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Saving Jewish Refugees in WWII

Aki Shibuya

Aug. 31, 2016

Chiune Sugihara is remembered for saving the lives of many Jewish people during World War 2 -- but he had some crucial help a little-known Japanese scholar.

In 1940, Sugihara was working at a consulate in Lithuania. At the time, Nazi persecution of the Jews had already begun. During the ensuing Holocaust, a large number of Jewish refugees from Poland and elsewhere flooded the Japanese consulate.

The government of Japan was on the verge of entering into an alliance with Nazi Germany. Despite the sentiment in his home country, Sugihara issued transit visas in order to save as many lives as possible. But those short-term visas were not enough -- the refugees needed more help.

After being issued the visas, the refugees traveled on the Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in eastern Russia and boarded ships to Japan.

But their transit visas allowed them to stay in Japan for only about 10 days -- not long enough for them to plan their path to safety -- so Setsuzo Kotsuji stepped in to help. Without him, they could have been deported to areas controlled by Nazi Germany.

Many Jewish refugees with Sugihara's visas arrived in Kobe. Back then, the area was filled with foreign residents and much of it was destroyed during World War Two. But you can still see evidence of their influence in the city.

Immigrants began living in Kobe around the mid-19th century. Jewish residents formed their own community there, and that's where the refugees met Kotsuji.

Oomi Yamamori, 79, is a priest at a local Shinto shrine and he took us to a place where the Jews used to gather. But Yamamori says he doesn't know much about Kotsuji.

"My memories are vague. My father would have been able to tell you more if he were still alive," he says.

The Kobe municipal government recently began collecting documents about Kotsuji.

"A man named Setsuzo Kotsuji urged the Japanese government to extend the period of stay for the refugees," says Kobe city official Yasuhiro Hasegawa.

To find out more about him I visited the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Archives in Tokyo, and found out that Kotsuji was a Hebrew scholar. Having studied the Torah and Hebrew in the United States, he was one of the few Japanese who were well-versed in Jewish culture.

The former head of the Diplomatic Archives, Kunio Ishida, says Japan clamped down on free speech at the time and many Japanese refrained from speaking out about foreign policies.

"Japan was spared from getting involved in Nazi policies, and that was very significant," Ishida says. "Because of it, Kotsuji was able to save hundreds or thousands of Jewish refugees from becoming victimized."

Ishida introduced us to a researcher who has studied Kotsuji for more than 10 years. Jundai Yamada first encountered Kotsuji's name in the United States.

"I was so impressed and proud of Kotsuji -- the way he risked his life for others," Yamada says.

Yamada gathered materials related to Kotsuji from Jewish communities in the US. In the process, he came across a recording of Kotsuji's voice that was recorded after the war and described his activities.

"The Jews came to me, asking for help. I couldn't refuse, because I was familiar with their culture and thought that was the right thing to do," Kotsuji says on the recording.

"Kotsuji was probably the only person in Japan at the time who was fluent in Hebrew and had a deep understanding of the Jewish people," Yamada says.

Yamada showed us a letter Kobe's Jewish Community sent to Kotsuji.

"Thousands of Jewish refugees are travelling through Japan on the way to their next destination," it said. "We are aware of your interest in the Jewish community, and would like your support."

Kotsuji repeatedly visited the Foreign Ministry and municipalities in Kobe, and received permission to extend the refugees' stays in Japan.

When Jewish refugees got into trouble, he worked as a mediator between them and the Japanese military or police, offering translation and other services. Kotsuji also helped nearly all of the Jewish refugees leave Japan for their final destination.

"Chiune Sugihara issued visas to 6,000 people, and helped them flee to Japan. But without Setsuzo Kotsuji, I don't think the Jewish people would have survived," Yamada says.

But Kotsuji's efforts put him in a difficult situation. As World War 2 progressed, Japan's alliance with Germany became critically important. A document in the Diplomatic Archives describes Japan's policies toward Jewish people. It shows the harsh conditions they faced, including restrictions on their visits.

Kotsuji published a book on Jewish culture in hopes of getting the Japanese to open up to them, but that brought him unwanted attention.

"Military police and special police which checked people's thoughts followed me around all the time. I think I had always been watched," Kotsuji also says on the recording.

He escaped to Manchuria, and stayed there until Japan lost the war.

Yamada showed us a photo taken when Kotsuji visited Israel after the war. It shows him reuniting with the Jews he had helped.

"I heard the people Kotsuji helped were really delighted to see him in Israel. The reunion was a truly joyful experience for them," Yamada says.

Yamada says some of the people in the photo are still alive and we were able to get in touch with one of them. Rivka Ezrahi arrived in Kobe when she was 5 years old.

Ezrahi recalls what her father said about him.

"The refugees made contact with Kotsuji and he helped," she says. "He all the time was working on it, and going back and forth to the government, somehow, to the offices. And they extended the visas. We had visas for 2 weeks and we were in Japan nearly half a year."

Ezrahi met Kotsuji when he visited Israel after the war.

"That I remember, 1959, I was over 20 years old. Of course I remember. I remember the party in the Yeshiva," Ezrahi says. "He was very, very nice person, a very humble person. He didn’t make any fuss about himself, nothing. The fuss was made by the party, the people making the party. But he wasn’t. He was a very nice person. He had a wonderful character."

Kotsuji died in 1973 and was buried in Israel, according to his wishes. He is not well-known in Japan but he is widely remembered in Israel and many people pray on the anniversary of his death.

By taking over the path paved by Sugihara, Kotsuji helped save thousands of lives. It's said that 6,000 Jews were helped by the efforts of Kotsuji and Sughihara, and their descendants are believed to total more than 40,000.

We later found out that Kotsuji's daughters still live in Japan. I was able to meet them. They told me that they are proud of their father.