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On a cold evening in Moscow in 1941, Rischel Friedmann was risking her life to reach the Japanese Embassy, knowing it might be her last chance to survive. She was desperate, alone and only 17.

Her salvation came in the form of a Japanese transit visa, an act of kindness from an ambassador who defied his own Foreign Ministry to give it to her and hundreds of others who were fleeing Nazi persecution and the horrors of the Holocaust.

On March 23, 1941, when Friedmann, 17, sailed to western Japan aboard a ship that ferried dozens of displaced Jews, she was holding a Japanese visa issued just weeks earlier by Ambassador to the Soviet Union Yoshitsugu Tatekawa.

She had managed to escape before the Nazis invaded what is now Lithuania, then under Soviet rule. Friedmann’s stay in Japan was just a brief stop before her transfer to Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter, and ultimately one step on the way to her final destination in the United States, after World War II, but it was the visa she received from Tatekawa that saved her from the Holocaust.

Seventy-five years on, as the world mourns the millions of victims of World War II, the discovery earlier this year of Tatekawa’s involvement in the rescue of Jewish refugees casts a spotlight on Japanese nationals whose actions echoed those of the better-known Oskar Schindler.

While defying orders from their own government, they continued to issue life-saving transit visas. Their heroic efforts serve as a lesson on the importance of offering a helping hand in the face of a crisis, and contrast sharply with the treatment of minorities today.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, 56, who is Friedmann’s ninth and youngest child, retold his mother’s accounts of her visit to the Japanese Embassy in Moscow, where Jews were lining up to try to get visas, late on that evening in March 1941.

“She is lined up … she goes to the front of the line and she speaks to the guard in English and says, ‘I have an appointment with the ambassador,’” said the rabbi, who heads one of the world’s largest Orthodox Jewish educational institutions, in the town of Lakewood, New Jersey.

He speculated that the guards must have failed to notice the woman was also a refugee, as she was the only person speaking fluent English while others were communicating in German, Lithuanian or Polish.

Yoshitsugu Tatekawa (center) in April 1933 | KYODO
Yoshitsugu Tatekawa (center) in April 1933 | KYODO

Kotler quoted his mother as saying that on the night of March 8, 1941, the ambassador, who was already retired for the evening, came down “in a kimono-like garment” and, after a brief conversation, issued a visa that was valid for 10 days. The ambassador also agreed to let in other refugees who were waiting outside and listened to their plight, the rabbi said. Her visa was already the 187th to be issued.

“My family has always had a very warm feeling for Japan — although we were never there — because 6 million Jews were murdered including my mother’s family,” he added. “Europe was a bloodbath for Jews, for minorities.”

With not much more than her determination and the visa in her hand, Friedmann traveled on a train through Siberia to Vladivostok, where she boarded a vessel called Amakusamaru alongside several hundred other displaced Jews.

They eventually docked in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The cruise liner ferried more than 2,000 Jews to ports in Japan, from where they traveled on to other destinations.

Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, also in Lithuania, is already known for having issued life-saving visas to several thousand Jews. He is the only Japanese national to have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government, and was honored in a section of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in January 1985.

Friedmann’s family escaped in the middle of the night as the invasion by the Nazis grew imminent, leaving behind their hometown — now Klaipeda, the third largest city in Lithuania — for Kaunas.

Dangers loomed in Kaunas in early 1941 and the family members’ paths diverged, with Friedmann heading to Moscow alone. She later discovered that her father, a leather merchant, had shared the fate of some 40,000 other Jews murdered there by Lithuanian nationalists under the auspices of the SS. Her mother perished a few months later as a partisan in a battle against Nazi Germans in the Lithuanian woods.

At the time of her escape, Friedmann had a German passport she’d received through a marriage of convenience and was using her then husband’s name Moddel. But even German citizenship would not guarantee her freedom.

“She had the legal right to leave (the Soviet Union) but she had no country to go to, no country (was) going to take her in,” Kotler said. “Almost no country would take (in) Jews in late 1940 or 1941.”

A copy of a life-saving transit visa 17-year-old Jewish refugee Rischel Friedmann received on March 8, 1941, from Yoshitsugu Tatekawa, ambassador of Japan to the Soviet Union, who helped Jews flee Nazi persecution through Japanese ports. | COURTESY OF AARON KOTLER
A copy of a life-saving transit visa 17-year-old Jewish refugee Rischel Friedmann received on March 8, 1941, from Yoshitsugu Tatekawa, ambassador of Japan to the Soviet Union, who helped Jews flee Nazi persecution through Japanese ports. | COURTESY OF AARON KOTLER 

Until recently, the role played by Tatekawa and other Japanese diplomats in the rescue of Jews was unknown to the world.

