**Bumped up from two years ago. Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — falls on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan – Sunday, April 27, this year**
In the early 1940’s, my father was a rabbi in the Bronx, NYC. His salary was twenty dollars a week.
One day, he received a phone call. It was urgent, the man said. A matter of life and death. It was about the Jews in Europe.
The following Saturday morning, the man spoke to the congregation. He had “inside” information. The Nazis were planning to exterminate the Jews. The “relocation camps” were really death camps. Gas chambers. Gold extracted from the teeth of the dead, their body fat to be used to manufacture soap. He begged people to sign affidavits, at ten dollars each, documenting that they were seeking household help. This had to be done quickly. People could still be saved. Soon, it would be too late.
Everyone was shocked. Surely, this man was exaggerating. Maybe even crazy. Germany — the most cultured of countries — How could this be?
The man asked my parents to sign two affidavits, stating their interest in hiring a butler and maid. They would have to pay twenty dollars for the affidavits. A week’s salary – somehow they would manage. But my parents were not sure whether to believe him. And, documenting that they were hiring a butler and maid, in their small Bronx apartment? Wasn’t that fraud?
My parents gave him the money, and they put their signatures on the affidavits.
Three months later, the doorbell rang. A man and woman held a piece of paper. “We are looking for this family,” the man said, in heavily accented Yiddish. My family’s name was written on the paper. The woman bent down, and kissed the hem of my mother’s dress. “You saved us,” she said.
My mother told me this story, years later, when I was a child. “Could I meet these people?” I wanted to know. No, she only knew that they were taken by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to California, to begin a new life. “Wow, you must’ve been *so* happy to save them!” I said. My mother looked at me with a terrible sadness that I will always remember. If she had really believed the man, she said, she could have sold her wedding ring, to save others.
But there was one person who saved thousands of Jewish lives. He was a Christian. Some call him “The Japanese Schindler.” Some call him a saint. His name was Chiune Sugihara.
He was born Jan. 1, 1900 to a middle-class Samurai family. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but Sugihara wanted to study literature, and to see the world. One day, he saw an ad in the newspaper: the Japanese Foreign Ministry was seeking people who were interested in a diplomatic career, and studying abroad. Sugihara passed the difficult entrance exam, and he was then sent to Harbin, China, to the Japanese Language Institute, where he studied Russian, and became fluent in several other languages. It was there that he converted to Christianity.
In 1939, Sugihara, accompanied by his wife Yukiko, and their three small sons, was sent to Lithuania, to open a one-man consulate in Kaunas, called Kovno by the Jews living there. (My mother lived in Kovno as a child, but my grandparents had the good fortune to emigrate to the U.S. in 1927.) His real purpose was to gather intelligence for the Japanese Government about German and Soviet troop movements.
On the morning of July 27, 1940, they saw a crowd of approximately two hundred people outside the consulate. As Yukiko described the scene in her book Visas for Life: “The sounds of the crowd grew louder and louder. People looked frightened and even desperate…. Some of them were climbing over the gate. It was chaotic…. I will always remember their faces and expressions. These people were terrified.” They were Jews who had escaped the Nazis in Poland.
Sugihara went outside, and asked five representatives to meet with him inside the consulate. There, they explained that all other avenues of escape were blocked; they wanted to travel through the Soviet Union, then enter Japan, and then on to Curacao and other Dutch islands. Sugihara was told that many more refugees were on their way to his consulate in Kovno. And they all needed visas to Japan. He told the group that he needed to wire the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for permission to grant these visas.
The answer was “No.” He was not to issue visas to anyone who did not have a guaranteed destination. He wired for permission twice more. Each time, the answer was: visas were “absolutely not to be issued.”
Sugihara knew that defying the Foreign Ministry would put his whole family at risk. His five year old son, Hiroki, who had been watching the scene from the consulate window, pleaded with his father to “help them because the poor little children need your help.” Yukoki relates in her book that she was very proud of her husband when he decided, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I would be disobeying God.”
On July 31, Sugihara began the painstaking task of handwriting visas. He did this each day, from early morning until late at night. On August 2, he ignored orders from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to vacate the consulate. The Soviets also asked him to leave, but he requested a stay of twenty days. Finally, on August 28, he received an urgent message from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to leave immediately for Berlin. He continued writing visas, even as he gave orders to pack bags and lock the doors of the consulate. He continued to write visas in the train station, and he threw transit papers through the window as the train pulled out of the station. One man, Joshua Nishri, called out: “ ‘Sempo’ Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!”
The exact number of Sugihara visas is unknown, but between six and ten thousand Jews were able to leave Kovno. (Each visa allowed transit permission to an entire family.) They traveled through the Soviet Union, to Kobe, Japan, where they were treated with kindness by the Church of His Holiness. From there, they went to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, until the end of the war.
Soon after the Sugiharas left Kovno, the Germans entered the city. Between ten and fifteen thousand Jews – men, women, and children – were rounded up, taken to the outskirts of the city, and executed by machine gun squads.
At the end of the war, the Sugiharas spent eighteen months in a Soviet internment camp, and they were finally allowed to return to Japan in 1947. Soon afterward, Sugihara was dismissed from the Japanese Foreign Ministry “because of the Lithuanian incident.” He finally found employment in the Soviet Union, and returned home twice a year to see his family.
Sugihara and his wife often wondered if any of the Kovno refugees had survived the war. He went to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, but there was no information about any survivors. However, he left his address, in case any information would become available.
In 1968, during one of his visits home, Sugihara received a phone call from the Israeli Embassy. Joshua Nishri, who had called out to Sugihara as the train had left the Kovno station, was now an attache at the Israeli Embassy in Japan. The Sugiharas were delighted to learn that at least one person had survived. It was a very emotional meeting, and Nishri told the Sugiharas that many survivors had tried, in vain, to contact them, as they could not get any information from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
The following year, the Sugiharas were invited to Israel by the Kovno survivors. They were honored by many Israeli officials. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Sugihara was impressed by the inscription: “To Remember and Never Forget.”
Hundreds of letters were sent to Yad Vashem by the Sugihara Survivors, as they were called, and in 1985, he was given Israel’s highest honor: the Righteous Among Nations Award. By that time, his health had deteriorated, and Mrs. Sugihara, accompanied by their son Nobuki, accepted the award on his behalf. Sugihara passed away the following year. There are now approximately one hundred thousand “Descendants of Sugihara.” (I personally know some of them.)
Every year, in Israel, on Yom HaShoah (literally, The Day of the Holocaust, pronounced ha-show-AH, which falls on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan – April 19th this year) at exactly 10:00 a.m., a two-minute siren will sound throughout the country. Traffic will stop, the drivers will exit their cars and stand, the outdoor cafes of Tel Aviv will grow silent, pedestrians will halt, schoolchildren will stand quietly. “To Remember- And Never Forget” — not only the horror, but the self-sacrifice of people like Chiune Sugihara. May his memory be blessed.
Jerusalem Post: Holocaust Remembrance Day events continue