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Sugihara Saga - A Book Review

The Miracle Visas

by Yutaka Taniuchi

Gefen Publishing House

Hard Cover, 176 pages $16.95

ISBN 965229256-7

Reviewed by Carl Hofman 

By now, most of us know at least the bare outlines of the story about the man who has come to be known as "the Japanese Oskar Schindler". Chiune Sugihara was a young Japanese diplomat in the summer of 1940, embarking on a prestigious new career in his country's foreign service.

Assigned as Acting Consul of Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania, Sugihara was soon horrified by the vivid accounts of genocide told by Jews fleeing Germany and Poland. As a loyal junior functionary of Imperial Japan, which had signed the Tripartite Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy, Sugihara was at once torn between his duty as a Japanese Foreign Service officer and his humanity. 

Hero: Chiune Sugihara, ‘the Japanese Oskar Schindler’

Sugihara agonized over the choice between his official responsibilities and his conscience. He is said to have sent three secret telegrams to Tokyo, pleading for permission to assist Kaunas' beleaguered Jews. Each of his requests was denied by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, in no uncertain terms.

Thus, in defiance of strict orders from his superiors in Tokyo, Chiune Sugihara began issuing "transit visas" to Jews. A few at first, then more, until finally Jews by the hundreds began flooding into Sugihara's small office.

The young diplomat worked round the clock, issuing over 2,000 visas, to the last ounce of his energy. And when the Japanese consulate was forced to evacuate Kaunas after the Soviet takeover of Lithuania, Sugihara—with his arm reaching out from the window of his railroad car—is said to have continued to write and stamp visas for people running alongside the departing train.

Historians today estimate that Sugihara saved somewhere between six and eight thousand Jewish men, women and children, including almost the entire Mir Yeshiva.

There is little doubt that these people, along with a small number of non-Jewish Poles and Lithuanians, owe their lives to the conscience and humanity of this young "Acting Consul" from Japan.

With the impending annexation of this small Baltic country by the Soviet Union, Sugihara followed orders from Tokyo and closed the consulate at the end of August, 1940. He was subsequently posted to Prague, Koenigsberg and Bucharest for the remainder of the war.

Returning home to Japan in 1947, Sugihara was summoned to the offices of the Foreign Ministry and summarily dismissed. Stunned, he respectfully asked why, and was told his dismissal was due to disobedience and violation of orders in Kaunas, seven years before.

Chiune Sugihara spent his remaining years in obscurity until, at the urging of Jewish survivors, he was honored by the State of Israel and Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile in 1985, a year before his death.

The Miracle Visas presents us with a fictionalized account of the Sugihara saga as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish boy. Yitzhak Shalet is 11 years old when the Germans invade Poland in September 1939, ending his family's comfortable and peaceful life in Bialystok.

The family flees to Lithuania, settles briefly in Kaunas, and becomes part of the throng of desperate Jews trapped in the quickly tightening noose of the Holocaust. The Shalets, along with thousands of others, receive "transit visas" through Japan from Vice Consul Sugihara, enabling them to leave Lithuania and war-torn Europe.

The Shalets eventually find their way to Palestine and become involved in the War of Independence and the creation of the new State of Israel.

There are many books about the Holocaust. There are many fictionalized accounts, as told through the eyes of Jewish men, Jewish women, and Jewish children.

This book, however, is extraordinary in that its author is not Jewish, but Japanese. Born in Osaka in 1934, Yutaka Taniuchi began writing after graduating from Osaka City University in 1957.

Among his many works, all written in Japanese, are such titles as Three Monkeys, Late Spring, The King and the Beggar, Cloudburst, Zenkohi Temple, Everlasting Flowers, and Cherry Blossoms.

The Miracle Visas is a translation from the original Japanese. Taniuchi wrote the book as juvenile fiction, intended explicitly for a young Japanese audience.

Like the many popular novels of James Michener, The Miracle Visas is a work of very lightly-fictionalized history. Characters like Yitzhak Shalet's father, a tailor in Bialystok, launch into impromptu lectures on Jewish history, the Jewish diaspora, anti-Semitism, the gas chambers at Auschwitz, modern Zionism, and the economic structure of an Israeli kibbutz.

While this obvious urge to present a comprehensive history may not make for a particularly good novel, it does present a superb introductory overview to a young audience, to say nothing of a young Japanese audience.

But more importantly, Taniuchi's book provides an excellent account of the courage and humanity of Chiune Sugihara, and offers an excellent introduction to anyone, young or old, unfamiliar with a story that every Jew should know.

The Miracle Visas is not a new book. The original Japanese version was published in 1995, and this English translation appeared in 2001.

Now published by Gefen, this well-written and well-translated tale of heroism in the midst of the Holocaust is available to a new generation of readers, both here in Israel and abroad. 



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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