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.



Exotic Jewish Communities – Part 3 – Indian Jewish Communities

Thanks once again to Jack Cohen for his summary of this interesting lecture, part 3 of a series taking place in Netanya. Thanks also to Gabriella Licsko, our guest lecturer, who was kind enough to review Jack’s summary (and the previous ones) and approve it.



Thanks to guest poster, Jack Cohen from the Netanya branch of AACI. This is from his blog, Isblog.

This lecture series with Gabriella Licsko continues in Netanya with Exotic Jewry:  Communities and Lost Tribes on Dec 8.

Call 09-8330950 or visit

Scroll down for information and details about upcoming lecture series in November, “Let’s Surf on the Map!” and in December, “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors” at the AACI – Max & Gianna Glassman Family Center in Jerusalem.

Indian Jewish communities

In the third of her series on “Exotic Jewish communities,” Gabriella Licsko spoke about the Indian Jewish communities, namely the Cochin Jews, the Bnei Israel, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bnei Menashe. Note that all of these groups are quite distinct and have separate histories and origins. Except for the Bnei Menashe, they all shared the characteristics of being very Indian, but also being pro-British, and distinctly middle class.

The Cochin Jews are the oldest group, their origins are supposed to go back to the Temple period about 2,500 years ago. They probably came from the Arabian peninsula to trade, since the area of Cochin is on the west coast of the State of Kerala in south west India. There was never any anti-Semitism in India and yet the number of Cochin Jews has always remained small. An early King gave them a copper scroll that is one of the oldest existing that guarantees them permanent safety in Cochin. There were three distinct groups of Cochin Jews, the earliest were dark skinned and were called the “Black Jews.” The second group came later, after the expulsion from Spain via Persia, and were called the “Paradesi” or “White Jews” and the third group was called the “Mechshurarim” or “freed” because they were originally slaves of the Paradesi and many of them converted to Judaism. These three groups were not allowed to inter-marry with each other.

Because of their connections first to the Dutch and then to the British, the Cochin Jews felt that they would lose their economic and political status when India became independent and most of them (ca. 5,000) moved to Israel in the 1950s. Although the Cochin Jews were recognised as Jews by the Rabbinate (except for the Mechshurarim who had to re-convert), they still had a hard time immigrating to Israel. Some of them suffered from the disease of elephantiasis, and it took a while before the health authorities in Israel would agree that it was not contagious and would let them immigrate. Also, over time many of them had apparently converted to a form of early Christianity known as St. Thomas Christianity that was perhaps influenced by their Judaism. Many of the Cochin Jews moved together to moshav Nevatim in the Negev and you can still see their small museum and authentic synagogue (as well as the original one in the Israel museum) and you can have a good Indian meal there. Another Cochin settlement close to Beit Shemesh is called Mesilat Zion.

The Bnei Israel are a group of Jews who largely lived in and around Bombay (today’s Mumbai). They were a larger group, consisting of tens of thousands, all of whom were supposed to be descended from 7 Jewish couples who were shipwrecked 2100 years ago. Since they lost all their books, they gradually lost many Jewish customs and became less observant, although they continued to observe kashruth, say the “shema Israel,” perform brit milah and kept Shabbat. They were called “the Saturday oil pressers” by the local population. They became very Indian in their dress, the women wore saris, and they spoke the local language, Marathi. But, they were trusted by the British and many of them were drafted into the Indian Army and became officers and there was even a Jewish Mayor of Bombay named Nissim. They were quite westernized and many were Zionistic and when India became independent the same year as Israel, 1948, many left for Israel, although some went to Britain where life was easier for them. Most of the Rabbinut accepted them as Jews, but there was a problem of some extreme Orthodox Rabbis not accepting them, because they were concerned about possible inter-marriage in the past, but the whole problem was settled in 1964. They live mainly in the south, Dimona, Yeroham, and it is quite common to see women dressed in saris walking around in those towns, although the younger women now only wear these clothes on special occasions.

The Baghdadi Jews didn’t only come from Baghdad, but more generally they were a class of merchant Jews from Iraq, Syria, Aden and Persia, who moved to India for trade starting in 1730. Some of them were very wealthy and became more so in India. Their center was Bombay and the most famous family were the Sasoons, known as the Rothschilds of the East (Vidal was not a member of this family, but Siegfried was). These wealthy Jews supported the synagogues and schools of the community and ran a welfare system, so no Jew went hungry. They spread as far as Hong Kong and Shanghai, but preferred to be considered British, and many of them moved to Britain. Some Baghdadi Jews who went to Israel were treated like the rest of the poor Sephardim, since the Ashkenazi Jews who ran the Israeli system were ignorant of their background, education and standing.

The Bnei Menashe are a very distinct group who live in the tribal areas of NW India in Manipur and Mizoram. They claim to be descended from the tribe of Menashe, one of the lost tribes, which some believe but others doubt. They speak Mizo, a Tibetan-Burmese language and about 100 years ago were probably animist headhunters. They were converted to Christianity, and probably because of a tribal longing to return to their original homeland, the story of the Jews had a special resonance for them. In the 1920-30s they became more fervent and some of their rituals were thought to resemble those of the Jews. In 1951 their spiritual leader had a dream after which he decided that they were really Jews and from then they started to follow Judaism. In the 1980s an Israeli Rabbi named Avihail discovered them and thought they were one of the lost tribes and brought their case to Israel. In the 1990s with the help of Michael Freund of Shavei Israel they began to convert and finally were accepted to come to Israel. There are now several hundred of them mostly in Kiryat Arba who are very committed Jews, and about 8,000 remaining in India waiting for their aliyah. But, because India frowns upon their conversion in India some have had to go to Nepal to be converted. They do bring new meaning to the phrase “a rainbow nation” applied to Israel.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities. She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program. Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.



