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A Great Miracle Started There

Libi Astaire

It might have been Chanukah, but in 1939 Kovno, miracles seemed in short supply. Yet it was precisely during Chanukah that the seeds for a great miracle were planted in, of all places, a Kovno gourmet food shop. Mishpacha tracked down “Zalke Gelkind,” who now uses the name Solly Ganor, at his Ramat HaSharon home. Now a wizened octogenarian Solly remembers Chanukah, 1939, when his “chance” meeting with the Japanese consul-general led to the rescue of some 6,000 Jews, including the entire Mir yeshivah.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Chanukah parties come in all shapes and sizes, but very few merit to change the course of Jewish history. One party that could qualify for such a distinction is a family get-together that occurred in Kovno, Lithuania, in December 1939. Among the participants were eleven-year-old Zalke Genkind, his Japanese “uncle,” and a Polish refugee from Warsaw.

Some six months later the Japanese “uncle,” who was actually Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul-general in Lithuania, embarked upon one of the most audacious rescue efforts during the Holocaust — a visa-signing spree that resulted in the saving of the Mir yeshivah and some six thousand Jewish lives.

What exactly happened at that Chanukah party to inspire a Japanese diplomat to save so many Jews?

With Chanukah approaching, Mishpacha traveled to Ramat HaSharon to talk with Zalke Genkind, who now goes by the name Solly Ganor, and is one of the people who have helped tell the world about the “Japanese Schindler.”

 

Chanukah Gelt

Kislev in Ramat HaSharon, especially in this year without rain, is about as different from a Lithuanian winter as it can get. The sun is shining and the Mediterranean Sea, which can be seen in the distance, is calm and blue. But for Solly Ganor, who is the author of the Holocaust memoir Light One Candle and a popular lecturer about the Holocaust, memories of Lithuania — and that famous Chanukah of 1939 — are never far away.

 “The children in our family always got Chanukah gelt from the relatives,” he begins, after explaining that although Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, the war hadn’t yet reached Lithuania. “I received quite a bit of money that year, but then two ladies came to our house and said they needed money for the Polish refugees who had fled to Kovno (then called Kaunas). I was feeling guilty about these refugees because there was a father and daughter fromPolandsleeping in my former bedroom, and I wasn’t too happy about that. So I decided to give these ladies all my Chanukah gelt to ease my guilty conscience.”

It was a noble gesture, but the young Solly soon discovered that his generosity had left him without any money to spend on entertainment during the holiday. He therefore decided to pay a visit to his aunt and ask her to replenish his empty pockets.  

 “My Aunt Anushka had a gourmet food shop where she sold fancy chocolates and other delicacies,” he continues. “Many of the diplomats stationed in Kovno would go there to shop. On the day that I went there to ask my aunt for Chanukah gelt, a very elegantly dressed Japanese man was in the shop buying chocolates for his family.

“This was the first time I had ever seen a Japanese person, and so I stared at him. My aunt told me to stop staring and come and say hello. She introduced me to the man, who was Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general. Sugihara shook my hand and then he said to me, in Russian, ‘I understand that it’s your holiday. I would also like to give you money.’

Solly didn’t know what to say. He usually got Chanukah gelt from family members, not from strangers. But when he tried to explain this to the Japanese gentleman, Sugihara replied, “Then for this holiday I’ll be your uncle.”

To show his thanks, the delighted boy invited his new “uncle” to the family’s Chanukah party. Although his aunt was aghast at his chutzpah — eleven-year-old children didn’t invite diplomats to family parties — Sugihara told Solly that he would be delighted to come, especially since he had never been to a Chanukah party before.

Not only did Sugihara come to the party, but he also brought along his wife, Yukiko, and their young children. The Japanese family looked on with interest as the Jewish family lit the menorah and sang the traditional songs. The Sugiharas also partook of the platters of food that were passed to them again and again. (Some fifty years later, when Solly and Mrs. Sugihara were reunited, she commented, “I remember your family very well to this day. I was sick the whole night from the cakes that your aunts and mother fed me.” She then explained that in Japanese society, it is considered impolite to refuse food, so she couldn’t say “no” to the repeated offers to “Ess, ess.”)  

