The city of Jerusalem on Monday dedicated a square in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in memory of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued over 2,000 visas to Jewish individuals and families, in breach of Japanese policy, when serving as the Japanese vice-consul to Kovno (today Kaunas) in Lithuania in 1940.
The recipients were overwhelmingly 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, escaping via the Soviet Union to Japan.
Among the recipients were teachers and the entire student body of the Mir Yeshiva, which today thrives in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood.
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.
Chiune’s 72-year-old son, Nobuki Sugihara, who lives in Belgium, addressed the event, having been given a last-minute visa following a Times of Israel report that revealed Israel was denying him entry because of missing COVID-related paperwork.
Nobuki, who was invited to study at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the late 1960s after the story of his father’s heroism belatedly began to resonate, said he used to live in the neighborhood near the square, and that the area had developed beyond recognition: “The view is different, the trees are bigger, people grew, survivors made children and grandchildren.”
He said his father “never imagined” that so many beneficiaries of the documents he issued would manage to survive; now, Nobuki estimated, there were several hundred thousand descendants of those who were able to escape to safety.
When he asked his father why he had acted on behalf of the Jews, Nobuki recalled, Chiune explained that he felt pity for the people who gathered outside the Japanese consulate in Kovno, and who “had nowhere else to go… no house to stay… He didn’t like to hear ‘saved.’ He just did what he could do.”
Over 100 people attended the event, which was covered by Japanese television stations, including survivors and their descendants. Some of them carried lists of the recipients of Sugihara’s visas and framed copies of the documentation itself.
The Japanese ambassador to Israel, Koichi Mizushima, was among the speakers, and expressed pride “to have such a determined senior colleague” as Sugihara.
Mayor Moshe Lion said the event was “the most emotional” such dedication ceremony he had attended since taking office three years ago, because of the vast numbers of descendants given life thanks to Sugihara’s actions.
“We love you,” Lion said, addressing Nobuki and other members of the Sugihara family. “We will always appreciate what you did — and by ‘we,’ I mean the residents of Jerusalem and the people of Israel.”