A hero’s hero

Holocaust survivor Solly Ganor’s brief encounter with Chiune Sugihara changes history and leads to a lifelong debt of gratitude

(From right) Solly Ganor, Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita, wife Pola Ganor, Japan intercultural exchange adviser Yosef Krichely and Dr. Les Glassman (photo credit: LES GLASSMAN)
(From right) Solly Ganor, Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita, wife Pola Ganor, Japan intercultural exchange adviser Yosef Krichely and Dr. Les Glassman
(photo credit: LES GLASSMAN)
Les Glassman, my dentist, is at the steering wheel, as we drive to meet Solly Ganor at his home in Ramat Hasharon. Glassman never tires of the hour-long trip from Jerusalem to see his hero.
When he heard I had spent 30 years living in Japan, he insisted I must meet him. As if I didn’t know him. Who in Japan hasn’t heard of Solly Ganor?
Ganor, the 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and War of Independence veteran, is the author of a harrowing memoir, Light One Candle.
When we arrive in the sunny living room in the apartment in Ramat Hasharon, which Ganor shares with Pola, his wife of 55 years, Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita has already arrived with his staff.
Tomita, seated next to Ganor, pores over photographs that trace his harrowing survival of the infamous Dachau concentration camp and the Kovno Ghetto, which takes us back to Chiune Sugihara.
As Japanese vice consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, Sugihara issued as many transit visas as his hand could stamp over three intense weeks in the summer of 1940, before his next assignment in Berlin. Sugihara saved 6,000 Jews, both those fleeing Poland and Lithuania, a selfless act that put his family and career in jeopardy, and for which Yad Vashem gave him honorary Righteous Among the Nations status in 1984, the year before he died virtually unknown in his own country.
Only in recent years has Ganor’s role in the issuing of those transit visas come to light.
In 2015, Cellin Gluck’s epic Hollywood movie Persona Non Grata was released. A dramatized reenactment of Sugihara’s life, the story begins in Kaunas, temporary capital of Lithuania. Ganor, an 11-year-old boy, is shown meeting consul Sugihara, when their paths crossed in Ganor’s Aunt Anushka’s gourmet confectionary shop. The boy told his aunt that he had given the last of his Hanukka gelt to Jewish refugees from Poland and asked for some money so he could go see the latest Laurel and Hardy movie.
Ganor recalled: “Overhearing us talking in Russian at my aunt’s sweetshop, he was the first Japanese person I’d ever seen in my life. He [listened to] our conversation and answered in Russian. He was there buying chocolate for his children and offered to pay for my movie ticket. I explained that, because he wasn’t a family member, I couldn’t accept money from him.”
“Then I’ll be your uncle,” he recalled Sugihara as saying.
“I’m an impulsive type,” Ganor explained, as he recollected the moment.
“If you’re my uncle, then come to our family’s Hanukka party this Saturday.”
IT WAS likely Sugihara’s first encounter with Jewish people, and where he first learned of the plight of refugees from Poland fleeing the Nazis with nowhere to go because no country or embassy would issue transit visas.
“I can safely say Sugihara was my hero,” Ganor said, pointing to photograph of the man he met only briefly in 1940. “Sugihara issued transit visas to my entire family, but my father couldn’t find anyone to purchase his business, so he was reluctant to leave. It was a terrible mistake. Our family became trapped.”
In the months ahead, as the situation for Jews in Europe became more dire, Jewish refugees began lining up outside Sugihara’s home, pleading for transit visas through Japan. Sugihara twice submitted requests to his Japanese superiors and was both times rejected. He then took matters into his own hands, issuing well over a 1,000 visas that led to saving entire families – more than 6,000 lives.
Tragically, Ganor and his own family waited too long and were trapped inside Lithuania. They were thrown out of their own home and forced to live in the overcrowded Kovno Ghetto, which became a sadistic holding pen for Jews on the way to grim execution and mass graves.
Ganor wrote in Light One Candle about how he managed to survive the war under the most dangerous of conditions. He wrote of the courage of his mother, Rebecca, the heroism of his older brother Herman, who perished, the fearlessness of his maternal sister Fanny, who survived, and the organizational genius of his storytelling father, Chaim.
Ganor didn’t shy away from describing the beatings of both adults and children, the dogs trained to kill, the humiliations, the mass graves, the firing squads, the starvation and frostbite, the betrayal of friends, the fight to survive in overcrowded camps and ghettos; the match, the light, and the burning down of a hospital filled with Jews, including his own family members, locked inside.
Ganor recalled the feeling of betrayal felt by Jews who had previously lived in relative peace and prosperity with their Lithuanian, German, Ukrainian and Russian neighbors.
He wrote about surviving in the ghetto, watching in shock as 1,000 children were sent to their deaths while their parents were out of sight, forced into slave labor.
“I prepared myself a hiding place in the ghetto. I saw what was happening,” Ganor recounted.
“My older brother knew I liked to write. He gave me a diary, and this is why a number of the events stayed in my memory after I had been sent to Dachau and I had to get rid of that diary. What happened stays in your mind. People who were dying were close to me. These were horrifying events.”
For many years he kept silent.
“I just didn’t want to go back to this time. It was too painful. But then there was a promise I made to my friends, the children who didn’t survive, and that promise was in my conscience. I told them I would tell the world. So I just wrote the memoir for myself.”
A SECOND twist of fate would seal Ganor’s lifelong feeling of connection with the Japanese. Eric Saul, a historian from San Francisco, organized a trip to Jerusalem for the Nisei (second-generation American- born children of Japanese descent) who were members of the US Army 442nd Regiment, the 100th Infantry Battalion or the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, rescuers who were eager to meet the survivors of the Dachau Death March.
