Snow-capped mountains, natural springs feeding into luxurious spas, amazing fine and decorative arts, gorgeous architecture, and delicious cuisine: vacationers to the Gifu Prefecture, centrally located in the Chubu region in the heart of Japan, may remember their visit as a waking dream. For Jews who travel there, the experience resonates with intense spiritual significance, a modern-day pilgrimage leading to the town of Yaotsu, whose citizens take pride in the life and deeds of its native son, Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986). A diplomat and specialist in Russian political affairs assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Kaunas, Lithuania in the summer of 1940, he ignored his government’s orders to withhold assistance, and instead, issued exit visas to Jews desperate to leave the country ahead of the Nazi invasion. Witnesses reported that even after the consulate was shut, and he was transferred, Sugihara continued his work, tossing signed visas to the crowd as his train moved out of the station. Now recognized for his quiet courage at Beit Hatfutsot, where he is named among the “righteous of the nations,” Sugihara signed as many as three hundred visas each day, and in a few short weeks saved the lives of over 6000 Jews. The number increases when the lives of their many descendents are added to the equation.
In 2015, B’nai B’rith responded to a request for assistance by the town of Yaotsu and its museum, the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, as we helped to locate entries for its UNESCO “Memory of the World” submission, a catalogue documenting the history and provenance of the extant, lost or destroyed visas issued by the diplomat. Through its NGO status at the UN, our organization also provided support in endorsing the application. Applying established criteria, and the recommendations of the United Nations International Advisory Committee, The Memory of the World Register recognizes specific locales or projects which preserve documents and artifacts defined as possessing outstanding universal value. Out of many applications, the Sugihara visa catalogue was included in the roster of finalists, but ultimately was not selected. As Yaotsu’s mayor Masanori Kaneko wrote: “we continue holding unswerving belief to deliver not only his deed but also the importance of thoughtful mind, human life and global peace all over the world. It is our mission to pass the humanitarian [acts] of Chiune Sugihara onto the next generation.”
Last January, B’nai B’rith planned its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York as a tribute to “Sugihara: Being an Upstander in a Tumultuous World,” with the participation of our supporters, volunteers and a group of survivors’ children and grandchildren, including keynote speaker Richard A. Salomon. His father, Bernard, who was issued visa #299, endured an arduous odyssey to Russia, Japan, China and India, but finally reached his destination in the United States. His son now serves on the boards of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Visas for Life Foundation, dedicated to the memory of the Yaotsu-born diplomat.
While a steadily increasing number of predominantly Israeli groups have toured Gifu, those who wished to make their own trip have had difficulty in making arrangements. In an ongoing effort to serve the needs of potential travelers, Gifu’s Department of Tourism has launched a special website, and has established Jewish heritage information centers, with a dedicated phone line, based in the Los Angeles and New York branches of the Japan Tourist Bureau. Providing outreach, its personnel can arrange transportation, lodgings, guided tours, hire drivers, and make sure that all details are arranged prior to departure.
Those interested can access the preliminaries, included in a special “Chiune Sugihara Experience” leaflet, online, or by directly contacting the Japan Information Center via email at Chiuneemail@example.com or by telephone at 1-877-798-9808.
Perhaps it was Sugihara’s empathy for the plight of the Jews, whom he had met and befriended in Kaunas, that motivated him to disobey his superiors. After he was dismissed from his government job, he often worked in menial positions to support his family. When asked to reflect on his actions in later years, he concluded: I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation — and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click here.
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