Hundreds gather at Beth El event to honor WWII Japanese diplomat

Arthur Swislocki did not realize the true impact of Chiune Sugihara on his life until he saw an exhibit on the World War II-era Japanese diplomat at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., two years ago.

"It really came into focus there exactly what had happened," said the El Cerrito resident. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here."

Swislocki's parents and his 4-year-old brother were among more than 6,000 Jews Sugihara helped save from the Holocaust. As consul general to Lithuania in 1940, Sugihara issued them and the others Japanese visas, against orders, so they could escape.

Swislocki was one of several hundred people to attend a celebration of Sugihara's life Saturday night at Berkeley Congregation Beth El. The Reform congregation joined the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco to help spread the story of the little-known diplomat who risked his family and career to save lives. Fired when he returned to Japan but honored by Israel as a Righteous Gentile, Sugihara died in 1986 at age 86.

Bay Area Jews and Japanese, including Japanese Consul General Shigeru Nakamura, braved the rain to attend the packed event. The crowd stood in half-hour lines to sample Jewish and Japanese foods, perused a photo exhibit on Sugihara's life and watched a lengthy documentary on the diplomat that left one 8-year-old child in tears, deeply saddened by images of the Holocaust.

Beth El Rabbi Ferenc Raj, a Hungarian who escaped the Holocaust thanks to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, said the event was part of an important effort to cast the spotlight on Sugihara.

"Many people are familiar with [Oskar] Schindler and Wallenberg, but somehow Sugihara is unknown," he said.

The celebration had its roots in Raj's annual Rosh Hashanah sermon. As he does every year, the rabbi picked a theme for his talk, settling this time on a biblical directive from Deuteronomy commanding, "You must not hide yourself" or "You must not remain indifferent," depending on the translation.

"The perfect symbol is Sugihara," said Raj. "Here is a man who could have ignored the plight of others, but he just couldn't."

Instead, the diplomat defied Tokyo's orders and spent 16 hours a day issuing visas in the summer of 1940, until the Soviet government, which occupied Lithuania, demanded in late August that all remaining embassies in the country close up shop. Sugihara, during his last night in the city of Kaunas, issued visas from a hotel room, and the next morning he signed documents at the train station before leaving town.

Today, there are more than 40,000 descendants of the Jews Sugihara helped to save. Among them are the children and grandchildren of Lydia Milrod, whose husband, Jerry, was among those Sugihara rescued.

"I wouldn't have met my husband" if it weren't for Sugihara, said Milrod, who attended Saturday's event. "I wouldn't have had my three children and grandchildren."

Sugihara survivors, including Rabbi Samuel Graudenz of San Francisco, are among the voices featured in "Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness," a documentary funded by Japan's Dentsu Corp. and shown at the event.

The 102-minute film chronicles Sugihara's life, from his childhood in rural Japan to his diplomatic career and his controversial dismissal after the war. The Japanese government maintains it asked Sugihara to step down as part of a post-war downsizing of the diplomatic corps, while his family contends that the government pushed him out for defying Tokyo's orders and issuing visas.

Anne Akabori, chairperson of the Visas for Life Foundation, a 5-year-old nonprofit educational institute focused on the Sugihara story, worked with the late diplomat's son to get the film made.

"After 'Schindler's List' came out, there was a new interest among survivors about rescuers," she said. "We couldn't afford a feature film so we said, let's make a documentary film."

Akabori said the film might air on public television later this year.

In a speech at Beth El, Akabori said learning about Sugihara was like an "epiphany" for her as a Japanese-American who felt guilt about Japan's role in World War II.

"I became very proud of what Chiune Sugihara had done," she said.

Nakamura, the Japanese consul general in San Francisco, said Sugihara had taught him an important lesson about diplomacy. "Sometimes one has to choose a course of action based on one's belief in justice and humanity," he said.

And Nakamura said the late diplomat's story contains a lesson for everyone: "One person…can change the world."