December:  “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors”

Get to know more about the capital of the State of Israel.  Learn about the neighborhoods, both old and new, their history and society, the culture and population of different areas, the famous residents, institutions, schools and synagogues, social and demographical changes, real estate prices and new projects in town.


Wednesday, December 4th at 14:00

The OldCity, Yemin Moshe-Miskenot Sheananim, Musrara, Kfar David.

 Wednesday, December 11th at 14:00

Meah Shearim: Learn how a relatively modern religious neighborhood established by Polish and Lithuanian Jews in 1874, turned to be the symbol of extreme ultra-orthodoxy and anti-Zionism.

Wednesday, December 18th at 14:00

The most popular areas and neighborhoods in the city and the “Anglo colonies”

Wednesday, December 25th at 14:00

Lesser known and less central neighborhoods, their population changes and potentials, and Jerusalem real estate in the past and now.

Cost of series:  170 NIS / AACI members 150 NIS (Individual lectures 50 NIS each) Pre-registration with payment required.

 Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in
Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center
Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.


Cromwell and the Jews

Once again, many thanks to Jack Cohen for sharing his summary of a program from the AACI Netanya branch. His article is posted here as well, on his blog.

It is almost impossible for me to reproduce the talk given by Elkan Levy at AACI Netanya on the return of the Jews to England, entitled “Cromwell and the Rabbi.”  His lecture was so rich in detail, so full of anecdote and yet so coherent, that one is left amazed by its fulness and scope.  Nevertheless, being foolhardy, I will try to at least summarize its main points.  Let me add that Elkan Levy was a former President of the United Synagogue of Great Britain and then the Head of the Department of Small Communities.  His knowledge of the history of the Jews of Great Britain is encyclopedic.

He sketched the background, reminding us that although the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I, some still remained there throughout the subsequent period.  It was the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the victory of the Parlimentarians (Roundheads) and the beheading of Charles I in 1649 that prepared the way for the Jews to openly return to England.

There were several reasons for the British and particularly the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was a very pragmatic leader, to want the Jews returned to England.  First, there was the general sense that wherever the Jews went they brought economic benefit because of their mercantile activities, just what England needed after a punishing and costly Civil War. Second, Britain was engaged in a war with Holland, which at that time was the richest country in Europe, a condition that was largely attributed to the active Jewish community there. Third, there was the theological argument, that until the Jews were spread all over the earth, according to the Biblical prophecies, the coming of the messiah (or for the Christians, the second coming of Christ) could not occur.  Fourth, there was a general sense in which religious tolerance was growing, mainly because the various Christian sects, especially the Protestant sects and Catholicism, needed to find a way to tolerate each other.

At that time it was more dangerous for the descendents of conversos (or Marranos) to try to pass as Catholics than as Jews.  He gave the example of a certain Senor Robles whose two ships at dock on the Thames and their contents were seized by the British customs because he was a Spanish Catholic.  When he submitted an affidavit claiming that he was really a Portuguese Jew, whose family had been persecuted by the Inquisition, his ships and goods were returned to him.

Manasseh Ben Israel (Soeiro) (1604-1657) was the respected Rabbi of the Amsterdam Sephardic congregation, appointed when he was only 19.  He was a very opinionated, egotistical and strong-willed individual, who in 1650 published a book “The Hope of Israel” (in Latin, Spanish, Hebrew and English) calling for religious tolerance and that the Jews should be allowed to return legally to England in order to fulfil Biblical prohecy.  He took it upon himself to be the leader of this movement, something that was frowned upon by the lay leaders of his Synagogue.  Nevertheless in 1655 he resigned form his position and travelled to London and published a direct appeal to Cromwell regarding the readmission of the Jews.

There were also strong opponents to this move, and so in 1655 Cromwell summoned leading lawyers, scholars and clerics to a Conference at Whitehall in London to decide the matter.  Tasked with determining the legal basis of the expulsion of the Jews, two Judges came to the notable conclusion that there were no laws actually preventing Jews from living in England, since the expulsion had been an edict of the Crown and only referred to the Jews then resident in England who were actually property of the King.  In his diary on Dec 14, 1655, John Evelyn wrote in his diary “Now were the Jews admitted.”

But, to actually achieve the practical outcome was not so easy.  Cromwell dismissed the Conference without any official declaration.  In answer to the critics, Manasseh published another work in 1656 entitled “Vindiciae Judiorum.”  Meanwhile Manasseh had no income from Amsterdam, failed to receive a promised payment from Cromwell and was not appointed the Rabbi of the first Synagogue that was allowed to open in London in 1656 at Creechurch Lane, where for the first time Jews were able to openly practise their religion.  Manasseh’s son died in London in 1657 and Manasseh took his body back to Holland for burial and he died there the same year.  Cromwell died in 1658.

The Restoration of the Monarchy occured in 1660.  When the Jews were challenged as to their right to practise their religion, since the laws were interpreted to apply only to Christian practise, Charles II supported the Jews and the general right of toleration to practise religion in Britain with the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672.  Even then the fight continued for many years.