A Shamed Man
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Now then, it has been far too long since SNAP regular contributor Joel Ben Izzy stopped by the place. He wandered into SNAP studios recently, and he recalled for us visiting Japan for the very first time. Joel, he had performed at a Jewish community center in Tokyo when the Rabbi asked him to come help clean the Jewish graveyard. Joel, he thought about it for a while, but of course, in the end, he agreed.
JOEL BEN IZZY: So we got to the graveyard in Yokohama and set to work. The grass was overgrown. And the gravestones were dirty, and some needed dirt carved out of the letters. And it's what you do for the dead, because they can't do it themselves.
And as we were cleaning, the rabbi came up to me and said see that man over there? That's Joseph Shimkin. Go up and talk to him. I think he has a story to tell.
I went up and introduced myself. I said, are you Mr. Shimkin? He said, yeah, who are you? I said, I'm a storyteller. I'm looking for stories. A storyteller? He spoke English with a thick Yiddish accent and threw in an occasional Japanese phrase. And even the Japanese phrases had a thick Yiddish accent. (Speaking Japanese). And he said, if you're a storyteller, you tell the story of Sempo Sugihara? And I said, no, I don't know who - what this Sempo Sugihara is. He said, you should tell his story, because he saved my life.
He had my attention. He said, you know, I'm not from around here. This much I gathered. And he told me a story that went back to the late 1930s. He'd been from Poland, and he was living in Kaunas, Lithuania. And as the war approached, as Jews were being rounded up, he began to realize he was trapped. And he told me a story of going from embassy to embassy to embassy looking for visas anywhere. The United States, Australia, Great Britain - all said the same thing. We have enough Jews, no thank you.
He said, so in desperation, I went to knock on the door of the Japanese Embassy. He said, of course it was crazy. Japan was entering an alliance with Nazi Germany. There was no way they would provide safe passage. He told me about going in and seeing a kindly man sitting behind a desk. He told him his story. And the man nodded very politely and said you want a visa, but my government will not grant it, not even a transit visa to go through Japan. He said, but I will ask.
And so this man, Chiune Sempo Sugihara, wired to headquarters in Japan. And they wired back absolutely no. Mr. Sugihara looked at Mr. Shimkin a long time and finally said, and what will happen if you don't receive visas? And Mr. Shimkin said, if we don't receive visas, we will be taken off in trains and we'll be killed.
He looked at a big box in the corner of the room and said come back tomorrow. The next day, Mr. Shimkin explained, he went in and saw that Sempo Sugihara had spent the entire night writing visas by hand. In those days, visas had to be done by hand, stamped officially. And he had done 300.
And then he continued. And he continued with his wife working day and night. He didn't stop to eat for the next three weeks writing visas by hand - hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. Word of this went to the Japanese government. Outraged, they demanded he return. They pulled his credentials. And he told me that the last he had seen of Sempo Sugihara was on a train being taken back to Japan writing visas and passing them out the window.
Mr. Shimkin told me Sempo Sugihara had written 6,000 visas. And so we escaped. And we all came here to Tokyo. Some went on to the United States from Tokyo. So went on to Great Britain after the war. Some went to Australia. He said, of all those Jews who came here to Japan, I'm the last one left. He said, I like it here. It feels like home. The people are kind. And then he said to me, Mr. Storyteller, you should tell his story - the story of Sempo Sugihara.
When I got back, I did some research on Sempo Sugihara. And exactly how many visas he wrote is hard to say. Estimates range from 1,600 to 6,000. The visas were transit visas. So a single visa might serve an entire family. Because of that, it's hard to know exactly how many Jews he got out of Lithuania. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are 40,000 Jews alive today because of Sempo Sugihara's action.
What's clear though is what happened to Sugihara and his family. He was transferred to another post, then another and another and eventually stripped of diplomatic immunity. So that when the war ended, he and his family spent 21 months of forced labor in a Soviet prison camp.
When they finally did return to Japan, he was a shamed man. No more work in diplomatic corps, and he made his living any way he could. For a time, he sold light bulbs door-to-door. Later, he found work as a translator. But during his lifetime, the Japanese government never forgave him for what he did. He died in shame.
It was some years later I went back to Japan. I told stories again at the Jewish community center. And afterwards, the rabbi came up to me and I said, hey, how's Joseph Shimkin. And he smiled and said, well, two things happened last week. One was that Joseph Shimkin passed away. We buried him in that very graveyard you helped clean up. The other was, just before that, the Japanese Ministry of Education changed their official position on Sempo Sugihara. They decided his story should be told in textbooks. And now, every Japanese schoolchild will hear the story of Sempo Sugihara.
WASHINGTON: Joel Ben Izzy. Thank you, Joel, for making sure the world does not forget. Joel Ben Izzy's memoir, "The Beggar King And The Secret Of Happiness," is available right now from his website, storypage.com. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.
WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT continues, we're going to get locked up. We're going to meet pure evil, and we're going to be thankful anyway, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the Gratitude Episode continues. Stay tuned.
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