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Yoko Morikawa and the Japanese Schindler

I have just spent the month of May in Japan. Our youngest son Benjamin had

won a two-year fellowship to work in Hiroshima and my husband Bill wanted to visit a longstanding Japanese client. Our daughter Julia joined us for a fantastic adventure.

Judaism was not on our Japanese agenda - and yet it kept appearing.

In Hiroshima, we visited the Peace Memorial, commemorating the Atomic Bomb attack that levelled the city. It recounts victim’s individual stories and exhibits items of clothing and other personal effects that survived. One of the items was a diary from a 12-year-old girl named Yoko Morikawa.

In April 1945, Yoko had started high school in Hiroshima, excited to be a prestigious 'Kenjo' girl. She writes about being full of duty towards her parents, school and country. Four months later, on August 6, she was with her classmates clearing away demolished houses when the bomb struck. She survived, but was critically injured. A truck picked her up and took her to a relief center, where she died the next evening. Her brother found her diary and published it in 1996.

Yoko made me think of Anne Frank. Two young girls swept up in a torrent of tragic events. They dreamed. They had hope. They bore witness. And they make us realize the madness of the war.

An even more direct - and surprising - encounter with our Jewish history came in the small city of Tsuruga on the Sea of Japan. Before the airplane era, the quickest route from Japan to Europe was to sail from Tsuruga to Vladivostock in Russia and take the Trans-Siberian Express. The last thing I expected to see there was a mention of Judaism. And yet, as we strolled along the boardwalk, Ben spotted a sign on the pavement with a message: “Landing site of Jewish refugees.”

The story behind this sign is fascinating - and moving. In 1940, Vice Consul Chiune

Sugihara of the Japanese Embassy in Kaunas, Lithuania, issued thousands of transit visas to Jews. His ministry told him to stop. He continued handwriting transit visas to a total of several thousand fleeing refugees. They headed across Russia and made their way to Tsuruga. Some stayed. Most continued on to Shanghai, to join other refugees there.

Sugihara lost his job in the Japanese Foreign Ministry. He died in poverty in 1986, expecting and receiving little recognition - until recently. During World War II, US bombers flattened Tsuruga and demolished the port. It still has not recovered. Transcontinental traffic still use airplanes as ferries no longer run between Tsuruga and Russia.

But our appreciation of the unsung Japanese Schindler who saved so many Jews continues to rise. Yad Vashem has anointed him among the Righteous Among the Nations. In 2001, his widow Yukiko Sugihara planted a tree near the plaque in Tsuruga. Apparently, Sugihara’s sole surviving son now lives in Antwerp. There’s even a Belgian connection. I hope to reach out to him and see if he can come to speak at the IJC about his heroic father.

Anu Ristola

IJC President

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