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Japanese ‘Schindler’ remembered by the children of those he saved

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NICOLA MILTZ

It is estimated that his acts of defiance led to a conservatively estimated worldwide network of 30 000 “Sugihara survivors”.

The memory of this compassionate Japanese diplomat was brought to life last week in Johannesburg as descendants of those he saved told of his heroism and courage.

 “Every breath we take is thanks to him,” said Rabbi Moshe Goldberg, whose Polish grandfather was spared certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Hosted by the Japanese Embassy, these children of Sugihara survivors, got together to pay tribute to him, under the auspices of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre at Beyachad.  

“He followed his conscience and did what G-d wanted him to do – he created a world,” said Goldberg.

Japanese Ambassador to South Africa Shigeki Hiroki, explained how Sugihara grew up among the paddy fields and that his father had wanted him to become a doctor, but instead he chose to become a diplomat, becoming fluent in several languages including English, French, German and Russian.

The Sugihara saga is a richly woven historical tapestry, literally of epic proportions, which spanned only a couple of months during 1939 and 1940. It was during his time as Japanese Consul General stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania, that he became aware of the desperate plight of Jews trying to flee Lithuania and the spread of German invasion. 

Together with his adoring wife they wrote thousands of Japanese transit visas, allowing Jews to travel by train to Moscow, and then by Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, continuing from there to Kobe, Japan and then onto Shanghai, China.

Thousands of Polish Jews with Sugihara visas, survived in safety in Shanghai until after the war – all the while continuing their Torah studies.

Sugihara and his wife sat for hours on end writing visas by hand – issuing up to 300 a day – risking everything.

His story, was only revealed many years after the war. It has since been widely documented and has been the inspiration for movies and plays, and shows the far-reaching impact one man’s actions can have on the world.

Sugihara was deeply moved by a little Jewish boy, Solly Ganor, who had invited him and his family to celebrate Chanukah with them in 1939. This led to an unlikely friendship between the families, which many believe helped steer the miracle of the transit visas.

Among those saved from death camps by Sugihara, were students of the Mir Yeshiva who were able to relocate to Shanghai. Five of those present at the intimate dinner last week, were Johannesburg-based descendants of those survivors, including Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Levy Wineberg, Rabbi Goldberg and Rebbetzins Chaya Sternstein and Rochel Ehrman.

 In a moving address, Rabbi Goldman expressed his heartfelt gratitude. “My father never had the opportunity to thank Mr Sugihara personally. He (my father) died 10 months ago aged 91. He was the sole survivor of his entire family.

“He rebuilt a family and every grandchild was seen as his revenge against Hitler. When he passed away he had 100 blood descendants including 80 great-grandchildren. This is thanks to Sugihara. To be able to say thank you… may we all be inspired by such a man.”

Rabbi Goldberg agreed, saying that the yeshiva world would not be what it is today “without the courageous acts of one man”.

“Our beloved Sugihara, we see him as a grandfather we recognise him as our beloved zeida we keep him in our minds when we celebrate all happy things. He is our number one hero who we place on a pedestal,” praised Rabbi Goldberg.

When asked why he chose to do what he did, the deeply spiritual and humble Sugihara replied: “They were human beings and they needed help. I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them… I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I would be disobeying G-d.”

In his message of welcome, chairman of the Holocaust Centre’s board of trustees, Professor Michael Katz, said: “Such a hero of the Holocaust deserves recognition and his life should be celebrated. That is why the work of the Holocaust Foundation is so important because it honours the memories of the victims and it celebrates the people who helped them.”

He said that when Sugihara was asked why he risked his life his response was: “I saw desperate people. Women threw themselves against me, kissed my shoes. I could not, not help.”

Newly-elected chairman of the SAJBD, Shaun Zagnoev said: “Sugihara elected to rise above the evil and express humanity, showing that humanity has no borders. He was a diplomat who used the power he had to save thousands of lives.

“He was not commemorated in his lifetime, so it becomes incumbent upon us to perpetuate his memory. We shouldn’t be talking about heroes, we should be acting like heroes ourselves – do our best to reduce hatred and assist humanity.”

In a heartfelt address, director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, Tali Nates, told how she too was a descendant of a righteous among the nations.

“My father and my uncle were saved by Oscar Schindler. Oscar was a perpetrator at first… but he chose to go against the grain. Like Sugihara, he shifted his path and became a rescuer. I always think about the choices these men made and try to teach our children to make those choices… to become upstanders not bystanders, to stand up to what is right.”

An emotional Rochel Ehrman said: “All my joy, I owe to him. He saved my father’s life. I am overwhelmed when I think of all the yeshiva boys who were saved, so many of them were teachers, my father was a teacher, they kept the Torah alive from Shanghai right till now.

“My father went on to have five children; how many lives did Sugihara save from his unbelievable courage, it’s so humbling.”

Rabbi Wineberg said his father was provided with a Sugihara visa and was the only member of his family to survive. He relates this story to his family on the first night of Chanukah every year. “Sugihara teaches us the value of an individual and how one individual’s actions matter.”

Coincidentally he explained how the Chanukah dreidel bears all the letters in Chiune Sugihara’s name, alluding to the “great miracle” that happened with reference to the miracle of Chanukah and the miracle of the Jews being rescued by Sugihara’s life-affirming visas.

It was only in 1985, the year before he died, that Chiune Sugihara, and his wife Yukiko, were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations.

After the war, Sugihara was dismissed from diplomatic service and paid a heavy price for his disobedience. Today, though, Japan sees him as a hero and a source of national pride. For many years Sugihara had no idea what happened to the thousands he saved.

Trees have been planted, roads have been named after him, movies made and plays performed, Sugihara’s legacy continues and so it should.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Eli Rabinowitz

    Aug 25, 2017 at 6:24 am

    ‘Rabbi Asher Deren’s grandfather was also saved. See my interview with his cousin Rabbi Levi Wolff of the Central Synagogue, Sydney:

    http://elirab.me/rabbi-levi-wolffs-tribute-to-a-japanese-hero-an-update/

    I manage the Johannesburg KehilaLink (and 72 other pages) and if you would like, and give me permission, I am happy to add your story to that site which is here:

    http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/johannesburg/

    Shabbat Shalom

    Eli Rabinowitz

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