At one point during the evening, Solly’s father asked their boarder from Poland, a Mr. Rosenblatt, to tell the gathering about what had happened in Warsaw. Rosenblatt told them that when the Germans bombed his house, his wife and his other two children were killed. He also told the gathering about how the German soldiers would go into a Jewish-owned shop and kill the people, without reason. 

“While he was telling us all this Mr. Rosenblatt started to cry, and I noticed that Sugihara was listening very carefully. I later found out from Hiroko Sugihara, one of the sons, that Sugihara was actually stationed in Kovno to gather information for the Japanese government. After all, there weren’t any Japanese nationals living inLithuaniaso the country didn’t need a consulate there. But becauseLithuaniawas situated betweenGermany, Poland, and Russia, the Japanese wanted to have a clear picture of what was going on in the area.”

A little while later, Rosenblatt asked the Japanese consul-general if it would be possible for him to get a visa toJapan.

“That’s when the seed was planted,” Solly relates with excitement. “Before this no one had thought aboutJapan!”

Although Sugihara clearly sympathized with Rosenblatt, he politely explained that he didn’t think it would be possible for him to help, either.Japan and Germany were allies in the war. How could he do something that would angerJapan’s ally?

After that evening, the Ganor and Sugihara families stayed in touch. When Sugihara discovered that Solly was an avid stamp collector, he invited Solly to come to his home every week to get the exotic stamps from Japan that had arrived in the diplomatic pouch. The Sugiharas were also becoming acquainted with other Jewish families. Slowly, Hashem was setting the stage for the next act in the story.

 

Dutch Treat

By the summer of 1940 it wasn’t just the weather that had heated up.Russiahad occupied Lithuaniain June, and the Germans were rapidly advancing. In July, the Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassy officials to leave Kovno. Most of them hurriedly packed their bags and fled. Sugihara and the acting Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, who was also sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, were the only two who stayed.  

“There were two boys from Holland who were studying at the Telshe Yeshivah,” Solly continues. [Ed. — The names of the two bochurim were Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum.] “The Germans had already occupied Holland and the Dutch ambassador had left Lithuania. The consulate was left in the hands of an engineer who was the director of the Philips Corporation, Jan Zwartendijk. He took over the embassy, but he wasn’t a diplomat. So the two boys came to him and explained that their parents were in Holland and they didn’t know what to do. Zwartendijk told them that his only advice for them, as Dutch citizens, was to go to Curacao orSuriname, islands in the Caribbean that belonged toHolland. The boys then asked, ‘How do we get there?’

It was a good question. Since it was impossible to travel though Europe, the only way to get there was to travel throughJapan, and to do so a person needed both an exit visa fromRussiaand a transit visa issued byJapan.

But even if the boys did get the necessary visas to reach Curacao, their entry wasn’t assured. One didn’t need a visa for the island, but it was up to the discretion of the island’s governor to decide who to let in — and the governor rarely let in refugees.

Zwartendijk solved the Curacao problem by engaging in a little creative editing. Instead of issuing the standard stamp that said, “No visa is necessary forCuracao. The governor has exclusive authority to issue landing permits to foreigners” — as he was supposed to do — he shortened the text to: “No visa is necessary for Curacao.”

But the boys still needed a transit visa to travel through Japan. Since they knew that the Ganor family was friendly with the Japanese consul-general, they went to Solly’s home for help.

 “My father agreed to help the two boys, and he thought maybe we would get a visa for ourselves as well. We all went to the consulate — me, my father, and Rosenblatt — with those two boys. Sugihara, who knew Zwartendijk, said, ‘That’s it. That’s the end visa that we can use.’ Then he telephoned a Russian official to make sure that the Russians would issue an exit visa.”

There was one last stumbling block. Sugihara had the stamp to issue a transit visa, but to actually issue the visa he needed permission from his bosses back inJapan. He sent a wire to the Foreign Ministry office in Tokyo requesting their approval. The reply was quick in coming:

 

CONCERNING TRANSIT VISAS REQUESTED PREVIOUSLY STOP ADVISE ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE ISSUED ANY TRAVELER NOT HOLDING FIRM END VISA WITH GUARANTEED DEPARTURE EX JAPAN STOP NO EXCEPTIONS STOP NO FURTHER INQUIRIES EXPECTED STOP

 (SIGNED) K TANAKA FOREIGN MINISTRYTOKYO

 

Despite the warning not to inquire further, Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry two more times. The second time he got the same answer. The third time Tokyo didn’t reply. Sugihara therefore found himself in a profound moral dilemma. On the one hand, discipline and obedience to authority are deeply engrained within Japanese culture. On the other hand, Sugihara came from a samurai family — the samurais were the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan — and an integral part of the samurai code of honor was to help those in need. Which part of his cultural upbringing would win?

