'Japan's Schindler' immortalized in film for helping thousands of Jews flee
Actor Toshiaki Karasawa plays the role of Chiune Sugihara in the movie “Persona Non Grata." (Provided by Toho Co.)
The Asahi Shimbun December 07, 2015 By SUSUMU SAKAMOTO/ Staff Writer
Director Cellin Gluck hopes his film on Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986), a Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of European Jews escape Nazi persecution during World War II, delivers a message on the plight of refugees today.
Starring popular actor Toshiaki Karasawa as Sugihara, “Persona Non Grata” hit Japanese theaters on Dec. 5 following a world premiere in Lithuania.
“All of us living today can learn much from Chiune, including dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis,” the 57-year-old director said.
The historical epic tells the story of Sugihara, a deputy consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who issued “Visas for Life” in 1940 to allow Jews to pass through Japan and flee abroad to escape the Holocaust raging through Nazi-occupied Europe. Sugihara is known as "Japan's Schindler" for the similarity of his actions to Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), a German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews he employed in his factories during the Holocaust.
The film was produced to commemorate 70 years since the end of the war and was shot primarily in Poland last autumn.
Crowds of Jewish refugees in front of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania during World War II (Provided by NPO Chiune Sugihara Visas for Life)
The movie mainly revolves around the story behind Sugihara and his visas, but also depicts him as an intelligence officer, a side that has rarely been explored in the past.
Sugihara kept issuing visas without obtaining permission from the Foreign Ministry back in Japan. Although the list of people he issued visas to only contains the name of 2,139 people, he is believed to have saved the lives of about 6,000 Jews in total, including many children.
Gluck has a Jewish-American father and a Japanese-American mother and spent his adolescence in Kobe.
“Chiune looked directly into the eyes of reality and expressed what he thought was just through his actions,” he said.
The director believes Japan can learn much from the diplomat’s actions, including assisting on the Syrian refugee crisis.
“Japan must face the issue more directly as a member of the international community,” Gluck said.
Berl Schor, an 88-year-old Israeli resident of Polish origin, was one of those saved by the diplomat’s transit visa. He remains in touch with Sugihara's granddaughter and other members of his family.
"I watched the trailer of the film, and I remembered a crowd (of Jews) waiting in front of the Japanese consulate," Schor said. "It was just like the scene."
Just 13 years old at the time, Schor fled to Kaunas with his family to escape Nazi persecution and arrived in Japan through the Soviet Union in 1941. He still has fond memories of the six months or so he spent in Kobe.
"I don’t remember how, but I acquired a Japanese friend," Schor said. "He only spoke Japanese and I didn’t, but we managed to understand each other.
"Life in Japan was very pleasant. The country was beautiful, and the people were polite.”
Schor now has four children and 11 grandchildren, but he fears they may never have been born had Sugihara not granted his family the visas.
"If my family had stayed in Lithuania, we might have been killed. Mr. Sugihara saved our lives," he said. "My kids and grandchildren wouldn’t exist without him. I want the Japanese people to know how Mr. Sugihara’s brave decision has saved so many people."
Documents regarding such visas are currently being applied for registration in UNESCO's Memory of the World Program. A decision on their acceptance will be made in 2017.
The Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, located in the diplomat’s hometown of Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture, has the actual visas preserved and replicated them for exhibit.