TÖKYÖ — A former official of the Japan National Tourism Organization has released an English-language version of his research on the wartime escape of Jews from Nazi persecution via Japan.
Akira Kitade, 70, published his book in Japanese two years ago. It is based on his study of how people in Japan played behind-the-scenes roles in supporting the efforts of Chiune Sugihara, who, as an acting consul in Kaunas, the 1940 capital of Lithuania, saved thousands of Jews by issuing them transit visas.
Sugihara, who is often referred to as “Japan’s Oskar Schindler,” died in 1986 at the age of 86. Schindler was a German factory owner who saved the lives of more than a thousand mainly Polish Jews during World War II by employing them in his factories in Poland. His story was depicted in the Steven Spielberg film, “Schindler’s List.”
Kitade’s Japanese and American friends living in New York translated his book into English. It is titled, “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey — How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan.” The English version, which was published by Chobunsha Co. of Tökyö, will be sold at major bookstores in Japan and at their U.S. outlets.
In 1998, Kitade learned that his former supervisor, Tatsuo Osako, had been involved in escorting Jews fleeing the Russian city of Vladivostok by passenger boat to the Japanese coastal city of Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture. From Tsuruga, they continued on to the Japanese port cities of Yokohama and Köbe before embarking on further destinations, such as the United States.
Tatsuo Osako made more than 20 round-trips across the Sea of Japan from late 1940 to the spring of 1941, assisting in the transfer of Jews. He and Kitade began working together at JNTO in 1966.
Osako died in 2003 at the age of 86. When Kitade retired a year later, he decided to continue researching the brief friendship Osako had developed with the Jews during their voyage and to learn more about how the Jews had been received in Tsuruga.
“What Mr. Sugihara did for the sake of Jews is widely known, and I was impressed that unknown, ordinary people like Mr. Osako were also involved in the life-saving mission,” Kitade said.
In his research, he learned that a bathhouse in Tsuruga opened its facilities to the Jewish refugees for free. He also learned that an elementary school principal told students at a morning assembly that the Jewish refugees had lost their homes and country due to war, so they should not look down on them just because they were poorly clad and had no homes.
In a photo album Osako had kept, Kitade found pictures of seven Jewish refugees — one man and six women. Each had written their name and the date, along with messages to him in a variety of languages — Bulgarian, French, German, Norwegian and Polish.
As Kitade studied the faces in the album, he felt an urge to try and find them and to learn what had become of their lives. In 2010, he visited with some of the Jews who had landed at Tsuruga before immigrating to the United States as “Sugihara survivors.”
Unfortunately, he did not find any information on the seven people whose photos were in Osako’s album. However, the survivors he did meet strongly urged him to publish an English version if he ever wrote a book about his research, because they wanted to read it.
While preparing for the publication of the English version of his book, Kitade was contacted by a Japanese journalist now living in Canada who also has been following the story of the Sugihara survivors. She told Kitade that she had information about one of the six women, Sonia Reed. She said she had interviewed Reed’s niece and had seen the photos of the seven Jews in Osako’s album on a Holocaust remembrance website in Israel. Kitade had shared the photos with the website through the Israeli Embassy in Japan a few years earlier, hoping they might help him to locate the seven people or their family members.
The Japanese journalist said Sonia Reed was from Poland and had lived on Long Island after settling in the U.S. She died in 1997 at the age of 73 and is survived by three children. Reed and her late husband, who also was a Jew, from Berlin, ran a sheet-metal plant and invested in Japanese products. Their children said their parents had traveled to Japan twice.
“I plan to visit the United States again this year to give the original photo of Sonia to her children,” Kitade said.
He said he hopes also that the English version of his book will be widely read so it can help him locate the remaining six faces in Osako’s album.
“If I could meet with them or their families, I want to ask them how they survived the wartime hardships” to further impart the stories of such people, Kitade said.
For more information, the publisher can be contacted by email at email@example.com. — by Keiji Hirano