in Lithuania and were able to issue visas to Jews, many of whom, as the heads of family, could then transport their entire families to Japanese territory. Thanks to the Sugihara’s actions, thousands of Jewish refugees found themselves in Japan where they were safe even though Japan was allied to a virulently anti-Semitic Germany. Yukiko, living at a nearby hotel for her safety would often massage her husband’s hands, at the end of the day, as they were worn out after writing hundreds of visas.
Although transit visas at the time were valid for only 10 days, the term was lengthened to a month and, in some cases, longer, until most all of them had been able to arrange passage to onward points such as Shanghai, the U.S., Australia and Brazil. When he was recalled from Lithuania, Mr Sugihara left a copy of his signature and the consulate stamp with some Jesuits in Vilnas who continued issuing visas in his name. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986 in Japan where he was unknown and it was only when a huge Jewish delegation from around the world and the Israeli ambassador to Japan came to his funeral that his neighbours find out what he had done. A convert to Christianity, Sugihara’s actions were clearly inspired by his faith. As he told his wife, it was more important for him to obey God than his government. His decision to aid the refugees was particularly influenced by his reading of the book of Lamentations in the Bible.
Although not officially a saint, Chiune is considered as such by some Eastern Orthodox Christian, some of whom have icons of him. In 1985 the Yad Vasham (The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre) granted Chiune the title of Righteous Among the Nations (he and his family were also given perpetual Israeli citizenship) although he was too ill to travel to Israel to accept the award it was received by his wife Yukiko instead. Mrs Yukiko was his second wife after he had married Klaudia Apollonova when working for the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Harbin, China. His first wife had been Russian and he converted to Christianity, specifically the Russian Orthodox Church, to marry her using the baptismal name Sergei Pavlovich. His experience in all things Russian earned him the position of Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria where he was tasked with negotiating with the Soviets over the sale of their rights to the North Manchuria Railway. However, later that year, 1935, Chiune resigned his post in protest at Japanese mistreatment of the Chinese. Just before returning to Japan Chiune and Klaudia’s marriage dissolved and ended in divorce. Chiune remarried a Japanese woman, Yukiko Kikuchi, with whom he would have four children. As a young man, Chiune’s father wanted him to become a physician, but Chiune deliberately failed the entrance exam by writing only his name on the exam papers. Instead, he entered Waseda University and majored in English language. This was when he showed an early interest in the Gospels as he entered a Christian fraternity that had been founded by Baptist pastor Harry Baxter Benninhof, to improve his English.
Chiune passed the Foreign Ministry Scholarship exam and then served in the Imperial Army as a second lieutenant with the 79th Infantry, stationed in Korea, then part of the Empire of Japan. He resigned his commission in November 1922 and took the Foreign Ministry's language qualifying exams the following year, passing the Russian exam with distinction. The Japanese Foreign Ministry recruited him and assigned him to Harbin, China, where he also studied the Russian and German languages and later became an expert on Russian affairs. However, Chiune’s insubordination, regarding Japanese treatment of the Chinese in Manchuria meant that he was re-posted in a demoted role as a translator to the Japanese legation in Helsinki, Finland. On the eve of the War in 1939 Chiune was posted to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania as vice-consul. Kaunas was an ideal place for Japan to check up on its ally, Nazi Germany, whom it suspected of making a secret pact with Joseph Stalin, as well as plotting an invasion of the Soviet Union. Both suspicions were confirmed by Sugihara’s contacts with Polish spies, and reconnaissance of Nazi troop movements, sometimes done under the guise of a picnic. His main job was to collaborate with Polish intelligence and keep an eye on German and Soviet troop movements.
The Germans and Soviets invaded and occupied Poland soon after Chiune’s arrival in Lithuania. This was followed almost immediately in 1940 by the Soviet overthrowing the governments of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This led to an influx of Eastern European Jews to Kaunas in search of nations that would offer visas. Chiune asked the Japanese foreign ministry for instruction regarding visas for the Jews. The Ministry replied that visas can only be given to those who had through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds to purchase it. Most of the Jews coming in fulfilled neither of these criteria. However, it was starting to become increasingly clear what would happen to the Jews if they remained in Eastern Europe. Chuine decided to take his own initiative and started to churn out ten-day transit visas as well as speaking to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews use the Trans-Siberian Railway (at five times the normal price). Chiune would reportedly spend 20 hours a day writing the visas, producing a months’ worth of them in a single day. By September he had given thousands of visas and the Japanese consulate was closed and the Japanese staff told to leave. Chiune and his wife Yukiko stayed up all through the night writing more visas. Apparently, he was still writing them while in transit from his hotel to the train station. Finally, in desperation, he resorted to signing pieces of paper affixed with the seal of the Japanese consulate which could then be written over into visas. Flinging them out of the train windows into the crowds of desperate refugees
Sugihara’s story is “a kind of bright light” for Lithuania, according to local historians and 80 years after he issued “visas for life” to refugees who sought his help. Lithuania’s government has declared 2020 “the year of Chiune Sugihara”: an official programme promises an exhibition of photographs in Lithuania’s parliament, as well as concerts, conferences, films, postage stamps and a monument erected in Kaunas, Lithuania’s former capital, where Sugihara was posted in 1939.