Israel’s memorial forest to ‘Japanese Schindler’ was razed to build apartments

Son of Chiune Sugihara disappointed to find no trace of the grove in Beit Shemesh dedicated to his father; KKL-JNF apologizes and vows to replant

Illustrative: Housing construction in Beit Shemesh in May 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Housing construction in Beit Shemesh in May 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A memorial grove planted in honor of a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust was quietly razed several years ago to accommodate the expansion of a neighborhood in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

The son of Chiune Sugihara told the Haaretz daily in a report published Wednesday night that he was shocked and disappointed to find an apartment building at the site of a grove planted in his father’s memory by the Keren Keyemeth L’Yisrael (KKL-JNF) more than 30 years ago. The memorial plaque that was erected at the entrance to the forest was gone.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who saved some 6,000 European Jews from the Holocaust by issuing visas from war-torn Lithuania, in violation of his government’s orders. He is often called “Japan’s Schindler” — a reference to German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust and was immortalized by the film “Schindler’s List.”

In 1985, Sugihara received Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations” title honoring people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. A year later, the Jewish National Fund planted the memorial grove outside Beit Shemesh in his memory.

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)

The sign marking Sugihara’s memorial read: “In appreciation of the humane and courageous actions that saved 5,000 Jews from World War II.”

Sugihara was too ill to attend the dedication ceremony in Israel, and died in Japan several months later.

Nobuki Sugihara told Haaretz that he visited Israel with his family last month to find his father’s memorial after numerous Japanese tourists reported they could not find it.

In a letter to KKL-JNF, he expressed his family’s disappointment, and noted that the Sugihara memorial grove outside Jerusalem had become well known in Japan.

“How could these trees be killed on purpose? I suppose the memorial sign has been turned into trash by an unfeeling bulldozer,” Nobuki Sugihara said in his letter, according to the report. “What would the Japanese businessmen who had contributed to the grove’s planting, feel if they heard about it? Most of them are already dead.”

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)

KKL-JNF sent a letter of apology to the family, vowing to investigate the removal of the memorial orchard and plant a new one elsewhere in Israel.

In a statement to The Times of Israel, KKL-JNF said it “appreciates and recognizes the heroic efforts” of Sugihara.

“Next to the grove, a new residential neighborhood was built in the Beit Shemesh area, which affected the area’s terrain and visibility. The establishment of the neighborhood led to significant changes, among them a barrier that was built around the neighborhood, paved roads and more. In light of these changes there is not a convenient point of access to the site and the area is not suitable as a memorial site,” it said.

“KKL-JNF is examining the circumstances of the matter at length,” the statement added. “Furthermore, due to the tremendous appreciation the Jewish people and KKL-JNF have for the courage and actions of Mr. Sugihara, it was decided even before the matter was examined that an additional grove would be dedicated to the memory and commemoration of Chiune Sugihara.”

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