Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Segment of World War II in Japan

When I first heard about Sempo Sugihara, the diplomat (1900-1986), I thought of Karl, my San Diego friend who came over from the Baltic. Karl was an IEEE Fellow who made many trips to Japan. When I told him I was visiting St. Petersburg, he introduced me to his Russian friend who spoke English. I missed the chance to ask Karl whether he was from Latvia or Lithuania before he passed away in early 2000s. He never mentioned any issues with his Japanese visa, so I assumed he was from Latvia. Back to Mr. Sugihara, whose real name was Chiune Sugihara, a hard name to remember. He used Sempo instead, which caused confusion in identifying him after his departure from the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Dispatched to Manchuria after entering the Foreign Ministry, he studied Russian and German in Harbin. There he not only married a Russian woman, but converted to Russian Orthodox, under his baptismal name Pavro Sergeevich. The marriage ended in divorce. I learned that he gave all of his savings to her family. He returned to Japan and remarried and was sent to Finland in the 1930s.

The "Visas for Life" story happened when he was stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania as vice consul. The Jewish Virtual Library called it the Miracle of Chanukah in 1939. Solly Ganor, an 11 year boy, was the son of a Menshevik refugee from the Russian revolution in the early 1920s who settled in Kaunas. The family prospered for years in textile import export business before World War II. Young Solly Ganor, concerned with Polish Jews entering Kaunas, gave most of his allowance and savings to the Jewish refugee boards. Having given away all of his money, he went to his aunt's gourmet food shop to borrow a Lithuania lit (Lithuanian dollar) to see the latest Laurel and Hardy movie. In his aunt's store he met Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Consul Sugihara overheard the conversation and gave young Solly two shiny lit.

Impulsively, the young boy invited the Consul with kind eyes to his family celebration of the first night of Hanukah in 1939. The surprised and delighted Consul gratefully accepted the young boy's invitation, and he and his wife Yukiko attended their first Jewish Chanukah celebration. Solly Ganor and his father were soon friends with the Consul and they conversed in Russian. Later Solly Ganor and his father witnessed Sugihara in his office calling Russian officials to get permission to issue visas across the Russian borders. With the help of a secretary and Yukiko, Sugihara handwrote visas for days and nights, at a hotel when the consulate was closed, and at the Kaunas Station right up until the train started to leave. The visas produced numbered almost 3,000. Counting two to three per household, he saved 6,000 to 7,000 people, thus was called "Schindler of Japan".

I missed viewing Yomiuri TV’s broadcast of a special program on Sugihara in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The drama was based on Yukiko Sugihara's story. Honored along with Sugihara were Consul Saburo Nei (1902-1992) at Vladiostok and Dr. Setsuzo Kotsuji (1899-1973). Consul Nei studied Russian with Sugihara and helped Jews sail to Tsuruga, Japan from Vladiostok. Dr. Kotsuji did visa extensions and voyage transfers for their destinations from Kobe. Dr. Kotsuji, born to a Kyoto Kamo Shinto Shrine priest family, became a Christian, and then converted to Russian Orthodox after studying at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Dr. Kotsuji assisted the transit groups stranded in Kobe through religious connections and sought advice from his ex-Mantetsu (Manchurian Railroad) boss Yosuke Matsuoka (1880-1946), the incumbent Foreign Minister (FM), who was designated as a Class A War Criminal after the War, responsible for the 1940 Tripartite Pact (Germany/Italy/Japan).

Matsuoka himself was not anti-Semitic as a Christian chaperoned under the U.S. Methodist missionaries. Matsuoka immigrated to Oregon as a teenager when his father's business went bankrupt. He returned to Japan due to illness after graduating Oregon University law school. FM Matsuoka gave Kotsuji his best personal advice on how to negotiate with Kobe Police. The deal was that FM would release the travelers if the Kobe Police agreed. Kotsuji played his cards tactfully and succeeded in getting not only visa extensions but also transit travelers to sail out of Kobe to their respective destinations. I just cannot imagine how those thousands of exhausted people who arrived from a long Siberian journey, fared in Kobe while in transit.

I found a very heartwarming story on YouTube, which I will introduce in my next post.

Note: Photo above is of Sakura Park, dedicated to Chiune Sigiura in Vilnius, Lithuania

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