Kinue Tokudome

The Enduring Legacies of Wallenberg and Sugihara

Presenting my book on Raoul Wallenberg to Mr. Yair Lapid. (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)
Presenting my book on Raoul Wallenberg to Mr. Yair Lapid. (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

When my daughter and I arrived in Israel in March this year, tens of thousands of protesters against Judicial reform were taking to the streets. At a time of national crisis, we only had one day’s notice when my friend Eli Garshowitz confirmed that we could meet with former Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

My request for the meeting with Mr. Lapid was to present him with a book on Raoul Wallenberg, which I had co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in 2002. Our children’s book was written in Japanese and English about this Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II but later died in a Soviet prison.

I knew the story was personally significant to Mr. Lapid as Wallenberg saved his father and grandmother. I learned it when I read Mr. Lapid’s book, Memories After My Death: The Stories of My Father Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, which he wrote in the first person as his father, a prominent journalist and Justice Minister of Israel.

The following passage made me decide that I would have to present Mr. Lapid our book. It took place after his grandmother was taken away by the Nazis.

Then suddenly, toward nightfall, Mother returned. “He rescued us,” she said. She did not say who this “he” was and there was no need to. There was only one “he” in Budapest at that time: Raoul Wallenberg.

Our book described an almost identical scene. During our meeting, I shared the book’s foreword written by the late US Congressman Tom Lantos, a lifelong friend of Mr. Tommy Lapid’s who was also saved by Wallenberg, and Mrs. Lantos. They wrote, “Our daughters and grandchildren are a living legacy to Wallenberg’s caring and heroism.”

Mr. Lapid thanked me for the book and said, “This story is universal and timeless.” I sensed that he knew that he was a living legacy of Wallenberg.

Getting to Know the Israeli People

Over the years, I have visited Israel seven times, meeting and interviewing people, publishing articles about them in Japan, and making new friends each time. These visits allowed me to learn about the Israeli people firsthand and understand their challenges and values. My most recent visit with Mr. Lapid made me reflect on the Jewish value of “life” and how their values are passed down from generation to generation, especially among children and grandchildren of those saved by Righteous Gentiles.

Beit Daniella: Another Legacy

During this trip, I met another person whose family, I would later learn, was saved by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of life-saving visas to Jewish people when he was posted in Lithuania during WWII.  It was Dr. Hadassa Jakobovits Pardes, the founder of Beit Daniella.  But for her family, the usually uplifting episode of Sugihara’s rescue had a very different ending.

Initially, we went to Beit Daniella to meet Ms. Beatie Deutsch, Israel’s famous orthodox marathon runner with five children. My friend, Danny Hakim, the founder of Budo for Peace, encouraged us to meet Beatie. She had just participated in the Tokyo Marathon a few weeks earlier, and Danny accompanied her to Japan to cheer her on. The Israeli Ambassador Gilad Cohen and the US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel joined Beatie for a practice run.

Beit Daniella was in the beautiful hills of Tsur Hadassah, with pastures and stables. Originally a mathematician with a Ph.D., Hadassa worked at NATO headquarters in Brussels and moved to Israel in 2009 to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in Israel. Her daughter Daniella was named in memory of her uncle, Mr. Daniel Lewin, who was the first victim of the 9-11 terrorist attacks while trying to subdue terrorists on board American Airlines Flight 11. He was 31 years old and was a pioneer researcher of the Internet.

Tragedy struck in 2017. Daniella, who suffered from anorexia, took her life at 14 after being discharged from a three-month hospital stay.

Daniella. (Photo from the website of Beit Daniella)

When Daniella was discharged from the hospital, Hadassa looked for a program that would have allowed Daniella time to prepare for reintegration into an environment where she would feel safe, but she could not find one. Hadassa channeled her grief over the loss of her daughter and decided to offer such a program for young people and their families who faced similar difficulties. Ms. Sarah Malka Eisen, her longtime friend, joined her, leaving behind a successful marketing career.

Hadassa and Sarah. (photo courtesy of Dr. Hadassa Jakobovits Pardes)

Daniella, who had difficulty taking care of herself, was able to spend time with her therapy dogs and lovingly care for them. So, Beit Daniella’s main program is animal therapy with dogs, horses, and other animals.

In just over five years, the program has grown into a thriving organization with partnerships with several area hospitals, clinical psychologists, social workers, and other professionals. Many volunteers also help the program.

I learned that Beatie was Daniella’s cousin. She supports Beit Daniella by raising money and empowering young girls through running.

At Beit Daniella. (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

Hadassa’s Grandfather Was a POW of the Japanese

I was deeply moved by Hadassa’s decision to start this organization while she went through the sorrow of losing her daughter. But I was not prepared to hear what she said next. As we walked through the facility, Hadassa mentioned, “My grandfather was a rabbi from the Netherlands and was captured by the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies.” Having just met me, she had no way of knowing that I had been working with former POWs of the Japanese for over 16 years.

What are the chances? I wondered.

Escaping Lithuania with A Sugihara Visa

After returning home to the US, I contacted Hadassa to ask more about her grandfather’s experience as a POW. She kindly sent me a copy of her grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Nussbaum’s memoir, “Chaplain on the River Kwai.” In that book, I discovered a startling new fact about her family. Rabbi Nussbaum, his wife, and their two young children (Hadassa’s uncle and mother) traveled from Lithuania to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in September 1940.

