Tracing the path of their mother, who escaped the Holocaust with help from some defiant Japanese, New Yorkers Deborah and Shelley Reed experienced myriad emotions on their first visit to Japan during the peak cherry blossom season last month.
It was around the same time of year in 1941 when their mother found a safe haven in the city of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, after a long and complicated journey.
Sonia Reed, whose maiden name was Gertler, was born and spent her youth in Poland. She was one of about 6,000 Jewish people fleeing Nazi persecution who were granted visas by then-Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, Lithuania, according to existing records.
Sugihara is said to have saved at least 6,000 Jewish lives by allowing travel to third countries via Japan with visas he began issuing in July 1940.
Although he was assigned by the Foreign Ministry to report on German troop movements near the Russian border, Sugihara, aware of the situation Jews faced in Europe, acted in defiance of a Japanese government order prohibiting the issuance of visas.
Sonia was 17 when she arrived in Tsuruga on the ocean liner Amakusa Maru with other refugees. They had been transported from Moscow to Vladivostok aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway with help from the Japan Tourism Bureau, the predecessor of travel agency JTB.
During the trip she was escorted by JTB agent Tatsuo Osako, who like Sugihara, acted against the Japanese government, risking his own life to help refugees reach their final destinations, as Japan was allied with Germany during World War II.
According to JTB records, the company decided to transport hundreds of Jewish refugees on a humanitarian basis and ran regular cruises from autumn 1940 through the following spring.
Osako, one of four agents, reportedly served the longest aboard the vessel. There is no official record showing the total number of refugees transported on the Amakusa Maru.
To Deborah, 65, and Shelley, 58, who recently learned the details of their mother’s path to freedom, the efforts of Japanese people to rescue Jews during the Holocaust serve as a lesson and a legacy for today and the future.
“There are many lessons, I think, but part of it, a big one, is to see the actions of someone like Chiune Sugihara and Mr. Osako as shining examples of how to behave when presented with people who are suffering,” Deborah Reed said in an interview in Tokyo. “The overriding message is to be welcoming. We should be welcoming to immigrants, to refugees, and ultimately have one peaceful world for everybody.”
She added that her own upbringing has contributed to a sense that she must pass along her knowledge to future generations.
“We were brought up to be very aware of the Holocaust and its impact on the Jewish people and the world, and to be aware of situations in which people were suffering,” she said. “So it’s given me a much, much deeper understanding and desire to educate the world now and coming generations.”
Referring to President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban targeting mainly people from certain Muslim countries, Reed said she felt the need “to fight what’s going on in the United States right now in terms of immigration and refugee policy.”
But she did not comment on Japan’s immigration and refugee policy today, which remains tightly controlled compared with most other industrialized countries.
According to Reed, Sonia, along with her pregnant sister and husband, got on the last train before the Nazis invaded Poland.
Only one of Sonia’s four sisters survived the Auschwitz death camp, while two others, along with their parents who stayed in Poland, perished at the hands of the Nazis.
“My uncle had a feeling they should get out and he was right,” Reed said.
Reed added that her mother was forced to take on the identities of unknown people to reach Japan and ultimately emigrate to America. The sisters parted after they reached Moscow and Sonia continued on her journey, not knowing how it would turn out.
Before disembarking from the Amakusa Maru in Tsuruga, Sonia handed a photograph of herself with a note in Polish to the JTB agent Osako. It said: “Remember me — to the nice Japanese person.” The photograph was signed with her maiden name and her nickname “Zosia.”
“With those few words, Zosia communicated the gratefulness for the kindness of Mr. Osako and the Japanese people and her desire that her life and the lives and plight of other refugees fleeing from persecution not be forgotten,” Reed said.
Sonia’s story wouldn’t have surfaced if Osako’s former coworker and writer Akira Kitade had not made efforts to identify the passengers who presented Osako with photographs.
In fact, Deborah and Shelley had known little about their mother’s experience. Their mother hardly spoke of her past until they recognized her portrait featured in a documentary film about the history of tourism in Japan.
Reed said, however, that her mother recalled her stay in Japan.
“Tsuruga is where my mother entered Japan and had her first feeling of safety,” Reed said. “She did not want to revisit it (her past) but she did tell me that the Japanese people were very kind to her. She did say that to me.”
It is believed that Sonia spent several months in Japan before leaving for the U.S.
When Sonia arrived in New York, she took a job as a seamstress despite having no experience and lacking English skills. But her daughters said her perseverance helped her build her career as a clothing designer.
She later married the son of a German-Jewish family that rented her a room and the couple had three children: Deborah, Shelley and David.
Sonia’s eldest sister, Miriam, who also came through Japan, emigrated to Canada.
“There are so many people without whom it would not have happened,” Reed said, taking a retrospective glance at her mother’s path to her new home in the United States, where she passed away at age 73 in 1997. She called her mother’s tale a miracle.
Deborah, a career lawyer and psychologist, and Shelley, a well-recognized painter, said they were grateful beyond words for the acts of courage and compassion toward refugees shown by people in Japan at the time.
Tsuruga Mayor Takanobu Fuchikami said he felt grateful that people of Tsuruga helped Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and noted “such wartime acts are of a high importance in the city’s history.”
“I think we in Tsuruga can be proud of it,” he told The Japan Times during a visit to Tokyo.
“I do have a feeling that any act of help offered to one person has saved the lives of their children and grandchildren, too,” Fuchikami said, referring to a Jewish saying: “He who saves a single life saves the entire world.”
The sisters praised Kitade, who dedicated himself to discovering the identities of the people in the photographs, including their mother, and to shedding light on the humanitarian actions of the Japanese people.
“I want young people to learn the spirit of those who acted behind the scenes, like Sugihara or Osako, and stand against injustice under today’s harsh circumstances,” Kitade said.