Sugihara and the Jews: A Chanukah Story

Thanks again to Jack Cohen of the Netanya Branch. You can read Jack’s blog here.

This event took place on Sunday, December 1, 2013 in Netanya.

Sunday I saw a movie entitled “Conspiracy of Kindness” at the AACI about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during WWII.  The movie was shown by Naftali Bet-Ram, a retired professor from Touro College, New York, who provided some commentary.

Although Japan became an ally of Nazi Germany in the Axis powers during WWII, nevertheless they refused to introduce anti-Semitic laws in Japan and treated the Jews who came under their control with respect.  It should be noted that the Japanese Government had a positive view of the Jews for one main reason.  When they wanted to go to war with Russia in 1902 they could not find any banker to finance their plans, except for Jacob Schiff of New York, who loaned them m$200, which was a huge sum.  When the surprised Japanese envoy asked him why he gave them the loan Schiff replied, “as a banker I should not give you this loan, but as a Jew I must give it to you,” and then he wished them luck in defeating the Russians, which they did in the Russo-Japan war of 1904.  In the 1930s a serious proposal had been floated called “the Fugu Plan” that Jews who were being forced to flee Europe should be settled in Manchuoko, the name given to the Japanese-puppet colony of Manchuria that Japan had captured from China.  But, the American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise rejected this proposal before the anti-Jewish atrocities in Europe became known and by then it was too late.

Chiune Sugihara had become a Japanese diplomat and had learnt Russian and German.  He was instrumental in buying the Manchurian railway from the Russians and was involved in learning the plans of the Russians prior to WWII.  In other words he was a diplomatic spy, and he was then sent to the Japanese Embassy in Berlin.  From there he was sent to the Embassy in Helsinki, and then he set up a consular office in Kaunas, Lithuania, which was closer to the Russian border.  Then Lithuania was invaded by the Russians and  they ordered all foreign Embassies to close.  During this period thousands of Polish Jews fled to Lithuania from the advancing German Army.  They brought with them tales of the atrocities carried out against the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators.

One day Sugihara was in a store in Kaunas when a young Jewish boy named Solly Ganor came in.  He asked his aunt who owned the store for money to go to a movie, and she demurred.  Sugihara then offered the boy the money, but he refused it, saying that he could not accept money from strangers.  Sugihara told him to consider him an uncle.  Whereupon the boy said, if you are my uncle you must come to our Chanukkah party.  So Sugihara went to the family Chanukkah Party with his wife and children, and learnt about Jewish customs.  There Sugihara also learnt about the anti-Jewish atrocities being commited by the Germans in Poland and reported them to his Foreign Ministry.  Miraculously his correspondence  with the Ministry survived the American bombing of Tokyo, when most of the Japanese Government archives were destroyed.

Quite coincidentally, a Dutch Jewish couple who had fled from Poland to Lithuania asked the nearest Dutch Embassy if they could receive a visa for the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao, since due to the war it was impossible to return to Holland.  They were told that no visa was necessary for Curacao.  They asked the Ambassador if he would write this in their passports and he complied.  Soon they returned and asked for him to do the same for 30 of their Polish friends, and he did so.  Eventually thousands of Jews, finding no escape from Lithuania simply wrote in their passports “no visa needed for Curacao” and used this as a destination visa from Lithuania.  But, to leave Lithuania they needed two other visas, an exit visa from the Russians (who occupied Lithuania at this point) and a transit visa thru another country.

The Dutch couple approached Sugihara who worked out of his house in Kaunas as the offical Japanese Consul in Lithuania, from where he had spied on the Russians and the Germans.  They asked him for a transit visa thru Japan and he gave them one.  Soon his office was besieged by hundreds of Jews seeking similar visas.  He cabled the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo for approval to give out transit visas, but was refused.  He was refused three times, but nevertheless he started to give out visas to these desperate Jews seeking any haven, and in fact ended up giving 2,120 visas, according to the list of names that he subsequently submitted to the Ministry.  Note that because he had no staff, making out these visas by hand was a herculean task.

The Rabbi of the Mir Yeshiva, whose 300 teachers and pupils had escaped from Poland to Lithuania, came to Sugihara and asked him for transit visas, and he agreed.  But, in order to do the work the Mir Yeshiva Rabbi and a German volunteer worked together with him day and night.   However, this is not the total of visas he gave out, even when he had closed the Consulate he continued to give out visas, even at the railway station and even on the train.  In addition, noone knows how many visas were copied and forged.  Yet the Russians gave everyone (except Lithuanian citizens) exit visas from Lithuania, as long as they could buy a ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostock and the Japanese authorities honored all the visas, even those that were obvious forgeries.

In this way thousands of Jews manged to escape the Holocaust.  Solly Ganor, who was Lithuanian, was not allowed to leave, and when the Germans captured Lithuania and the Russians withdrew, he saw the ferocity with which the Lithuanians themselves massacred Jews in the streets.  He was sent with 30,000 other Jews to a Ghetto in Kaunas.  From there some 10,000 Jews were taken out one day and murdered.  Many of them were shot and many were thrown alive into the huge pit in the Ninth Fort, a remnant of the medieval fortifications around Kaunas. Altogether 30,000 Jews were murdered there.

Solly was lucky to remain in the Ghetto and was on a forced death march when he lost conscousness and awoke to find all the Germans soldiers gone.  Then he was rescued coincidentally by soldiers of the all-Japanese American unit, the 442 regiment.

Sugihara remained in Europe after the war, but when he was ordered back to Japan he was forced to resign his post at the Foreign Ministry due to his disobeying of orders and was stripped of his pension and was officially disgraced.  He did odd jobs until he returned to Moscow working in the import-export business.  After 16 years living there in obscurity he returned to Japan.  He was sought out by Jews who he had saved and was given the award of Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Israel in 1985.  He was only recognized as a hero by the Japanese Government after that and all his pension amounts were repaid to his family after his death in 1986.  When he was asked why he did it, he seemed not to understand the question and then replied “but anyone would have done it.”  He refused all attempts to glorify his name and to receive rewards.  Now there are monuments to him in Kaunas and his hometown of Kamakura in Japan.

Of those Jews he saved, many were shipped out of Japan to Shanghai during the war, but none were killed.  Some were given visas to Australia and New Zealand and other countries before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered the war.  None of the Jews went to Curacao.  About half of the Jews eventually made their way to Israel where they and their descendents live today. One of those he saved, Zerah Warhaftig, who was a Zionist leader in Poland, later became a Minister in the Israeli Government and a founder of Bar Ilan University.   It is estimated that today there are ca. 40,000 descendents of the Jews Sugihara saved.

 

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