Monday, December 1, 2014

Sempo Sugihara

This past weekend I was told one of the most remarkable true stories of faith and courage I have ever heard.  I heard the story on NPR; further detail can be found on Wiki.

Here is the story...

In the 1940's in Germany and Eastern Europe, as Jews were being rounded up by the millions to be sent away to concentration camps like Nuremberg and Auschwitz, there was general panic among the Jewish community.  Total terror found it's way into the small neighborhoods of Poland, Romania, and Lithuania.  Many sought "Visas of Transfer" to countries that were more sympathetic to the Jewish cause and plight.

One of those Jewish men was an Ashkenazi Jew by the name of Joseph Shimpken.  Knowing that his life and his family's lives were being held in the balance of fate, he went from embassy to embassy in Lithuania looking for a transfer.  Much to his despair, all of the "Visas of Transfer" had already been issued by the countries that gave refuge to Jews during the Holocaust.  There was no room left for Joseph or his family.  They were doomed.

In a last moment of desperation, Joseph knocked on the door of the Japanese embassy in Lithuania.  Joseph knew that it was a complete fools errand to get a Visa from the Japanese government, since at that very moment, the German and Japanese governments had signed a pact of alignment and mutual interest.  But he figured that it was at least worth a try - his last try before being shipped to a camp.

The man at the desk was a kindly Japanese Vice-Consul by the name of Chiune Sugihara (aka - "Sempo").  Sempo heard Joseph's story about the need for a Visa, but shook his head in denial, knowing what the answer from the Emperor's government would be.  But then, Sempo said, "Let me try.  But first, how many Jews need asylum?"  Joseph thought for a moment, scratched his head and then said, "At least 6,000!?!?"  Sempo said, "I'll see what I can do.  Sempo made the perfunctory call to Japan and received the expected answer - "No!"

At that moment, something changed inside of Sempo.  His heart for the Jewish people, or any people who were facing such great adversity was great.  That night, Sempo began writing Visas.  In those days, Visas had to be written by hand.  They weren't computer generated back then, like they are today.  Each Visa required intricate detail and minute attention to process.  Sempo wrote 100 Visas that night.  The next night he wrote 100 more.  Sempo issued these Visas to Joseph and many of his friends and family who came looking for them.  Joseph was beyond appreciation and delight at the receipt of these Visas.

When the Japanese government heard about Sempo and his illegal Visas, they were outraged.  They ordered that Sempo be arrested and brought home under "States Arrest" immediately.  Sempo continued with the Visas.  Every day and every night he wrote more of them.  In a flurry of paperwork and Japanese caligraphic handwriting, Sempo wrote more and more.  When he was on his train, bound home, under arrest by the Germans, he wrote more Visas.  Visas were literally being written and thrown out the window as the train whizzed past the small East German towns.  Jews would pick them up from the rail-road tracks like - Manna from Heaven.

No one knows exactly how many Visas Sempo wrote for the Jewish people.  Best estimates are that in a two week period he wrote 6,000 Visas by hand.  When he got back to Japan, Sempo was dishonored, and demoted and arrested.  He and his family spent 21 months in an Eastern Soviet Camp.  When he got out of the camp he spent the rest of his life as a dishonored member of the Japanese society.  He was reviled.  He died in a pauper's grave in Japan.

The Simon Weisenthal Center, a group that tracks Jewish movements since World War II, estimates that because of Sempo, there are around 40,000 Jews alive today.  Today, in Tokyo, there is actually a large Jewish population.  Joseph Shimpken's family is among them.  They all thank Sempo for their survival and existence.

Not long ago, the Japanese government reversed it's decision about Sempo, returning him to a place of honor in the society.  He is now being hailed by many as a national hero.  Sempo will be remembered through the ages as a courageous servant.

Jesus said, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (Matt. 20:16).  He also said, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13)

Sempo put himself last, and now he is first.  Sempo laid down his life for his friends.

God Bless You Sempo!  God Bless You!!

All For Now,

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