Tatekawa was a lieutenant-general in the Imperial Japanese Army, and was known mainly for his crucial role in concluding the nonaggression pact between Japan and the Soviet Union on April 13, 1941.

He was praised as a war hero in the Russo-Japanese War. But Tatekawa failed to get permission from the Foreign Ministry to help Jews flee Europe.

In fact, according to researchers, around the same as Friedmann’s visit to the embassy, Tatekawa received an order from the Foreign Ministry to halt such acts. Japan was fearful of possible consequences, given that it was allied with Germany.

Nonetheless, even after issuing the visa for Friedmann, Tatekawa continued to issue travel documents for Jews in lieu of visas, enabling them to seek refuge through Japan.

Akira Kitade, a freelance writer who since 2010 has conducted research on Japanese people who helped Jews flee Nazi persecution, speculates that roughly 300 people traveled through Japan with visas issued by Tatekawa and other unsung Japanese heroes.

Earlier this year, Kitade, 76, discovered a visa issued by Saburo Nei, who served as consul-general in Vladivostok in 1941. An association established to honor Nei’s role in allowing Jews to flee to Japan announced the findings in early June.

Tatekawa’s involvement in the rescue of Jews came to light after Kotler, the New Jersey rabbi, contacted Kitade and shared his mother’s experience, after reading reports about Nei. Refugees saved by Nei also traveled to Tsuruga port in Fukui aboard the Amakusamaru.

“What I gather from my research is that Chiune Sugihara wasn’t the only one who saved Jews fleeing Europe,” Kitade said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

The late Rischel Kotler, born Friedmann, who as a teenager fled Nazi persecution with the help of Japanese ambassador to the Soviet Union Yoshitsugu Tatekawa, poses in her early 80s in Lakewood, New Jersey, where she setted after the war. | COURTESY OF AARON KOTLER
The late Rischel Kotler, born Friedmann, who as a teenager fled Nazi persecution with the help of Japanese ambassador to the Soviet Union Yoshitsugu Tatekawa, poses in her early ’80s in Lakewood, New Jersey, where she settled after the war. | COURTESY OF AARON KOTLER

“You need to get the whole picture to pass down the correct history,” Kitade said of the diplomats’ contributions to the rescue efforts. “Sugihara has been praised as a hero, but there were other (Japanese diplomats) who shared in the efforts behind the scenes.”

Kitade believes that in Friedmann’s case, by saving the 17-year-old woman’s life, Tatekawa had a part in preserving Jewish cultural heritage. After surviving several years in the Shanghai Ghetto — a sanctuary for Jews in a small area of the city’s Hongkou district, where starvation was rampant and diseases like typhus spread — the woman reached the U.S. via Canada.

In 1949, nine years after they became engaged, Friedmann wedded her fiance, Shneur Kotler, who joined his father in developing a Jewish institution in Lakewood continuing the work of the Orthodox Jewish school earlier launched by Aaron Kotler’s great-grandfather in Lithuania.

While Beth Medrash Govoha, where Kotler serves now, was founded by Shneur Kotler’s father Aharon, the late rabbi Shneur Kotler is considered to have developed it into the largest post-graduate institution in the world devoted to the study of rabbinic literature. Friedmann has been recognized for her supportive role in its success. She also helped transform Lakewood into a large Jewish community.

She died in 2015 at the age of 92.

For Kotler, some lessons learned from the war are still relevant today.

“I consider the Jews to be the canary in the coal mine — (a representation) of how a culture is going to treat its minorities,” he said. “Every country will have its minorities (but) the mark of the culture is how you treat them.”

Kotler laments that many political leaders are moving away from the rule of law, and that the world has been returning to great-power politics.

Attitudes of today’s leaders stand in contrast with a greater sense of moral imperative in how a country treats its own people, he said, and the realization of the importance of strong international rules put in place after the war to minimize conflict, as the world recoiled in horror of what had happened.

“I think the world has entered a new and dangerous phase, where the world will turn one way or the other in the next few years,” he said.

Kotler believes Tatekawa’s acts should serve as a powerful message and a call, especially for people in positions of authority and for governments, “to recognize morality and recognize humanitarian impulse.”

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