A former official of the semigovernmental Japan National Tourism Organization has published an English-language version of his research on Jews who escaped via Japan from wartime persecution by the Nazis.
Akira Kitade, 70, initially published the book in Japanese two years ago, based on a study of the behind-the-scenes role Japan played in supporting the efforts of Chiune Sugihara, who, as an acting consul in the then-Lithuanian capital of Kaunas in 1940, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by issuing transit visas.
Sugihara, often referred to as Japan’s Oskar Schindler, died at the age of 86 in 1986. Schindler, the German factory owner in Poland, provided Jews with a safe haven during World War II and was depicted in the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.”
Kitade’s Japanese and American friends living in New York translated the book, titled “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey — How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan,” into English. The translated version, published by Tokyo-based Chobunsha Co., will be sold at major bookstores in Japan and at their U.S. outlets.
Kitade found out in 1998 that a former supervisor of his had been engaged in a mission to escort Jews, who were fleeing Europe, from Vladivostok to Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, by passenger boat.
The Jews were to continue on their journey, ultimately reaching destinations such as the United States, via the port cities of Yokohama and Kobe.
The supervisor, Tatsuo Osako, worked for Japan Tourist Bureau, currently JTB Corp., and made more than 20 round trips across the Sea of Japan from late 1940 to the spring of 1941 for the transfer of the Jews. He was seconded to the JNTO in 1966 to work with Kitade.
Kitade’s interest in the mission pushed him to continue researching it after retiring from the JNTO in 2004. He found that Osako, who died in 2003 at the age of 86, had developed friendships with the Jews during their voyage and that people in Tsuruga had received the Jews warmly in general.
“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.
A public bathhouse in Tsuruga opened its facilities to the Jewish refugees for free, while an elementary school principal told the students during a morning assembly not to look down on the Jews only because they were poorly clad, as they were exiled from their homes in the wake of the war, according to his research.
Kitade also found that Osako kept a photo album that contained seven pictures of Jewish refugees — a man and six women, each accompanied by messages to him in Bulgarian, French, German, Norwegian or Polish, along with names and dates.
Staring at them, Kitade had an urge to try to locate them and find out more about their lives since taking the voyage. To seek clues, in 2010 he visited with Jewish people who had landed at Tsuruga before emigrating to the United States, along with other so-called Sugihara survivors.
While he was unable to locate any clues about the seven during the trip, he was strongly encouraged by the survivors to issue an English version if he wrote a book about his research so they could also read it.
To his surprise, while preparing for publishing the English version, he was recently contacted by a Japanese journalist now living in Canada and who also follows the Sugihara survivors. She said she had found out about one of the six women.
One person she interviewed was a niece of the woman and happened to see the photos of the seven Jews from the Osako album on the website of a Holocaust memorial in Israel.
Kitade provided the photos to the Israeli Embassy in Japan a few years ago, with the expectation they might allow him to reach out to the seven people or their family members.
The woman in the photo was named Sonia Reed, originally from Poland, who lived on Long Island and died in 1997 at age 73. She was survived by three children.
Reed and her late husband, a Jewish man from Berlin, ran a sheet-metal plant and invested in Japanese products. They traveled to Japan twice, according to their children.
“I plan to visit the United States again this year to give the original photo of Sonia to her children,” Kitade said.
He now hopes the English version of his book will be widely read and enable him to locate the remaining six people.
“If I could meet with them or their families, I want to ask them how they survived the wartime hardships” and share their stories, he said.
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