The ‘Oskar Schindler’ of Japan remembered in Philly

Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese ambassador during WWII, helped thousands of Jews to flee German-occupied Europe. His son and the descendants of those he saved met in Philadelphia.

Rabbi Yossey Goldman and Nobuki Sugihara at Shofuso at the Japanese House in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Rabbi Yossey Goldman and Nobuki Sugihara at Shofuso at the Japanese House in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Theirs was a carefully orchestrated meeting.

The two men who met at Shofuso, the Japanese House in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, knew of each other, but had never met nor spoken.

One was the son of a Japanese ambassador in Lithuania during World War II who defied Japanese immigration policy by writing thousands of travel visas for Jews to flee Nazi-occupied Europe.

The other was the son of one of those Jews who benefited from that effort. The two descendants immediately embraced and immediately spoke to each other, quietly, in Hebrew.

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“It’s our secret language,” Nobuki Sugihara later joked. As a young man he had studied at the Hebrew University in Israel. “I feel home, speaking Hebrew.”

“That was a special touch,” said his new friend, Rabbi Yossy Goldman. “We have a lot in common.”

Sugihara is the last surviving child of Chiune Sugihara, who in the summer of 1940 was given the task of closing the Japanese embassy in Lithuania, newly occupied by Russia. In the last remaining weeks of the office, he wrote about 2,500 travel visas that would allow Jews to escape.

Japanese immigration policy at the time did not allow such mass, indiscriminate visas. “I may have to disobey the government,” he once said. “But if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.”

Nobuki Sugihara, Rabbi Yossey Goldman, and his son Rabbi Yochonon Goldman Shofuso at the Japanese House in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (Sharla Feldsher)

Indeed, not only did Sugihara ultimately lose his job, but his vocation. After the war he was asked to resign and blacklisted from any government work for the rest of his life.

Sugihara’s visas allowed about 6,000 individuals to leave Lithuania, where many Jewish refugees from Poland had already fled. A year later, in the summer of 1941, Germany would wrest control of Lithuania from Russia and murder nearly all the remaining Jews.

Nobuki Sugihara was born after the war, in 1949. He said his father never talked about what he had done. It was only in 1968, when his father was honored at the Israeli embassy in Tokyo, that he learned his father was a hero.

“Actually, I saw it in the newspaper the next day, after we met in the embassy of Israel, that I started knowing the story,” he said. “Slowly. Slowly. It took me 20 years to know the real story.”

Sugihara now lives in Antwerp, Belgium, and travels often as a representative of his father’s legacy. He has met hundreds of people his father helped flee Europe during the war. Now, because most of them are dead, he meets their children or grandchildren.

“I have been looking forward to this occasion for many years,” said Goldman. His father, Rabbi Shimon Goldman, was just a teenager during the war. He fled Poland with his school arriving in Russia-controlled Lithuania looking for a way out.

That teenager never met, nor knew of Shugihara during the war. His teachers handled the paperwork at the Japanese embassy. Goldman was a boy among classmates, only learning of Sugihara’s generosity later.

The elder Goldman, Shimon, died just two years ago, at age 91, in New York. His son said he left behind more than 100 descendants, including 80 great-grandchildren.

“Every time he clutched a great-grandchild to his heart, it was not only love but also an indication for him that Hitler did not win,” said Yossy Goldman.

Goldman and Sugihara came to Philadelphia at the invitation of Goldman’s son, Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of the B’nai Abraham synagogue in Society Hill.  They sat on floor mats in the Shofuso house for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Clutching Sugihara’s hand on his right, and holding his son’s knee on his left, Goldman choked up.

“I would not be here, my son would not be here, none of us would be here if it not for your father,” he said. “God bless his soul. I’m sure there’s a special place in heaven for him. Thank you.”

It’s estimated about 40,000 people descended from the Jews rescued by Sugihara’s visas. Goldman and Nobuki Sugihara will be honored on Sunday at a dinner at B’nai Abraham.

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