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After intervention, son of WWII Japanese envoy who rescued Jews gets Israel visa

Israeli officials help to overcome COVID-19 bureaucracy, enabling Chiune Sugihara’s son Nobuki to attend Jerusalem ceremony naming square for Righteous Among Nations father

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
(USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara)
Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940 (USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara)

After initially denying the son of Chiune Sugihara and his family an entry visa over missing COVID-19 documents, Israel reversed course on Friday morning, allowing them to attend a ceremony on October 11 naming a Jerusalem square after the Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis.

Nobuki Sugihara, Chiune’s 72-year-old son living in Belgium, had applied for an entrance visa on September 28 through Israel’s embassy in Brussels.

“Examination of your application shows that it does not meet the criteria that allows a permit to arrive in Israel during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the response read.

It took the intervention of sympathetic Israeli officials on Thursday — including director of the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Division Liaison Department Ziv Bilaus, spokesman of Israel’s Embassy in Japan Ronen Medzini, Jewish Agency International Relations head Yigal Palmor, and Yad Vashem CEO Dani Dayan – to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles.

In the end, Eyal Siso — who sits on the interagency exceptions committee set up to handle appeals to the COVID-19 restrictions — signed off on the entry document.

Altea Steinherz, a Jerusalem resident whose grandfather Itche Topola was saved by Sugihara, told The Times of Israel on Friday that she was relieved that the “injustice and embarrassment is now behind us.”

The Chiune Sugihara family on a sky holiday during his service in Japan’s Foreign Ministry in Europe. (courtesy Nobuki Sugihara)

Steinherz worked the phones all day on Thursday after being told by Sugihara that his application had initially been denied. Some of the bureaucrats she spoke with initially failed to see the larger picture, she said, asking if Sugihara has a first-degree relative in the country, a key criterion for entry for a standard traveler.

The bureaucratic gridlock was only broken by the officials who understood the historical and moral importance of arranging Sugihara’s entry.

“There is no doubt about the moral and value importance of the event and the arrival of the son and his family to this important memorial event, which miraculously elevates his father’s actions for saving the lives of so many Jewish people,” wrote Bilaus to Steinherz after the visas were approved.

Four other family members and friends — Esin Ayirtman, Haruka Sugihara, Oliver Van Loo and Philippe Bergonzo — all of whom received two COVID-19 shots and submitted their vaccination papers, had initially had their entry requests rejected, but were later accepted.

The ceremony, organized by the municipality, is slated to take place on October 11 at 4 p.m. and will be attended by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and Japan’s ambassador to Israel Koichi Aiboshi.  The intersection of Kolitz Road and Panama Street in the Ir Ganim neighborhood will become Chiune Sugihara Square.

In a Facebook post on Friday, Sugihara thanked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Dayan and Steinherz.

Dear friends, Many thanks to Prime Minister, Mr. Dani Dayan, Altea Steinherz for the entry permit issuance that came…

Posted by Fam. Sugihara on Friday, October 8, 2021

The initial rejection stemmed from a disagreement over who was supposed to handle Sugihara’s quarantine and health insurance documents.

Avraham Cimerring, a Jerusalem businessman whose father was saved by Sugihara, said Thursday that Nobuki simply refused to submit the necessary documentation and refused Cimerring’s repeated efforts to help him file them properly.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Cimerring, who initiated the effort to name the square after Sugihara, referring to Nobuki Sugihara’s conduct.

Nobuki Sugihara (center) in Jerusalem for the ceremony in which his father, Chiune, was named a Righteous Among the Nations, 1985. (Courtesy: Nobuki Sugihara)

Sugihara did not dispute that documents were missing, but insisted that it was the municipality’s responsibility as host to handle his entry.

“I sent him all the documents, except two things,” Sugihara explained. “One is where I would quarantine in case I am infected. The host has to guarantee, not I.”

Sugihara stressed that he has no friends or family in Israel with whom he could quarantine, and saw this entirely as a problem for the city of Jerusalem to handle.

The other missing form was a health insurance document.

“The host of the ceremony should apply for us,” Sugihara insisted.

Illustrative: Students of the Mir Yeshiva’s primary school, in Shanghai after escaping WWII Europe through a visa issued by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. (Courtesy of the Bagley Family)

During his short stint in 1939-40 as the Japanese vice-consul to Kovno (today Kaunas), Lithuania, Sugihara is credited with issuing up to 3,500 transit visas to Jewish refugees and families who had fled Nazi-occupied Poland ahead of Germany’s invasion of then-independent Lithuania.

With these visas, and a complex mechanism of aid from other consuls, companies and individuals, up to 10,000 Jews are thought to have been saved from WWII Europe.

Sugihara’s deeds were recognized in 1984 by Israel, which bestowed upon him the title of Righteous Among the Nations, and posthumously by Japan, in 2000.

Today, Sugihara is lauded internationally as an anti-establishment figure who went against orders in lockstep Japan to save the Jews, though historians and Nobuki say that this part of the story is mere myth.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report. 

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