UNITED BY COMPASSION: Film premiere leads to historic meeting of descendants tied to heroic Japanese diplomat

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. photo courtesy of Visas For Life Foundation

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. photo courtesy of Visas For Life Foundation

At the dawn of World War II, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania at the time, saved thousands of lives by going against his country’s wishes to issue transit visas to Jewish refugees trying to escape Lithuania. Descendants of three families of those survivors met Madoka Sugihara, the storied diplomat’s granddaughter, and Keisuke Sugihara, his great-grandson, during the San Francisco premiere of “Persona Non Grata,” a historical drama depicting Sugihara’s efforts to save some 6,000 Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

According to the 2005 PBS documentary, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” Chiune Sugihara was posted to Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939 to set up a consulate for Japan, primarily to help monitor German and Russian troop movements near the border. He is most remembered for helping to save some 6,000 Jewish refugees, many originating from Poland, who were fleeing east to escape the Nazi invasion.

The Jewish refugees relied on a loophole that those traveling to the Dutch colony of Curacao did not need an entry visa. Sugihara, in turn, issued transit visas, documents that would allow travelers safe passage to Japan before heading to their final destination. Sugihara issued these visas even though most recipients lacked the financial means to make the trip, and some even lacked passports according to the documentary.

For his actions, Sugihara was summarily fired from the foreign service after he returned to Japan and lived in relative poverty for the remainder of his life.

Director Cellin Gluck’s “Persona Non Grata” was released in 2015 to Japanese theaters. The film was a box-office hit, second only to “Spectre,” the new James Bond film, and garnered more than one million viewers, according to the director. However, for Los Angeles-based Gluck, who is of Japanese and Jewish descent, his favorite screenings of his film are when they are taken outside of Japan where family of survivors come to attend.

“The best part about being able to travel with the film is be able to share it with audiences around the world,” he said. He said the film received a five-minute standing ovation when it was shown in Kaunas. “I think the best part about seeing the film with audiences outside of Japan is that I get to meet the descendants of survivors, people that have a personal connection with Sugihara … To me, that’s the best part about it.”

A BRIEFCASE OF MEMORIES ­— At a press event Sept. 9 Debby Graudenz, daughter of Sugihara visa recipient Samuel Graudenz, brought her family’s cherished “Sugihara briefcase” (above), which included historical documents such as her father’s actual Sugihara visa (above left). photo by William Lee

A BRIEFCASE OF MEMORIES ­— At a press event Sept. 9 Debby Graudenz, daughter of Sugihara visa recipient Samuel Graudenz, brought her family’s cherished “Sugihara briefcase” (above), which included historical documents such as her father’s actual Sugihara visa (above left). photo by William Lee

Meeting of Descendants
Three such families attended the Sept. 10 benefit screening of the film presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Debby Graudenz met Madoka and Keisuke Sugihara for the first time Oct. 9 prior to the film’s screening at a press conference held by the Nichi Bei Foundation. Her father, Rabbi Samuel Graudenz, cherished the visa he received and kept it, along with all of his travel documents from his flight, in what Graudenz’s family dubbed the “Sugihara briefcase.”

Graudenz said her father cherished the briefcase and told his four children stories of how he escaped the holocaust from an early age.

“We had an earthquake when we lived in Seattle when I was young. It was a rather large earthquake,” she told Madoka Sugihara. “My parents told us, ‘if that happens again, you be safe, but make sure somebody gets the Sugihara briefcase.’ That’s how important his memories of what your grandfather did for him.”

Graudenz said she herself would not have been born if Sugihara had not saved her father.

“I have chills running up and down my spine every time I think I’m meeting his granddaughter and great-grandson,” she said.

Sugihara said she knew of Graudenz’s father through “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” which interviewed both him and Madoka Sugihara, but was surprised to learn of and meet his daughter. She said the briefcase and its contents were a “testament to life” for the family. “I was shown the visa, which I saw she really cherished. As Debby and I looked at the paper my grandfather had written for Debby’s father in that semibasement office in Lithuania, I felt we shared a mysterious connection in our lives,” she wrote in Japanese in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Sugihara said Graudenz’s briefcase is especially rare, as the only other time she had seen such a collection of documents was when she visited the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. “It was the first time meeting an individual who kept all these documents,” she said.

The following day, Sugihara met four more descendants of visa recipients during the film screenings in Japantown.

Schirley Zisman said her father, Berek Winter, left his birth country of Poland in September 1939. He received a visa from Sugihara and traveled to Kobe, Japan and then to Shanghai. He eventually came to San Francisco where he worked as a leather jacket cutter and later purchased the business in 1955.

“My father was a survivor in every respect,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “He was able to take risks in his life that seemed to work out for him. He cared very much for his family.”

She said her father did not often speak about his past, but he did tell her of Sugihara. “He felt this was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.