To decide, Sugihara consulted with his wife. They discussed the immediate danger to their own safety and that of their children, as well as the probable negative future consequences to Sugihara’s career. Then they went to work.

 

Writer’s Cramp

The news that two boys from Holland had secured visas spread quickly, and refugees realized that there was a way out: the road to freedom began at the Japanese consulate. Desperate refugees crowded in front of the consulate’s gates in a race against time, hoping to get one of the precious visas before the Germans arrived. For twenty-nine days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Sugihara worked day and night writing out visas by hand. He averaged about three hundred visas a day (an amount that would normally be issued over an entire month). Yukiko brought him sandwiches, so he wouldn’t have to stop writing to eat. When his hand became fatigued, she would massage the tired muscles so that he could continue working. 

Before he was forced to close the consulate, Sugihara issued about 2,600 official transit visas. Since an entire family could travel on one visa, about 6,000 Jews succeeded in leaving Kovna.

“This is how Yeshivas Mir was able to leaveLithuania,” says Solly. “Of course, they never made it toCuracao. While the yeshivah was still inJapan, the Germans told the Japanese government that they wanted the Jews brought back toGermany. Instead, the Japanese transferred the yeshivah toShanghai.”

On September 1, Sugihara and his family boarded a train forBerlin. His parting gesture was to throw the consul visa stamp to a refugee, so that the remaining Jews could continue to write out visas.   

Although Mr. Rosenblatt and his daughter were among the refugees who were able to leave Kovno, Solly and his family weren’t so lucky.

“We almost got out,” Solly recalls somewhat wistfully. “I was at the Sugihara house in July 1940, and he said to me, ‘You can tell your father that it’s time to leave.’

“At that time we could have gone toSwedenand then on to theUnited States, because my father had a brother and sister there and we already had affidavits. But my father insisted on selling his business first, because he didn’t want to arrive in theUnited Stateswithout any money. So we waited, and then in early August the Russians annexedLithuaniainto theSoviet Union, which made our Lithuanian passports useless, and that was that. The Soviets wouldn’t let us leave.”

 

A Last Wave Good-bye

 

The last time Solly saw Sugihara was a few days before the diplomat left Kovno. “By then the situation was very chaotic,” he recalls. “People were pushing to get into the consulate. Sugihara no longer looked so regal; he wasn’t wearing a jacket and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up. When he saw me, he waved.”

When the Germans wrestled control of Kovno in 1941, the Jews were herded into a ghetto. Unlike the vast majority of Kovno’s Jews, Solly managed to survive the hardships of ghetto life. But when the Russians made a return in 1944, the Germans liquidated the ghetto and he was sent to aDachauwork camp.

AtDachauhe was assigned to work in the kitchen, a factor that helped him survive. In May of 1945, the Germans, who knew they were losing the war, forced Solly and the other prisoners to go on a death march through a nearby forest. But instead of meeting his death, Solly was liberated by the 522 Field Artillery of the United States Army, whose soldiers happened to be Japanese-Americans. “I was worried that this was a Japanese unit fighting with the German army. But then one of the soldiers — Clarence Matsumura — said to me in English. ‘You’re free!’”

When he regained some strength, Solly worked for the US Army as an interpreter. Later he moved to Eretz Yisrael and fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. His army unit, part of the English-speaking Machal unit, was the unit that liberated Meron and the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai.

Meanwhile, the Sugiharas had been experiencing hardship, poverty, and disgrace. From Kovno, the Japanese government sent them first toGermanyand then toRomania. InRomania, the Soviets refused to recognize Sugihara’s diplomatic status and the family was sent to a Soviet labor camp inSiberia. After a year they were allowed to return toJapan, but when the war ended Sugihara was fired from the Foreign Service. The Japanese Government never issued an official explanation for his dismissal, but an official in the foreign ministry told him, “You know why we are doing this, right?”

