SHELLY FABIAN and MARLENE EISNER
When Aya Takahashi was 13 and living in Osaka, Japan, she read The Diary of Anne Frank, but could not comprehend why Anne, a girl almost the same age as herself, had to hide in an attic, and why so many Jewish people in Europe had to die. These questions led the young Japanese girl to become a Holocaust bookworm.
It drove her to learn everything she could about this horrific event while studying at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo, and further motivated her to travel to Europe and Israel to visit museums dedicated to the Holocaust.
Now living in Canada, Takahashi has donated to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) a documentary she produced. It is a compilation of Canadian family tributes to the late Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who was credited with saving about 6,000 Jewish lives during World War II.
“I made this film to pay tribute to Chiune Sugihara and in respect of all the Jewish people who perished because of the Holocaust,” Takahashi told MHMC executive director Alice Herscovitch upon presenting the film. “My personal motivation in producing this documentary was to contribute to a world of peace, without prejudice and violence, and with a sense of family unity.”
Following the private presentation, Takahashi spent several hours touring the Holocaust Centre, including a display about Sugihara and several other righteous individuals.
Takahashi came to Canada in 1998 to learn English and pursue her communications career in the medical field. She decided to stay and soon became a landed immigrant.
“When I read Anne Frank’s book, it was the first time I learned about the Holocaust,” Takahashi said, “except the term Holocaust was not widely used nor taught in Japan at that time. Today, Japanese students have opportunities to hear about and study the Holocaust, which includes the heroic story of Sugihara.”
While Sugihara is often referred to as the “Japanese Schindler,” Takahashi objects to that designation. “He was a diplomat who took great risks to help people survive during a chaotic time,” says Takahashi.
When war broke out, Sugihara was the vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania. He was one of several diplomats to receive requests by Jews for transit visas to safety. Against his government’s authorization, he signed approximately 2,000 visas, which led to about 6,000 lives saved. In a private agreement, the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, assigned final destination visas to the Dutch West Indies (today Curaçao), but none of the escapees actually ended up there.
Instead, they managed to take refuge in Palestine, Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States. After the war, Sugihara was dishonourably discharged from the Japanese diplomatic service for disobeying orders. He died in 1986 shortly after being declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Only a handful of visa recipients ever managed to contact him before his death.
The impetus to produce the documentary about Sugihara began when Takahashi read the memoir I Have My Mother’s Eyes, by Vancouverite Barbara Bluman, whose parents were Sugihara visa recipients.
Takahashi donated Bluman’s book to the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Japan. She was then asked to collect messages from the Vancouver Sugihara visa recipients and their descendants, for the memorial hall.
Coincidentally, a month later, at the screening of a Japanese film about Sugihara in Vancouver, Takahashi met Bluman’s brother, George Bluman, a UBC math professor. She told Bluman, who knew other descendants, about the Sugihara Hall’s request for messages.
With the help of videographer Setsuko Hattori, Takahashi produced the film about seven Vancouver families. “If they had not stepped up to tell their stories, this film would never have been achieved,” Takahashi said.
While in Montreal, Takahashi conducted interviews with numerous local families associated with Sugihara’s actions, including Rita Markland, whose former husband, Sosha Wolanski, received a Sugihara visa and fled to India before coming to Canada. Markland’s name was discovered through the Montreal Holocaust Centre.
The journalist also discovered Therese Romer living in Montreal, whose father, Tadeusz Romer, was the Polish ambassador to Japan between 1937 and 1941. Therese was 15 years old when the Jews were seeking Polish documents necessary to obtain destination visas.
“The refugees escaped in such a hurry without any identification,” she said. “My father and his staff were able to provide birth certificates, passports and proof of education and/or military service so that they could then apply for Canadian and other destination visas. He didn’t distinguish between Jew and non-Jew. If you were Polish, you were Polish and had a right to your identity.”
Suffering great hardships, the refugees had to travel via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, then by boat in rough seas to Tsuruga, Japan.
Takahashi has made it her mission to meticulously research and write about these Canadians. “The Japanese people do not see the Jewish people as different from any other Caucasians,” she explained. “The Jewish refugees received many acts of kindness throughout their stay in Japan, like a simple act of offering apples as they alighted from the boats arriving from Vladivostok.”
Back at the Holocaust Museum, Herscovitch acknowledged that “it is important to get these survival messages out there because it may result in more descendants speaking out about their parents’ triumphant escapes from the Nazis.”
Shelly Fabian is a freelance journalist, writer and public relations consultant whose father received a transit visa from Chiune Sugihara. Marlene Eisner is a Montreal-born journalist and editor. She now lives in Toronto.