Zisman said she was proud to be a descendant of a visa recipient and said her meeting with Madoka Sugihara was an emotional experience. “To think of my father as one of the refugees standing at the gate of the Japanese (consulate) filled my heart with pride and sadness at the same time,” she said.

Sugihara said Zisman shared what she knew of her father’s story and that Winter, upon receiving the visa, copied it and gave it to other people. Sugihara corroborated the story, saying the Tsuruga City Port in Fukui Prefecture did encounter people entering Japan with fake visas.

At a press event Sept. 9 Debby Graudenz, daughter of Sugihara visa recipient Samuel Graudenz, brought her family’s cherished “Sugihara briefcase,” which included historical documents such as her father’s actual Sugihara visa (above left). photo by William Lee

At a press event Sept. 9 Debby Graudenz, daughter of Sugihara visa recipient Samuel Graudenz, brought her family’s cherished “Sugihara briefcase,” which included historical documents such as her father’s actual Sugihara visa. photo by William Lee

While Graudenz and Zisman were located by the San Francisco-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center, Michele B. Kerr learned about the screening by chance, saying she saw a news segment about the film screening the night before. She attended the morning screening with her daughter Danielle, a screening that was added after two screenings sold out. Kerr said her grandfather, who obtained the visas, had passed away when she was 4 years old, but she learned the story from her mother.

“I knew about Sugihara and regarded him as a hero from a very early age,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I can’t tell you enough how moving it was for me to meet Madoka. I had no idea that I would have the opportunity of meeting Sugihara’s granddaughter that morning. I was so happy to actually meet a relative of the great Sugihara. I had to hold back my tears when I was introduced to her after the screening.”

Kerr’s mother, Jadzia Liwer, and grandparents, Avram and Chava Liwer, were from Bedzin, Poland, a small town near the German border. While they had fled from the Nazi invasion, Kerr’s grandfather was blacklisted by the Soviet Union as a bourgeois and a Zionist leader, according to Kerr. Her mother and grandmother were arrested and sent to Siberia while her grandfather fled to Lithuania where he obtained two transit visas, one for himself and another for his wife.

“While other refugees travelled onward to Japan, my grandfather got off the train in Russia, and somehow used these transport visas to obtain releases for my mother and grandmother,” she said. “It was never told to me how he did this.”

“Each family had a unique story worthy of being novelized,” Sugihara said. “I am also surprised to have been able to locate all three families on the ‘Sugihara List.’ It’s rare to find survivors in the first place, so I thought this was a particularly rare occasion.”

According to Sugihara, the “Sugihara List,” the official list of visa recipients kept at the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, contains some 2,000 people, but the number of people saved, in reality, was far more.

SUGIHARA FILM BRINGS DESCENDANTS TOGETHER ­— The Sept. 10 San Francisco premiere of “Persona Non Grata” by director Cellin Gluck brought together descendants of both Chiune Sugihara  and the Jewish refugees he saved. ABOVE: Cellin Gluck, Debby Graudenz and Madoka Sugihara.

SUGIHARA FILM BRINGS DESCENDANTS TOGETHER ­— The Sept. 10 San Francisco premiere of “Persona Non Grata” by director Cellin Gluck brought together descendants of both Chiune Sugihara and the Jewish refugees he saved. Gluck, Debby Graudenz and Madoka Sugihara.

Sugihara said she found Graudenz’s, Zisman’s and Kerr’s relatives on the list.

“I pray that the families of those I met continue to lead happy lives,”  said Sugihara, whose father Hiroki Sugihara dedicated his latter years to bringing out the story of his father’s heroic act of compassion. “I knew that my grandparents often wondered ‘how are those people doing now,’ after returning to Japan after the war. My grandfather also promised many

Jewish people in Lithuania, ‘I will see you again some day.’ Nothing brings our family any greater joy than to reunite with those people after so much time has passed.”

“Every family has a story. The fact that there are so many families today still around to tell that story, the reason they are able to tell that story is because of people like (Chiune Sugihara), who saved them. Being in the presence of greatness, to me, makes me very emotional,” said Dr. Andy David, consul general of Israel in the Pacific Northwest. “That story has to be continued to be told.”

Sugihara, filmmaker Gluck and David said Sugihara’s story is taught in schools around the world. In Israel he is taught among the other recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations and in Lithuania he is part of the middle school history curriculum. In Japan, Sugihara is taught in elementary school ethics classes and students read about him in an English reader in high school.

Those Sugihara has touched the most, however, are the descendants of survivors.

Gluck said there is no formal count of descendants of survivors, saying the official estimate is 40,000, but he supposes the number could be as high as 100,000.

While Gluck’s film does not yet have distribution rights in the United States, the film will be screened at several film festivals in the coming months. The film will screen sometime during the Seattle Polish Film Festival Oct. 14-23, the Polish Film Festival Los Angeles Oct. 16, the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis Oct. 21-26, the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival Nov. 21 and at the United Nations in New York on Jan. 25, 2017.

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