Holocaust hero Chiune Sugihara's son inaugurates park in father's honor

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Not only is Jerusalem honoring Sugihari, he said, but Sugihari is honoring Jerusalem.

 FROM LEFT, Yoshihiko Higuchi, Cultural and Press Attache Japanese Embassy; Avraham Duvdevani, World Chairman KKL-JNF, Nobuki Sugihara , Lina Antanaviciene, Ambassador of Lithuania, and Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem raise their glasses in a toast at the corner stone ceremony of the  (photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
FROM LEFT, Yoshihiko Higuchi, Cultural and Press Attache Japanese Embassy; Avraham Duvdevani, World Chairman KKL-JNF, Nobuki Sugihara , Lina Antanaviciene, Ambassador of Lithuania, and Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem raise their glasses in a toast at the corner stone ceremony of the
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)

When Nobuki Sugihara was a boy, he was completely unaware that his father, Chiune Sugihara, was a hero of the Holocaust.

His father, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem and several other institutions and organizations in Israel and abroad as Righteous Among the Nations, had never spoken of the lifesaving transit visas that he had issued during the period that he served as Japan’s deputy consul in Lithuania.

Likewise, many of the people who had benefited from his generosity of heart and the values he held dear, did not speak of how they got to the places that became their permanent homes.

Though instructed by his country’s Foreign Ministry to leave Kaunus and to desist from doing anything to help the Jews, Sugihara felt great empathy for the plight of the hapless souls who had nowhere to go and, risking his career and his own life, issued thousands of visas during a brief period between 1940 and 1941.

On his return to Japan after two years in a Soviet prison, he was dismissed from the foreign service, and found it very difficult to support his wife and three children. He worked in a series of odd jobs, finally representing a Japanese company in Moscow – a position that he held for 20 years until his death in 1986.

Japanese diplomat Sugihara Chiune, known as ''Japanese Oskar Schindler.'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Japanese diplomat Sugihara Chiune, known as ''Japanese Oskar Schindler.'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1968, while in Tokyo, he received an unexpected phone call and was told that a man by the name of Nishri wanted to meet him at the Israeli Embassy. He duly went to the embassy and took his middle son, Nobuki, with him.

It turned out that Nishri was one of the people to whom Sugihara had issued a transit visa, and was representing a group of other survivors who wanted to give Sugihara some form of recognition. The Israeli ambassador, who was present at the meeting, asked what Israel could do for him, and Sugihara replied that he would appreciate a scholarship for Nobuki, because his eldest son was studying in the US, and this was putting a severe strain on his finances.

Two weeks later, Nobuki Sugihara was on his way to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. He knew neither English nor Hebrew. He could read in English but was unable to conduct a conversation. He didn’t know Hebrew at all, and was enrolled in an ulpan before joining the HU campus. Today, he speaks both Hebrew and English fluently.

He had two specific reasons for being in Israel this week with members of his family.

One was to attend the inauguration of the Friedman Center of Peace through Strength, and the other the laying of the cornerstone for the Chiune Sugihara Park in the capital’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. The large, existing Bostaniya Park will be considerably upgraded, and in addition to a stream and a bridge extending to neighboring Ir Ganim, there will also be a Sugihara Trail, various attractions and a plaque telling the story of Sugihara’s heroism and humanity.

NOBUKI SUGIHARA recalled an occasion when his father came to visit him in Jerusalem and was greatly impressed by the city.At that time, his father also met with religious affairs minister Zorach Warhafrig, who with his family had been among the people to whom Sugihara had issued a transit visa.

Neither of the two men evinced much excitement during their meeting as they discussed Kaunus and the whole episode of the transit visas. But afterward, in a book that he wrote, Warhaftig devoted considerable space to the story of Sugihara.

All of sudden, survivors who had received transit visas began to talk about Sugihara and their own wartime travails.

On October 10, 1984, Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations, and because of the number of people and their progeny who owed their very existence to him, his name became a household word among Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

In 1985, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund decided to honor Sugihara by planting a grove of trees in his name in Beit Shemesh. Nobuki Sugihara and his mother joined in the tree-planting ceremony, in which a total of 30 saplings were planted. Some years later they returned to see how the trees had grown. They looked and looked but could not find the grove, which they presumed had merged into a forest.

But later, Nobuki Sugihara heard increasing reports from Japanese tour groups which had gone to search for the grove – but to no avail.

Once again in Israel in 2018, at the invitation of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Tel Aviv, Nobuki asked about the grove, and was told that it had been destroyed several years earlier to make room for housing. He was not angry – merely disappointed. He understood that there was a need to build housing for the many immigrants who had converged on the country, but he nonetheless wrote a letter to KKL-JNF, expressing his disappointment. He was offered alternate sites for another grove, but none appealed to him.

THEN ONE day he received a phone call and was asked whether he would like to have a park in Jerusalem in his father’s memory. That was an offer with which he could certainly live, but he made it clear at the cornerstone ceremony on Wednesday that his father had never thought of himself as a hero, and that he was just a simple person.

“This is not for my family; this is not for my father,” he said of the park. “It’s for the future and [a symbol of] what human beings could do for each other.”

KKL-JNF World Chairman Avraham Duvdevani apologized profusely for the destruction of the Beit Shemesh forest, but said that he was happy that the new project was being realized. Not only is Jerusalem honoring Sugihari, he said, but Sugihari is honoring Jerusalem.

Among those who came to pay tribute to Sugihari were offspring of people who had been saved by the transit visas that he issued, donors, diplomats from Japan, Germany and Lithuania, and representatives of KKL-JNF, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ezrachi, the head of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the son-in-law of the former head of the yeshiva, the late Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, who had been one of 300 Mir Yeshiva students who received transit visas from Sugihara, said that Nobuki has inherited the values and the character traits of his father. One of the traditions in Judaism, said Ezrachi, is to recognize the good in others, and the park was an example of this.

Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene repeated the old Jewish maxim that had been uttered by almost every other speaker: He who saves a single life is as one who saved the whole world. Referring to Sugihari, she said: “His visas took thousands of people to the station called life.”

Sugihari is very well known to Lithuanians, she said, and last year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Lithuanian parliament declared the Year of Sugihari.

His story is relevant today, she continued, because conflicts are creating millions of refugees. Her own country, she noted later in conversation, is being flooded with Iraqi refugees.

New York-born, Tel Aviv-based investment banker Len Rosen, whose father, Irving Rosen, and uncle Harry had received transit visas from Sugihara, said that the visas were numbered 1627 and 1628. Unlike the tattooed numbers that were given to people as they entered Auschwitz, these were happy numbers, because “they represent life, not death,” applying to the transit visas that enabled them to escape the horrors of Europe.

In the forms they had to fill out, they had to write their destination address. Before reaching New York, Irving Rosen and his brother had lived in Warsaw, Kaunus and Shanghai, but what they wrote on the form was Kfar Hassidim, where they had an aunt and uncle. A third brother, Pinchas, had managed to escape and reached the Land of Israel before them. He died, fighting in the War of Independence.

Irving Rosen’s Hebrew name was Yitzhak Yair. His Sabra grandson Yitzhak Yair, who was named after him, is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah – thanks to Chiune Sugihara.