As his son revealed at an extraordinarily moving ceremony in Jerusalem on Monday, Chiune Sugihara may only have realized toward the very end of his blessed life quite how many people, how many worlds, he had saved.
For a few frenetic weeks in 1940 before he was required to close down the Japanese consulate in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, as the Soviets moved in, Sugihara churned out transit visas for local Jews and, mainly, for Polish Jews fleeing the Nazis, who began to gather in crowds outside the consulate as word of his humanity spread.
In all, his son Nobuki estimated in a brief conversation with me, his father issued 2,340 visas — for individuals and families — giving them the chance to travel through the Soviet Union to Japan and safety. Sugihara did so often in defiance of Tokyo’s policy, which required that such papers only be given to applicants who already had visas guaranteeing them entry to a destination beyond Japan.
Integral to the process was the activity of a second heroic diplomat, Dutch honorary consul in Kovno Jan Zwartendijk, who issued a similar number of official third-destination passes for the fleeing Jews to Curaçao and Surinam, two Dutch-controlled territories.
Monday’s ceremony inaugurated a square in Chiune Sugihara’s memory in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, and was attended by over 100 people, many of them descendants of those who had the immense fortune, 81 years ago, to find their desperate way to this noble diplomat.
Members of the Faigenblum family, alive thanks to Sugihara, brought a much-photocopied typewritten “Sugihara’s List,” with the names of the beneficiaries of his visas. Saving Cyrla (Celia) Fajgenblum, they calculated, Sugihara made possible 33 great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren, and counting.
The Rothner-Slonim-Pomerantz family held up the framed life-saving documentation itself.
Descendants of teachers and students from the Mir Yeshiva — whose entire student body was saved thanks to Sugihara’s and Zwartendijk’s documentation — introduced themselves to Nobuki and posed for photographs with him.
Also present was US diplomat Jonathan Shrier, deputy chief of the US mission here, whose father was included in a visa Sugihara issued to his grandparents and family.
In the first decades after the war, Nobuki said, his father never really talked about what he had done — disobeying policy, saving lives. The story only began to emerge in the late 1960s, when he was contacted by Yehoshua Nishri, a Polish-born Israeli diplomat stationed in Tokyo, who tracked down the man who had helped him flee. Sugihara came to Israel the following year, and was ultimately recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1984 — still the only Japanese national ever to be so honored.
By then, though, he was too infirm to travel, and the honor was accepted by his late wife and by Nobuki. And even then, the true impact of what he had done eluded him.
Nobuki, 72, his father’s last living son, told the audience on Monday that Chiune felt that if “even two or three people” would find their way to safety — from Lithuania, through the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberia Railway, across to Japan, and on to other destinations, requiring a great deal of further assistance and good fortune — that would be “a miracle. But the real miracle, he didn’t know.”
It was only in 1985, Nobuki continued, when “there was a ceremony to plant trees [in Sugihara’s honor] in Beit Shemesh, and “maybe 15 survivors came… and told the story of their transit, traveling to Japan, how they had a good life in Kobe, and the Japanese people were kind… [that was] the first time I heard about these stories. My father didn’t know.”
Sugihara paid quite a price for his actions. When he finally made it back to Japan in 1947 — having served in Konigsberg, Prague and Bucharest, and been captured by the Soviets in the last of those locations and held in a POW camp for 18 months — he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. “We have no place for you with us,” his boss told him, according to Nobuki. “You know why.”
In the following years, he worked a series of menial jobs, including in a port, and spent many years living in the Soviet Union, separated from his family.
A bureaucratic morality tale
Monday’s ceremony marked one more in a series of well-intentioned, though not-unblemished, Israeli gestures and efforts to show appreciation.
Among the positives, Nobuki was invited to study at the Hebrew University in the late 1960s, and lived not far from the square he inaugurated on Monday. “The view is different, the trees are bigger, people grew, survivors made children and grandchildren,” he said in his brief and beautiful speech.
But that Beit Shemesh forest whose inauguration he attended in 1985 was secretively uprooted — a real-life horror story that outdoes even the comedic cynicism of the classic 1964 Israeli movie “Sallah Shabati,” in which plaques are rotated to honor each naive visiting benefactor. Sugihara’s plaque — “In appreciation of the humane and courageous actions that saved 5,000 Jews from World War II” — was tossed aside, and the area redeveloped as a residential neighborhood.
The story only came out when Nobuki went looking for the forest, in vain, after hearing from Japanese tourists who couldn’t find it. (KKL-JNF held a second event in Kiryat Hayovel with Nobuki and his family, on Wednesday, dedicating a new park in Sugihara’s memory.)
Even Monday’s ceremony, or rather Nobuki’s arrival as guest of honor, was curiously complex. He was denied an entry visa by Israel’s bureaucrats, because he had not completed all the COVID-related paperwork, including a clause that required him to specify where he would quarantine if he tested positive while in Israel — a detail he not unreasonably explained would need to be provided by his hosts.
You would have thought the sheer irony of the situation would have been sufficient to prompt a very rapid rethink: The Jewish state was refusing to issue a travel visa to Nobuki Sugihara, to attend an event to honor his father, a diplomat who bent and disobeyed his country’s supremely authoritarian bureaucracy to issue thousands of travel visas, saving thousands of lives and enabling life for hundreds of thousands of descendants.
But it was only when The Times of Israel was contacted by Altea Steinherz, whose grandfather Itche Topola was saved by Sugihara, and reported on the impasse, four days before the event, that officials, prompted by an outcry that reached ministerial levels, cut through the red tape and provided Nobuki with his documentation. (I’m glad ToI was able to play a role in resolving the deadlock, and sorry that we had to.)
‘We learn, and we teach’
It was only after Sugihara died, in 1986 at age 86, and a large group of Jewish mourners, including Israel’s ambassador, attended his funeral, that official Japan began to rehabilitate, honor, and exemplify him. (My colleague Amanda Borschel-Dan, who visited Sugihara’s ostensible birthplace in Yaotsu in 2018, has written at length about the varying Sugihara historical narratives, some of them punctured by Nobuki, and the more recent mythologizing and commercializing of his life and deeds. Nobuki, for example, says his father was born in a place called Mino shi, and only lived in Yaotsu for a week as a 10-year-old when visiting an aunt there.)
The Japanese ambassador to Israel, Koichi Mizushima, was among the speakers Monday, and expressed pride “to have such a determined senior colleague” as Sugihara.
When I asked US envoy Shrier if there are any lessons he has taken from Sugihara’s actions, which so directly affected him, Shrier answered that he tells his family at the Passover seder, a commemoration of miraculous liberation from hardship, that “miracles happen because of people.”
Sugihara’s young sons, Shrier went on, “saw the crowds of Jews outside the consulate, and one of the sons said to him, ‘Father, we must help them.’ As his wife later wrote, she could see at that moment that Chiune had decided to help. To me, that’s a miracle, mediated by the action of children.”
Nobuki followed a similar theme in his elegant address, which I’ll quote more fully: “My father came to visit me in Jerusalem in 1969,” he recalled. “I asked him: How many do you think you saved? He didn’t like to hear ‘saved.’ He just did what he could do. He thought if two or three people could survive then it’s a miracle. But the real miracle he didn’t know: a few hundred thousand survivors’ descendants are all over the world, many in Israel.
“Today,” he concluded, “I met many survivors’ descendants — they have memories from their father, grandfather, grandmother; they are telling to their children. This is the most important thing: We learn, and we teach.”
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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