'The denial of visas to Sugihara's family is darkly ironic'

Israel denies entry to son of WWII Japanese envoy who saved thousands of Jews

Organizers say Chiune Sugihara’s son Nobuki simply refused to submit proper COVID-19 forms to attend Jerusalem ceremony naming square for his Righteous Gentile father

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Japanese diplomat Sugihara Chiune, who helped save the lives of thousands of Jews as the Imperial Consul to Lithuania in World War II. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Japanese diplomat Sugihara Chiune, who helped save the lives of thousands of Jews as the Imperial Consul to Lithuania in World War II. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Israel has denied entry to the son of Chiune Sugihara, who wanted 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, 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.

Sugihara tried to apply again, but Israel does not allow applicants to reapply with 14 days of visa rejection.

Avraham Cimerring, a Jerusalem businessman whose father was saved by Sugihara, said that Nobuki simply refused to submit the necessary documentation and is spreading false information about his rejection.

“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 sees this entirely as a problem for the city of Jerusalem to handle.

The other missing document had to do with health insurance.

ATTENTION We were denied entry to Israel, we are sorry to inform that the ceremonies will be postponed again…

Posted by Fam. Sugihara on Wednesday, October 6, 2021

“The host of the ceremony should apply for us,” Sugihara insisted, adding that he believes the city had no intention of having him actually enter the country.

“The intention was just to use me to tell survivors and families to gather for the ceremony,” he said. “Because if I say I’m coming, people will come. I am not coming, people will not come to the ceremony.”

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, have also been rejected.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Jerusalem said that it had no details on the application, and referred the inquiry to the Health Ministry.

The Jerusalem municipality also had no information on the case.

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)

The ceremony, organized by the municipality, is slated to take place on October 11 at 4:00 pm, 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.

A separate Jewish National Fund ceremony to inaugurate a garden in Sugihara’s name has been postponed until his son can enter the country.

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.

Altea Steinherz, whose grandfather Itche Topola was saved by Sugihara, told The Times of Israel that she was told Thursday morning by Nobuki Sugihara that the family was not authorized to enter Israel for the ceremony.

Chiune Sugihara meets with former Israeli Religious Affairs Minister Zerah Warhaftig, who received a transit visa from Sugihara during World War II. (Yad Vashem)

“The denial of entry visas to the Sugihara family by the Jewish State is darkly ironic and deeply embarrassing,” said Steinherz.

Topola was found by students of the famous Mir Yeshiva wandering through Vilna after escaping a group of drunk German soldiers who threatened to pry out his blue eyes as a game. An elderly scholar, who has not been identified to this date, insisted that his visa be given to the child.

“As a descendant of Sugihara’s last ‘visa for life’ survivor, one of hundreds of thousands that owe their lives to this man, I am aghast,” Steinherz emphasized.

“This needs to be corrected, and immediately.”

Nobuki Sugihara says that he struggles to believe that Israel is keeping him away from the ceremony because of a couple of missing documents.

“You know my father issued a transit visa to Japan for anyone who requested, no matter if they have insurance, no matter if they have a place to stay in Japan,” he said.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report. 

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