Sept. 23 is Lithuania’s Holocaust Memorial Day that pays tribute to the victims of the destruction of Vilnius ghetto in 1943.
Prior to this national memorial day remembering the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews, a presentation of a book on Jews who escaped wartime persecution by the Nazis via Japan was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tokyo earlier this month.
Originally written in Japanese by Akira Kitade, the book titled “Inochi no Visa, Harukanaru Tabiji” was published in Japan in 2012. This year, its English version, translated as “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey,” was released in June.
Kitade, 70, a former official of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) made a presentation on “How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan,” which is the subtitle of his book.
During World War II, Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986), who worked in the then Lithuanian capital of Kaunas, saved around 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them transit visas.
While the efforts of Sugihara may be well known, “very few people know the story behind how those Jewish people fled Europe and who helped make their escape possible,” said Kitade in his presentation.
Kitade was surprised when he learned that a former boss of his at the JNTO had been engaged in a mission to escort Jews from Vladivostok to Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, by passenger boat.
Kitade’s supervisor, late Tatsuo Osako, who was seconded to the JNTO when they worked together in the 1960’s, had worked for the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB corp. today).
Osako did not talk much about his experience in the war, but later, he showed Kitade his writings about those days and an old album holding seven portraits of Jewish people from 60 years ago that inspired Kitade to find out more about those refugees and write about their journey.
“I wanted to shed light on those ordinary Japanese citizens who worked behind the scenes and eventually supported Sugihara’s efforts,” Kitade said.
Kitade’s presentation impressed the audience, including Israeli Ambassador Ruth Kahanoff, whose ancestors moved from Lithuania to Israel in the 19th century; and Sugihara family members, who currently run the nonprofit organization Chiune Sugihara Visas For Life.
“We lost the majority of our Jewish compatriots during World War II. Chiune Sugihara saved around 6,000 Jews, but it was calculated that the families of those saved have grown to include 60,000 people,” said Lithuanian Ambassador Egidijus Meilunas during his speech at the event.
“It is important to remember this lesson of humanity even nowadays when we still face so many conflicts and sacrifices in the world,” the ambassador said.