A few days ago my publisher forwarded this email to me relating to Chiune Sugihara who was the Japanese Consul-General in Lithuania in 1939. I had published a book for middle-school-age kids called A Special Fate, Chiune Sugihara, Hero of the Holocaust about him. In defiance of orders from his own government, Sugihara had issued visas round-the-clock for twenty-nine days in summer of 1940 to Jews fleeing Hitler. By doing so, he destroyed his career, his future, and the future of his family. He did not know at the time whether or not his visas had helped anyone. Then, in 1969, he was located by a survivor who had unsuccessfully been searching for him for years and learned that his visas had saved more than 6,000 lives. Subsequently he was recognized and honored in Israel, the US, Europe and elsewhere but not in Japan. Until now. Here’s the email exchange:
This is Kirk Spitzer, Tokyo correspondent for USA TODAY.
I would like to request a brief telephone or email interview with Alison Leslie Gold in connection with a news article that I am preparing on Chiune Sugihara. I know that Ms. Gold has written an excellent book on Sugihara and I believe her views and perspective would be very helpful.
As you probably know, the government of Japan has decided to request Sugihara’s inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register; an exhibition dedicated to Sugihara and Anne Frank is scheduled to open in Tokyo early next month, as well. This is particularly newsworthy given the refugee crisis in Europe, and given Japan’s continuing poor record on granting asylum to refugees.
My questions for Ms. Gold are pretty basic:
1. What made you interested in writing about Sugihara?
2. How well-known is Sugihara’s story, both in Japan and overseas — and why is he not better-known?
3. Are you surprised that it has taken the Japanese government this long to acknowledge Sugihara’s efforts to save Jewish refugees during World War II?
4. Why does Japan have such a poor record of accepting refugees compared to other developed countries?
That’s about it. Please let me know if Ms. Gold will be available for an interview or an exchange of emails. Thank you.
Actually, I hadn’t known about Sugihara’s inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register; nor the exhibition. Good for Japan and UNESCO.
My publisher forwarded your email to me. I’d be happy to discuss Sugihara with you. As it happens, I’m in Greece on an island. Maybe it would be best for me to answer the four questions you presented by email… I’m very glad to know that Mr. Sugihara will be included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register exhibition…
1. At the time I wrote A Special Fate, Chiune Sugihara, Hero of the Holocaust, I was neck deep in subject matter relating to WWII and Holocaust, having recently published two books on Anne Frank (Anne Frank Remembered written with Miep Gies, who helped to hide Anne Frank and saved Anne’s Diary, and Memories of Anne Frank Reflections of a Childhood Friend, about Anne and her best friend Hannah Goslar – called Lies – pronounced ‘Lease’ – in the diary. Both were translated into more than 20 languages. I met Eric Saul, a driven historian, who had begun promoting Mr. Sugihara and had unearthed other Diplomats like him who had risked everything to help refugees. Through Eric, I met Mrs. Sugihara and some of their family, and was inspired by their story. At the time there was a sense that girls/woman read books and boys/men didn’t. I wanted to write something that might be more of a boy’s/man’s book, thus Sugihara. Through Eric I met Solly Ganor, the then 11 year old boy who meets Mr. Sugihara in a Kovno shop and invites him to his home for a Jewish celebration. Thus, I was able to include Solly’s story, threaded through with Mr. Sugihara as well as the story of Marsha Leon, a 9 year old girl from Warsaw whose mother got Sugihara visas, and thus survived, whom I also found. (Btw: Both Eric and Solly are still alive… Solly has written a searing account of his wartime life Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale from Lithuania to Jerusalem 1st Pbk edition by Ganor Recently I visited Kovno, Lithuania with a close friend and we made a kind of pilgrimage to the house/consulate Sugihara used while writing those many visas during that hot August. There’s a modest museum there now and it was quite moving to take the arduous walk uphill through the woods to the consulate as did all the refugees those many years ago…
2. I don’t know why Sugihara’s story is not better known. My book did not sell well. (By coincidence, It’s just being re-issued with a new Author’s Note, by TMI Press and is available on Amazon.com.) The iconic story of diplomatic rescue seems to remain Wallenberg. Like Sugihara, there are other stories as dramatic and successful with grave jeopardy for the issuer. I can only say that it should be better known especially at a time like this when masses of refugees as desperate and panicked as they were then, also fleeing for their lives
3. Better late than never. I understand why the government had been hesitant before, but am very glad they’re awakening to the importance of Sugihara. They should be very proud of him, and “keep him safe under their wing” as Sugihara tried to do in respect to the Jewish and other refugees who needed help long ago. I hope this new appreciation of Sugihara will only increase in Japan and worldwide He’s a great role model.
4. I really don’t know anything about Japan’s refugee attitudes.
Hope this is helpful. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can add. …Good luck.
Kirk Spitzer responded:
Thank you, this is very helpful.
Let me ask one follow-up: What is the major lesson to be learned from Sugihara’s experience? He seemed to have sacrificed so much, for people who didn’t even know…
Never comfortable when asked for wisdom or “summing up” I replied:
Lesson? Thankfully there are a few folks in history, like Chiune Sugihara and Miep Gies, whose human values trump practicality or their own safety. Because of them, people like us can see that it’s possible to swim against the stream, throw caution to the wind, at times of moral crisis. When people asked Miep what she stood for, or if there was a ‘lesson’ in what she did, she would tell them: “You don’t have to be special to help someone. In my mind, it was my human duty.”
Photos: (top) Israeli stamp honoring Sugihara (color photo) fleeing Syrian refugees 2015 (black and white photo) fleeing German Jewish refugees 1939