Why Sugihara’s selflessness still matters

Most Jewish Americans are familiar with the story of heroism told in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” about German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
June 29, 2016

Most Jewish Americans are familiar with the story of heroism told in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” about German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust. 

Far fewer know the story of how Chiune Sugihara — often called the “Japanese Schindler” — sacrificed his diplomatic career and defied his government to issue thousands of transit visas to Jews in 1940 from his post in Lithuania. It is estimated that 40,000 people are alive today as a result of his actions.

On June 23, the Los Angeles branches of the Japan America Society of Southern California, the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania and American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined forces to present a panel discussion regarding Sugihara’s legacy and for a screening of the historical drama about the diplomat, “Persona Non Grata,” at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre. 

The film, which had its American premiere in January at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, coincides with the 75th anniversary of Sugihara’s survivors arriving at the Port of Tsuruga in Fukui, Japan, and the 30th anniversary of Sugihara’s death at age 86. Other events honoring Sugihara include debuting a street named for him in Netanya, Israel, on June 8. 

“It is extremely important to highlight this kind of story, especially as the film details a uniquely positive chapter in a period of history known for its immeasurable inhumanity,” said Janna Weinstein Smith, AJC regional director. “This event is a part of our ongoing efforts to build greater understanding between Jewish and non-Jewish communities here and throughout the world.”

Oriha Sugihara, great-granddaughter of the late Japanese diplomat, opened the panel, welcoming Weinstein Smith, Lithuanian Consul General in Los Angeles Darius Gaidys, Japanese Consul General in Los Angeles Harry Horinouchi and Akira Kitade, author of “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey,” about a Japan Tourist Bureau employee who helped ferry Jews with Sugihara visas to Japan. 

But it was Holocaust survivor Nathan Lewin, attorney and lecturer at Columbia Law School, who provided a living — and lively — testament to Sugihara’s legacy. 

Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1936, Lewin came onstage with a warm smile and a spring in his step. He immediately had the capacity crowd rapt when he announced, “The film starts out with the statement, ‘Based on a true story.’ Here is another true story, told by somebody who remembers almost none of it, as it happened before I was 5 years old.”

During his presentation and in a subsequent interview with the Journal, Lewin, 80, credited his parents for making sure he was well versed in the details of the family’s carefully planned escape from World War II Europe via Poland, Lithuania, the Trans-Siberian Railway and, finally, a boat to Japan. 

Lewin described how, when he was born, the newspapers were full of Hitler’s threats, and his mother, Pessla “Peppy” Sternheim, feared Poland would not be a good place to stay. She convinced her husband, Dr. Isaac Lewin, to agree that if the Germans crossed into Poland, the family would head east. 

In September 1939, the family escaped over the border in the middle of the night with other Jews. Lewin’s paternal grandfather, Aaron Lewin, a respected rabbi who was elected twice to the Polish parliament, made an attempt to escape but was murdered.

“The story I was told years later was that as a 3-year-old carried through the forest, they warned me if I made any sound, the wolves would come out from behind the trees and eat me up,” Lewin said. “We made our way across the border into Lithuania and headed to Vilnius, which not only had a historic Jewish community but also many other refugees who came in before us. I even attended the kindergarten there. However, my mother intuited that Vilnius was also not a good place to stay.” 

Years later, he and his older daughter (and law practice partner), Alyza D. Lewin, discovered that Lewin’s Dutch-born mother played a key role with Netherlands Consul General Jan Zwartendijk in the logistics that would allow Jews to make it out of Lithuania through Sugihara.

Upon learning Lithuania was about to be annexed by the Soviets, Lewin’s mother eventually convinced the Dutch ambassador in Riga to write in her passport that permitted her to enter Suriname, Curacao and other possessions of the Netherlands in the Americas without an entry visa. She then went to Zwartendijk and asked him to copy the same words onto the travel documents of family members. Based on Zwartendijk’s notation, Sugihara then granted them transit visas through Japan on the purported trip to Curacao. This strategy, in turn, eased the way for other “visa” holders — despite orders to the contrary from the Japanese government. 

According to Yad Vashem’s website, none of these refugees ever arrived in Curacao — more than half went to free countries while about 1,000 ended up in Shanghai, where they survived the war.

Lewin still has a Sughiara visa as a family heirloom — it is said that the diplomat continued to hand out visas from the window of his train even as he departed Lithuania after consuls and embassies were closed — and stressed that it’s crucial to remind the world of what people like Sugihara and Zwartendijk did.

“Once Sugihara was recognized at Yad Vashem among the Rightious Among Nations in 1985, the question of Zwartendijk’s involvement in the whole Sugihara episode came to the forefront of my consciousness. There were also several other survivors who knew about Zwartendijk. We wrote to Yad Vashem to ask he also be listed. On the basis of testimonials we provided, he was recognized in 1997,” Lewin said.

The influence of Sugihara’s actions reverberated long after the war, according to Lewin, who explained that his father was involved in rescue efforts for Jewish refugees and that he himself dedicated some of his law career to supporting Jewish causes and arguing cases on behalf of the Jewish community (especially Orthodox Jews), going all the way up to the Supreme Court.

“I have done many of those cases pro bono, and people ask me who financed them,” he said. “I argued these cases out of my own volition, and these choices can be attributable to the example my father set in the years after he arrived in the United States and, perhaps, to the Sugihara story, as well. If I knew I existed because a Japanese man did the right thing when his government told him not to do it, that does have an influence to some extent.” 

Lewin concluded his pre-screening speech with a reflection on the appropriateness of Sugihara’s first name: “Chiune is a very interesting name, especially if you’re Jewish and know Hebrew,” he said. “Although you can pronounce it ‘Chee-un-eh’ in Japanese, in Hebrew you could pronounce it ‘Chi-uni,’ which means, ‘You’ve given me life.’ ”

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