To support his family, he sold light bulbs from door to door and did some other menial work. It was only after several years of poverty and disgrace that he was able to find better work with a Japanese export company, but he had to live inMoscowwhile his family remained inJapan.     

Sugihara never publicized what he had done in Kovno, and his name might have been forgotten. But in 1984, an Israeli commercial attaché who had been saved by Sugihara arrived inTokyo. The Israeli searched for Sugihara so that he could thank him personally. The government wasn’t particularly helpful, but the Israeli was persistent, and at last he found the family. That meeting led to Sugihara being recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.      

 

Reunion

But it wasn’t the ceremony at Yad Vashem that reconnected Solly with the Sugihara family. Solly was in the United Statesat the time, and he wasn’t aware that Sugihara had been found. Instead, the “shadchan” was the Japanese-American army unit that had liberated him in 1945.     

“In 1992, members of the 522 Field Artillery were invited to Jerusalemfor a reunion with the Jews they had liberated,” Solly explains. “An announcement was put in the Jerusalem Post saying that they were looking for survivors. I decided to attend.”

Another person who saw the announcement was Sugihara’s youngest son, Nobuki, who was living inIsraelat the time. Nobuki was born after the war, and grew up during the difficult period that family experienced after his father’s dismissal. When some Israeli dignitaries visited the family inJapan, Nobuki revealed that he felt oppressed by that country’s atmosphere. One of the Israelis told him, “Don’t worry. One of the people your father saved was Zorach Wehrhaftig, who is now a minister in the Israeli government. He’ll help you.”

Wehrhaftig did help him by getting Nobuki a scholarship to study atHebrewUniversityinJerusalem. From there he went to Netanya to learn the diamond business.

“Nobuki came to the reunion, too,” Solly recalls. “And so I was reunited with both Clarence Matsumura and the Sugihara family.

“The reunion was very moving. I remember that we were all standing in the hotel lobby and crying. The other guests of the hotel were staring at us and wondering why all these Israelis and Japanese people were crying and hugging each other.”      

After the reunion Nobuki wrote to his mother, who was still living inJapan, to say that he had met Solly Ganor. She invited Solly and his wife, Pola, to come toJapan, where a park was being dedicated to the memory of Chiune Sugihara, who had passed away in 1986.  

While in Japan, Solly was approached by a Japanese publishing house that wanted to publish his memoir, Light One Candle, which is based on a diary he kept during the war. (The diary was lost when he was sent to Dachau, but he was able to reconstruct most of it after the war.) Kodansha America published the book in English in 1995, and in Japanese a year later. Yukiko Sugihara had also written a book that was published in 1995, Visas for Life. Both books were warmly received, and a few years later, Solly and Hiroko Sugihara, who was living inCalifornia, decided to join forces and do joint book tours and give joint lectures about their families’ experiences during the Holocaust. 

Hiroko Sugihara passed away in 2001 and Yukiko died in 2008, and Solly lost contact with the family’s remaining two sons — Chiaki, who lives in Japan, and Nobuki, who now lives in Belgium and still works in the diamond trade he learned in Israel. Yet his warm memories of the family remain. And he is still amazed by the series of “coincidences” that occurred during that Chanukah so long ago. 

But even while his childhood memories of Sugihara are mainly happy ones, from the perspective of an adult, Solly comments frankly. “Sugihara paid dearly for saving those Jewish lives.”

 

Recognition, At Last

So why did he do it?

When asked, Sugihara would give two answers. One, which came from his deep religious faith, was: “I had to obey either my government or my God, and I chose to obey my God.”

The other reason, an old Japanese proverb, came from his samurai heritage: Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that flies to him for refuge.

On Yom Kippur of the year 2000, the Japanese government finally recognized Chiune Sugihara and the principles he stood for. In a special ceremony, Japan’s foreign minister formally apologized to Yukiko Sugihara, on behalf of Japan, for not recognizing sooner Sugihara’s efforts to save thousands of Jewish lives. Mrs. Sugihara accepted the apology on behalf of her deceased husband.

 (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 336)

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