Japan Diplomat Sugihara Honoured for Wartime Heroism

Dec. 11, 2020

By LILA SARICK

George Bluman doesn’t hesitate when he considers the legacy of Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who provided Jews with life-saving travel visas during the Second World War.

“In my own family, there are 21 people living…. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Bluman, a retired math professor who lives in Vancouver, said in an interview with the CJR.

In the summer of 1940, Sugihara served as Japan’s vice-consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, and issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees, permitting them transit through Japan. Some were issued to Jews who had managed to secure visas allowing them to enter Dutch-controlled Curacao, but Sugihara also issued them to other refugees who did not have proper documentation.

Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara

Bluman’s parents were Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania at the outbreak of the war. In 1940, they received visas from Sugihara, even though their paperwork was incomplete. They travelled through Russia, boarding a ship in Vladivostok, and sailed to Japan.

After spending six months there, Bluman’s father, who had a degree in bio-engineering, received one of 25 Canadian visas available to immigrants with specialized skills. The couple arrived in Vancouver in 1941.

Bluman, who was born not long after his parents arrived in Canada, has done extensive research into Sugihara’s life and what happened to those who received those precious visas. One of Bluman’s grandchildren carries Sugihara’s name, and the family is in frequent contact with the diplomat’s descendants.

“From my perspective, he (Sugihara) wasn’t just a passerby. He cared and put his family at some risk,” Bluman said. “He wrote to his superiors three times and they certainly didn’t encourage these visas.”

While there is some dispute about the number of visas Sugihara issued to Jewish refugees in that summer of 1940 in Kaunas – Yad Vashem in Israel says it was between 2,100 and 3,500, while other sources say it was as many as 6,000 – Bluman says the number is not important. “What was amazing is what he did over a short period of time.”

After arriving in Japan, many refugees then travelled to Shanghai, China, where there was an established Jewish community. After the war, about half of those left for the United States and about 15 percent came to Canada, Bluman said. About one-quarter of those who received visas were yeshiva students, he said.

Today, an estimated 40,000 people are descendants of those who received the visas.

Sugihara’s legacy will be commemorated by the Japanese Embassy in Canada this week to mark the 120th anniversary of his birth, the 80th anniversary of his issuing the visas, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It all makes for an auspicious time to remember the diplomat’s achievements, said Atsushi Murata, director of information and culture for the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa.

The online memorial was recorded Dec. 8 and was organized by the Embassy of Japan in cooperation with the embassies of Israel and Lithuania, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem. Among the speakers were a Holocaust survivor who received a visa, and two descendants of those who were saved by Sugihara, including Bluman.

Sugihara was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1984, the only Japanese national to be honoured. He died in 1986.

Bluman credits the Japanese ambassador to Canada for initiating the event. While based in New York, Ambassador Yasuhisa Kawamura became friends with a number of Jews and began to hear about Sugihara and the people he had helped. “He is passionate about the story,” Bluman said.

In Japan, Sugihara’s story is well known, and he is considered one of the country’s 100 most important people, Bluman said. Last year, Lithuania announced that 2020 would be dedicated to the memory of Sugihara, and conferences, museum exhibits, and a commemorative stamp were planned for the year.

Sugihara’s deeds are comparable to those of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who sheltered Jews during the war, but his story is much less well known in North America simply because there hasn’t been a popular Hollywood film about his life, Bluman said.

“The most important thing is to make people in Canada aware of Sugihara.”

To watch the ceremony honouring Sugihara, as well as documentaries about his life and the survivors, visit www.visasforlife.info.

Addendum: In 1993, Canadian Jewish Congress and the National Association of Japanese Canadians were one of the first organizations to honour Sugihara. Present for that dinner were members of the Sugihara family and numerous elected officials, including then Ontario Premier Bob Rae.

Beyond ‘Ashkenormativity’: Sharing the Stories of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

Dec. 8, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

Nov. 29, known by some as Kaf-Tet b’November, is an important day to Jewish communities around the world. It was on that day in 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the plan to partition British Mandate Palestine between Arabs and Jews. David Ben-Gurion, leading the nascent nation, subsequently declared the State of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Perhaps less well known is that the following day, Nov. 30, serves as a solemn occasion of remembrance and tribute to Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. It is known as Yom Plitim (“the Day of Recognition for Jewish Refugees”).

The UN’s support for the establishment of a Jewish state is seen as a turning point in the history of minority Jewish populations across the Arab world, who had lived there for centuries. During the mid-20th century, these Jews, primarily belonging to Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, were persecuted, and subsequently expelled from the places that they had called home for generations. It is estimated that 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced from Arab and Muslim lands from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Many found haven in Israel, while others immigrated to countries around the world, including Canada. These communities have continued to preserve and pass down their heritage, while contributing to society as a whole. From flight to perseverance, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be treasured. More than that, they should be retold.

Yet, I’m struck by the seeming lack of awareness regarding this important history. Despite growing up in an Ashkenazi household, attending Jewish day school and summer camp, and taking several Jewish studies courses in university, I find myself undereducated on the history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This is a startling gap.

I think that Jewish continuity and identity are rooted in education. I hope that curricula for day schools, post-secondary Jewish studies courses, and experiential/informal Jewish education will better integrate the stories of these Jewish refugees.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning Ashkenazi-majority communities have often sought to further their own history while placing the stories of minorities within the Jewish community on the back burner. This problem has been worsened by external factors, such as “traditional” depictions of Jews and what it means to “look Jewish,” which often typify an Ashkenazi stereotype that many have come to internalize.

From my understanding, this has caused Jews from outside the Ashkenazi norm to feel distanced from “the community.” By breaking off into segments, our tent becomes smaller and weaker. Our institutions fail in their stated ideal of being inviting, instead leading to further isolation.

While recognizing these shortcomings, I want to applaud various community organizations that have made significant strides in the right direction. This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in the UJA Genesis Community Leadership Accelerator. This program made a concerted effort to include speakers from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds.

As a prime example, Erez Zobary, a young educator and musician, shared with us the stories of her Yemenite Jewish heritage. Her paternal grandparents’ determination and resilience to make a better life in Israel, while remaining connected to its roots, rang of a delicate, dynamic balance. It was particularly interesting to hear her experience, having been born in Canada, of fitting into a Jewish community school where most of her friends and teachers were of Ashkenazi heritage.

Additional efforts have been undertaken by Jewish organizations to raise awareness about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This past Nov. 29, the Consulate General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, in conjunction with Sephardi Voices, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and a handful of congregations, marked Yom Plitim. They held a virtual event that featured Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. The keynote speaker, Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, herself a Jewish refugee from Iraq, went on to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offering an invaluable perspective into Arab culture and geopolitics.

B’nai Brith Canada held a similar event the next day. The organization fittingly described its webinar, in part, as an opportunity “to virtually commemorate this tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history.” To honour this history, B’nai Brith encouraged participants to contact their MP and urge the government to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, based on a motion passed by the previous Parliament. I am glad to see a range of Jewish organizations marking this important epoch.

So what else can we do?

At a time of increasing polarization, we should reach out, challenge our assumptions, and learn something new. We should question why certain stories are retold, while others are overlooked. We should amplify the voices of minorities within our own community. We should harness this moment for inclusion and understanding. Most importantly, we should undertake considerable outreach and strive for all Jews to be reflected in our community at large.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.