Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” John 19:11 (NRSV)
Although this feast day actually honors the 23,000 known individuals who helped relocate Jews in Nazi-occupied countries during the Holocaust, five particular people are set apart on this day by example: Raoul Wallenberg, Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, Carl Lutz, Chiune Sugihara, and André Trocmé, who in many ways emulated Rahab the prostitute in our Hebrew Bible reading today. Like Rahab, each was an unlikely ally in a subterfuge where the end result was the sparing of many lives.
Out of these five people, I find Chiune Sugihara’s calls to me most. Sugihara (and his wife Yukiko) somehow found within themselves to generate, by hand, a month’s worth of paperwork a day, for 29 days, in the form of transport visas, that would save the lives of roughly 40,000 Jewish refugees. It’s an amazing story that illustrates the paradox between a call to obedience vs. a call to righteous living–and how a single life can possibly hold the trump card in the balance.
“Obedience” had most likely been ingrained in Chiune Sugihara’s maternal DNA for generations. He was from a samurai family who adhered to the code of Bushido, which stressed loyalty to country and family above all else, and ritual suicide for acts that shamed either authority. Yet, even before he became the Japanese consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania, he had experienced several tests of that loyalty. A brilliant student, his father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine. Sugihara went against his father’s wishes and studied literature, English, and later, Russian. While studying Russian, he once again displayed an individualistic streak and converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He rose high and fast in the ranks of the Diplomatic Corps as a result of his disciplined, obedient character. Yet, when faced with a crowd of Jewish refugees, desperate to flee the Nazis, at the consul gates in July 1940, he chose to disobey his superiors and help them.
Three times he wired Tokyo for permission to issue transit visas. Three times he was denied.
Sugihara, after discussion with his family, decided to issue them anyway, and issue them he did. He and Yukiko filled out visas by hand and registered them, over 300 a day, for 29 days, barely eating or sleeping, hands aching from cramps and spasms, until the consulate closed. He was still filling out visas from the train window as it was pulling out of the station, and in a final gesture, gave his visa stamp to a refugee who used it to save even more refugees.
What tipped the balance for Chiune Sugihara, between obedience to worldly authority and obedience to a higher authority? Historians believe it may well have been an eleven year old boy, Zalke Jenkins (also known by the anglicized name, Solly Ganor.) He met the boy in a chance encounter at his aunt’s store, and had given him two Lithuanian lit (two Lithuanian dollars) as a result of overhearing his desire to go see a Laurel and Hardy movie. The boy was so touched he invited Sugihara’s family to celebrate Hanukkah with his family. The Sugiharas were so delighted and touched by the celebration they became good friends with the family. Ironically, when Sugihara started issuing visas, Zalke/Solly and his father could not use them–they were Russian, not Lithuanian, citizens. They were sent to Dachau, and, in another twist of fate, survived–moving to Israel after the war.
As a result of his actions, Sugihara and his family did suffer disgrace. He was unceremoniously dumped by the Japanese Diplomatic Corps in 1947, and worked many tedious and menial jobs for the remainder of his working days, even selling light bulbs door-to-door for a spell. He never regretted his decision, and said so publicly many times. Although he was granted the honor of “Righteous Among the Nations” in Israel, at his death, his neighbors had no idea what he had done until a large Israeli contingent showed up at his funeral.
Sugihara’s story is a reminder that any of us may be called at any moment to obey a higher authority. Are we open to that possibility? Are we also open to the possibility that what we often dismiss as “chance” is not chance at all, but Divine intervention? Finally, are we open to the possibility that we might be the agent of change, the one who tips the balance, in someone else’s moral dilemma, when we act in a spirit of truth?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid