An article in the latest issue (March 2023) of the American Historical Review, a prominent scholarly journal, questioned the record of Holocaust rescuer Chiune Sugihara and strongly criticized Yad Vashem for honoring him. Holocaust scholar Dr. Rafael Medoff interviewed Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, the former head of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous Among the Nations, about the controversy.
Q: Prof. Rotem Kowner, of the University of Haifa, claims in his article that the Jewish refugees in Lithuania whom Suighara saved did not face any “immediate physical risk” from the Germans, because Lithuania was under Soviet occupation. The implication is that Sugihara’s assistance didn’t really save their lives. However, the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia points out that when the Soviets took over Lithuania, there was “a wave of arrests” of Jews by the Soviet secret police.
Paldiel: The assertion that the Jewish refugees in Lithuania did not expect to fall under Nazi rule is not borne out by historical data. In fact, many expected a German-Soviet war could break out at any time. They saw the Nazis conquer France, Belgium and Holland just a few weeks earlier. There were long lines of Jewish refugees in front of the Japanese consulate in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, pleading for visas to allow them to leave the country as fast as possible. Of course these formerly Polish Jewish refugees were in danger, from both the Soviets (who threatened them with expulsion to Siberia unless they adopted Soviet citizenship) and the Germans (who, as pointed out by Zerach Warhaftig, who headed the Jewish Agency Palestine office in Lithuania, were expected to invade soon).
Q: According to Kowner, Sugihara’s efforts constituted only “a minor episode” in the Holocaust. Is that a fair assessment?
Paldiel: Affording over 3,000 Jews, mostly refugees in Lithuania, the possibility of escaping danger is not a minor episode, it’s a major episode, something of great significance.
Q: Kowner’s article claims that Sugihara’s rescue work was somehow mixed up with Japanese intelligence activities. Kowner also claims that Sugihara’s family was motivated by “financial concerns” in publicizing his story.
Paldiel: Actually, the fact that he was sent to Lithuania principally for intelligence work places Sugihara on an even higher moral pedestal. He suddenly assumed the role of a large-scale rescuer of Jewish refugees, an activity that was totally foreign to what he was assigned to perform. As to the charge of financial profits by Sugihara’s family as the main motive for publicizing his rescue activity, that is mere petty speculation and beneath accepted scholarly standards. There is no justification for taking cheap shots at Sugihara’s family.
Q: Prof. Kowner repeatedly refers to the publicity about Sugihara as “the cult of Sugihara” and claims that his supporters are engaging in “collective worship” and are depicting him as “saintlike.” Is there any basis to such an accusation?
Paldiel: There’s no place for this kind of sneering rhetoric. It makes one wonder why Kowner seems to be personally so uncomfortable with the recognition of Sugihara’s good deeds.
Q: According to Kowner, unnamed “memory agents” in Israel, Japan and Lithuania “have overplayed Sugihara’s deed and inflated his grit for their own ends.” Have Sugihara’s actions been exaggerated?
Paldiel: I have not seen any serious source exaggerating what Sugihara accomplished or inflating the number of Jews he saved. If some careless pundit or some high school student’s report accidentally got some number wrong, that’s not evidence of some conspiracy to overstate what Sugihara did.
Q: Prof. Kowner’s major accusation is that the recognition of Sugihara’s actions was part of a scheme in the 1980s by Israel’s “right-wing government,” under Menachem Begin, because it had “a greater focus on past victimhood” than previous Israeli governments.
Paldiel: It’s superficial and misleading to claim that Begin was “focused” on “victimhood” and that it somehow led to Sugihara’s recognition. It’s even less convincing when one remembers that Sugihara was declared a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 1984, when Yitzhak Shamir, not Begin, had succeeded Begin as prime minister a year earlier. During the fight for Israel’s independence, Shamir had been a leader of the Stern Group, which emphasized Jewish strength and action, not “victimhood.”
Q: One of Kowner’s major accusations is that Yad Vashem should not have honored him because under its own criteria for the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the person had to have risked his or her life to save Jews.
Paldiel: Kowner is mistaken. Yad Vashem had already decided, prior to Sugihara’s candidacy, that with regard to diplomats and other senior government officials, they do not need to have risked their lives, but rather risked their professional status by disobeying instructions from above, The number of people affected by their efforts also is a factor that is considered in these cases.
Q: Kowner claims that Yad Vashem, as a “state agency,” was “eager to cooperate” with the Israeli government and conspired with it “for the sake of extending the thrust of its past victimhood and improving its international relations.” Does that accusation conform with your experiences?
Paldiel: I was involved in the Sugihara matter when it was taken up by Yad Vashem from start to finish. I was the one who completed the investigation of his actions, and I was still head of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations when it was decided to recognize Sugihara. The question of relations between Israel and Japan never entered the discussions insofar as Yad Vashem was concerned; we acted solely based on the criteria for honoring diplomat,s per criteria already previously established when discussing diplomats who aided many Jews with visas.
Q: Yet Prof. Kowner insists that the decision must have been made on the basis of political and diplomatic considerations.
Paldiel: I was present at the relevant meetings. He wasn’t there. That included the decisive debate on Sugihara’s candidacy, which was headed by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski. The sole question was the level of personal or professional risk that Sugihara took in not following rules and regulations by his Japanese superiors. Political considerations by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on relations with Japan had no part, and were not even mentioned in the debate by the Commission for the Righteous—the sole sovereign authority to decide on the Righteous title—on the question of whether Sugihara qualified for the title. There is no mention of this in the verbatim record of the Commission proceedings.
Q: According to Kowner, the final discussion within Yad Vashem’s commission concerning Sughihara was “highly charged.” What do you think of that description?
Paldiel: Again, an exaggeration. There was one member who opposed it, but for a different reason, and not because he felt that he did not qualify, and one who abstained on a questionable legalistic point. All of the other twenty commission members voted in favor.
Q: Kowner’s major claim is that “official Israel, through Yad Vashem” ignored its own rules and criteria, because it prioritized “extending the thrust of its past victimhood and improving its international relations.”
Paldiel: Sugihara’s recognition by Yad Vashem was not caused by any relinquishing of its criteria. Eighteen years earlier, in 1966, Portuguese diplomat Sousa Mendes was awarded the ‘Righteous’ title even though he faced no risk to his life when he afforded transit visas to thousands of Jews. His recognition was based on different criteria established for diplomats and senior officials who aided Jews.
Here’s another relevant example. Poland broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, and that break lasted until 1990, but it didn’t stop Yad Vashem from adding thousands of Poles to the list of “Righteous Among the Nations,” based solely on established criteria for this honor, with no political considerations attached. It had nothing to do with an alleged improvement of relations with Poland, since those relations did not even exist.
During those twenty-three years, communist Poland continuously lambasted Israel as a tool of American imperialism, and carried out an antisemitic drive against its remnant Jewish community, forcing thousands to flee the country. That had no impact on Yad Vashem’s work with regard to the Righteous Among the Nations from Poland. In fact, my colleagues and I had to find back channels to reach Polish honorees, because the Polish government refused any formal relations with Israel, and no connections with Yad Vashem.
When Poland restored relations with Israel in 1990, it was not because of Yad Vashem’s honoring of Polish rescuers of Jews, but as the outcome of the fall of communism in that country, and Poland abandoning its previous hostility toward Israel. In 1984, hundreds of Poles were awarded the Righteous title, with no political strings attached. The same principle prevailed that same year with regard to Sugihara’s recognition.
Q: What about Kowner’s suggestion that the Israeli Foreign Ministry put pressure on you or your colleagues at Yad Vashem over Sugihara?
Paldiel: During my entire processing of the Sugihara case, I was never told, nor ever heard, of any pressure by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to have the case approved for the benefit of better relations with Japan—only to have it accelerated since the man was still alive but at a very advanced age. The recognition of Sugihara had nothing to do with political considerations, such as improving Israel’s international relations. Yad Vashem made the correct decision, and Sugihara was a genuine hero.