'Israel owes him a great debt'

Interior Minister Shaked: Sugihara a hero to Jews; I intervened after ToI story

Ayelet Shaked gets involved personally to enable son of Japanese envoy who saved thousands from Nazis to enter Israel for ceremony on Monday

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in Japan, the first visit by an Israeli minister (courtesy)
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in Japan, the first visit by an Israeli minister (courtesy)

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked personally intervened last Thursday to secure an entry visa for the son of a Japanese envoy who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, after his request was initially denied over missing COVID-19 documents.

Israel reversed course on Friday morning, granting the son of Chiune Sugihara an entry visa to attend a ceremony on October 11 naming a Jerusalem square after the Japanese diplomat.

After reading The Times of Israel’s coverage of the bureaucratic foul-up, Shaked instructed officials in her ministry to do what they must to allow Chiune’s 72-year-old son Nobuki Sugihara and four other family members and friends to enter Israel.

“Sugihara is one of the Righteous Among the Nations who saved thousands of Jews,” Shaked told The Times of Israel. “The State of Israel owes him a great debt. I saw the article and immediately acted to allow his son and members of his delegation to reach Israel. It is a great honor for us.”

Shaked was the first Israeli minister to visit the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in Japan, which focuses on Sugihara’s efforts to save Jews during World War II.

Nobuki Sugihara had applied for an entrance visa on September 28 through Israel’s embassy in Brussels.

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

“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 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.

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.

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.

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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