I immediately knew that a Sugihara visa must have saved them. When I asked Hadassa, she confirmed that they had indeed escaped with a permit issued by the acting Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk and a visa issued by Consul Chiune Sugihara. She then sent me a description (with a photo of young Rabbi Nussbaum) of how the family escaped from Lithuania compiled by Hadassa’s aunt in later years.

My Previous Ties to the Sugihara Story

Over 30 years ago, I learned about the Sugihara visa story and shared it with Mr. Leo Melamed, Chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He had not known the name of Sugihara but realized from his family experiences that it must have been Mr. Sugihara his father received a visa from. He asked me to help him write a letter to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, to express his deep gratitude. In 1995, I met Mrs. Yukiko Sugihara myself at an event at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

With Mr. Leo Melamed and with Mrs. Yukiko Sugihara. (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

Mr. Melamed later served as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. He was instrumental in realizing the “Flight and Rescue” exhibit in 2000, which told the story of Consul Jan Zwartendijk and Consul Sugihara’s humanitarian acts. At Mr. Melamed’s invitation, I attended the moving opening ceremony, where Mrs. Sugihara was honored by attendees.

My Previous Work with the American POWs of the Japanese

For years, I supported and worked with former American POWs of the Japanese as they sought an apology from the Japanese government and corporations for the cruel treatment they were subjected to during WWII. Of some 27,000 American POWs of the Japanese, 40% died.

Through our joint efforts, they received an apology from the Japanese government and one of the companies that enslaved them, although it took more than 65 years since WWII ended.

As I worked with former American POWs, I also learned about the suffering of Dutch POWs. According to the Foundation of Japanese Honorary Debts, an organization of Dutch victims of the Japanese military, approximately 300,000 Dutch were living in the Dutch East Indies when Japan invaded there in 1942. Some 40,000 were taken prisoner, and 80,000 civilians were interned. In the end, 45,000 Dutch died because of the atrocities committed by Japan.

Rabbi Nussbaum’s POW Experience

I have read countless accounts written by former POWs of the Japanese and heard so many experiences firsthand.

And yet, Rabbi Nussbaum’s book was different from any of them. He described the days of the construction of the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, on which some 60,000 British, Dutch, Australian, and other Allied POWs and an untold number of Asian laborers were forced to work. Of those, 12,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian laborers perished.

Rabbi Chaim Nussbaum after the liberation and his memoir. (Photos from “Chaplain on the River Kwai”)

Remarkably, Rabbi Nussbaum tells very little of his personal ordeal in his book. Instead, he describes his desperate efforts as a Jewish chaplain to help Jewish POWs spiritually. The last sentence of the letter entrusted to him by a dying POW succinctly describes Rabbi Nussbaum’s POW experience.

“Don’t ever reveal to my wife and children, whom I now love more than ever, the sad ending of my life.”

Historical Context of Sugihara’s Deeds

When I first learned of the Sugihara story in 1991, not many people knew about his humanitarian acts. Today, he is honored widely, and the Japanese government actively promotes his legacy.

But as with all history, the story of Sugihara does not exist in a vacuum. The same Japan that produced a man like Sugihara also committed atrocities and enslaved tens of thousands of Allied POWs and Asian laborers.

When I asked how Hadassa reconciles these two vastly different experiences with Japanese people, she responded, “Sugihara was recognized by Yad Vashem as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, and we are forever grateful for Sugihara’s act of kindness and courage. Our gratitude is by no means diminished by events that took place later.”

She also shared her cousin’s response, “There is no need to reconcile the two facts. One Japanese man is attributed with saving lives while another cruelly ends lives. Each one is responsible and held accountable for his choices and deeds. I never heard my mother or grandparents speak disparagingly of Japanese people. They used words like ‘heartless’ when describing incidences and the harsh conditions inside the POW camps, but they never used negative words to characterize Japanese people as a whole. We are not a nation of hatred.”

As Hadassa and her cousin have done, I hope that the Japanese people can hold those two facts in their minds, separately but honestly. And although Hadassa was very sincere when she said that her family was forever grateful to Sugihara, I could not forget that she also said, “The trauma that my mother and her siblings experienced in their childhood formed their characters. There is no doubt in my mind that my mother’s childhood trauma changed our lives until today.”

By taking Sugihara’s story out of historical context in a self-congratulatory way, Japan risks being seen as lacking sincerity to those who were victims of wartime Japan.

Living Legacies of Sugihara and Wallenberg

In Israel, the value of life is not an abstract concept. Instead, it is a value that is lived daily. Just as Hadassa has set out on a life-saving project following the loss of her daughter, I believe that Mr. Lapid is living his life purpose as a grandchild of Wallenberg.

As Japan proudly speaks of humanitarian acts by Sugihara, it must also be forthright about war crimes and inhumane acts that it committed during WWII. Telling the complete history is the proper way to truly honor Sugihara, his legacy, and those families saved by him, including that of Hadassa’s.

From these incredible stories, we can see how each individual has chosen to live their lives as a result of their family being saved. This conscious choice of dedicating their lives to helping others, as Sugihara and Wallenberg did, is not uncommon among Jewish people, as I have personally observed, a sacred and universal value worth aspiring to.

About the Author
Japanese writer living in California. Author of the Holocaust interview book, "Courage to Remember," a children's book on Raoul Wallenberg (co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Cooper), Japanese translation of Raul Hilberg's "The Politics of Memory," and Rabbi Kalman Samuels' "Dreams Never Dreamed." Many Japanese articles on American POWs of the Japanese during WWII, interesting people in Israel, and Japan-Israel relations.