“Eric brought the vets to Jerusalem. Without his assistance, they wouldn’t have come. The reunion took place in a hotel in Jerusalem in 1992.
“I was saved on the death march in May of 1945 by Clarence Matsumura, a soldier in the 442nd Regiment. Composed of Japanese-American soldiers, the 442nd [soldiers] were on the front lines and suffered among the highest numbers of deaths and casualties in the war.
“Until the moment I walked into the hotel room,” Ganor recalled, “I couldn’t speak about what I’d been through. Nobody even knew I was a Holocaust survivor. But when I saw Clarence, I fell into his arms and bawled my eyes out.”
“The reunion with Clarence was definitely a highly emotional reunion. He was the man who gave me back my life! Meeting him was some kind of catharsis and helped me to keep my promise that I made to my murdered childhood friends in the ghetto – that if I survived the Holocaust, I would tell the world their story.”
After being rescued by Matsumura, Ganor was taken to a displaced persons Camp, where he recovered by putting his multiple language skills to use. He was drafted into the US Army because of these abilities.
“I was in Intelligence for the US Army, with a group of soldiers who went looking for Nazis who had gone into hiding in various camps. We were looking for liars, and we found quite a few,” Ganor said.
“I recall one who said he was working in a factory in Dresden that produced armaments and said he was there till the end of the war. We knew that Dresden was totally destroyed, so he was lying. He was sent to Russia, and he wasn’t exactly received with kisses. He was considered a traitor and collaborator with the Nazis and was shot. I pointed out they were Nazis and the American captain dealt with them.”
IN MAY of 1948, the historic month in which the State of Israel was established, Ganor was supposed to accompany his father to start a new life in Canada. His father, Chaim Genkind, was appalled when he heard that his son had decided to put his life in danger by enlisting as a soldier in an Israeli army unit, cobbled together with armaments that had formerly belonged to the Nazis.
“A group of Israelis had come to Germany,” Ganor recounted. “They had been in the British Army during the war, and they were organizing to get the Jews to Palestine. I helped them connect to the Jewish officers I’d met at a Passover Seder in Munich organized by the American army.”
Ganor decided to join them. He fought with the Israeli Seventh Armored Brigade from June 1948 and was discharged a year later.
“I was mostly on the Syrian border. I was almost killed at Mount Meron capturing the tomb of Shimon bar Yohai, where haredim go to celebrate Lag Ba’omer.
“Arabs were standing on the roof of the tomb, and the bullet came so close I thought I wouldn’t be seeing anymore.”
After the army, Ganor joined Israel’s newly formed Merchant Marines.
“I wanted to see what sort of a world we lived in. I talked to people about the Holocaust and was curious why they didn’t do anything to help us.
“In South America I found out part of the reason. I talked to people who hadn’t met a Jew in their life. Why did they hate Jews? Because the Catholic Church told them to.
“So I wrote to the Polish pope, John Paul II, in the 1990s. He sent me a letter in which he was rethinking the Catholic Church’s whole behavior, and afterwards he went to visit the synagogues of Rome.”
“The chapter about meeting Sugihara is only a small part of my life story,” Ganor admitted, “but I can safely say that in my darkest times during the Holocaust, I’d remember the kindness he showed toward the Jewish people. Nobody would rescue us except for Chiune Sugihara.
“I wrote it before anyone ever heard of him. I had no idea that Sugihara would one day become famous. I just wrote it because I admired him for what he was doing to save our people.
“The whole world now knows that the Jews lined up in all the consulates, before they came to the Japanese Consulate in Kovno, because no one gave the Jews visas. Who would want to go to Japan, which was aligned with the Nazis, if you could go somewhere else? Sugihara was almost unique in giving out visas, and everyone knows it.”
The only government official besides Sugihara who gave the Jews a way out of Europe was Dutch diplomat Jan Zwartendijk. Fleeing Jews were able to take up safe refuge in the tiny Dutch West Indies island of Curaçao after Sugihara issued transit visas via the Siberian railway through Japan and Zwartendijk wrote that entrance to the Dutch Indies did not require a visa. It was a risky plan but it worked for those lucky enough to escape.
“Light One Candle,” a traveling international exhibition by the same name, features photos taken in the Kovno Ghetto by Zvi (George) Kadish, based on what Ganor had written in his memoir.
Yad Vashem in recent months visited Ganor twice to document and videotape his story and what he recollects of the once thriving community of 100,000 Lithuanian Jews who died brutal deaths in their own country or, like him, were put on trains bound for Dachau in 1944.
ONLY IN Israel would you go in for a routine dental checkup and come out with a story about a Holocaust and Israeli War of Independence hero. What Glassman still finds hard to fathom is that patients of his from the Mir Yeshiva never heard of Sugihara.
At the OU Center in Jerusalem earlier this spring, Glassman gave a presentation about Ganor, who was unable to attend himself, as he was having difficulty moving about since breaking his hip.
“My patients are direct descendants of those with visas stamped by Sugihara. He issued visas for everyone in the entire Mir Yeshiva, today the largest yeshiva in the world,” he said.
On May 30, Tomita presented Ganor with a Certificate of Appreciation recognizing that it wasn’t just his innocent encounter with Sugihara that deserves recognition, but his efforts to share his story with so many Japanese people.
The writer, an artist raised in New York City, made aliya in October 2017 after residing in Japan for 30 years. She is inspired by stories of human potential and triumphant spirit. www.lianewakabayashi.com