Album reveals Japanese who helped fleeing Jews

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am


A series of worn, black-and-white photos with barely legible inscriptions is shedding new light on the handful of Japanese bureaucrats who helped Jews escape the Nazi onslaught across Europe 70 years ago.

Seven photographs carefully preserved in the diary of Tatsuo Osako are being used as the basis of a book by a colleague in the predecessor of what is today the Japan Travel Bureau on his activities in the 1940s.

Osako died in 2003, but Akira Kitade is now trying to identify and trace the people in the images, apparently given as mementos to the man who brought them on one of the final legs of their gruelling journey from Europe aboard an elderly 2,346-tonne cruise ship, the Amakusa-Maru. After finding a safe haven in Japan, many were able to travel on to the United States.

'Osako kept them in his diary, in which he wrote about how he took care of these people during the sea voyage from Vladivostok to the port at Tsuruga,' Kitade told the South China Morning Post. 'It seems they were given to him by the refugees as a token of their appreciation for his help.'

Kitade first met Osako in 1966, when he started working for the Japan National Travel Organisation at its offices in San Francisco. It was not until more than 30 years later, however, that Kitade learnt the full extent of his superior's activities in the war, when Osako showed him a personal photo album and an essay he wrote for his college alumni publication.

'It was not just that the photos were so neatly preserved after 60 years,' Kitade said. 'When the people in these photos escaped Europe, having endured persecution by the Nazis, they must have been without food or drink, or change of clothes.

'I was amazed that they would give Osako a photo of themselves, doubtlessly a precious possession. I felt like I had stepped inside a novel.

'It was only by chance that I came upon this untold story. The events took place in 1940 and 1941, and they are about to fade into oblivion after 70 years. As someone who came to know of this chapter in history, I felt responsible to document the events.'

Faded with time, the inscriptions on the reverse of the photos are difficult to read, although the best preserved message reads 'My best regards to my friend Tatsuo Osako' in French and is signed 'I. Segaloff' and dated March 4, 1941.

Another, of an elegant-looking woman, has a message in what Kitade believes is Polish and the date March 22, 1941.

Kitade's research indicates that less than 100 Japanese tourism officials were involved in bringing more than 6,000 Jews into the country, although the process began with the actions of just one diplomat based in Lithuania.

In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was granted the honour of the Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel for defying Tokyo's orders not to issue transit visas for Jews trying to flee the Nazi invaders of Lithuania, where he served as vice-consul, unless they had sufficient funds and documents that would permit them to enter another country after Japan.

Historians estimated that Sugihara worked up to 20 hours a day issuing visas until he had to leave his post on September 4, 1941, when the consulate in Kaunas was closed.

Posted to other Japanese missions in eastern Europe for the remainder of the war, Sugihara was arrested by Soviet troops at the capture of Bucharest and held in a POW camp with his family for 18 months before being repatriated to Japan. Back in Tokyo, he was asked to resign from the Foreign Ministry, apparently for his disobedience in Lithuania. Sugihara, known as the 'Japanese Schindler', died in July 1986.

'Many people have heard of Sugihara and how he saved thousands of Jews by giving them travel documents, but I want to write about Osako and the others who helped them to reach safety,' said Kitade.

'Sugihara's name should be spoken of by many generations to come. However, we should not forget the people who anonymously supported Sugihara's efforts behind the scenes.' But Kitade admits that Osako would almost certainly have been unaware that his charges were travelling on faked documents.

Kitade has found several other examples of company officials and low-ranking diplomats who defied official decrees from Tokyo - anxious not to upset its allies in Berlin - concerning Jews. Men such as Jinnosuke Takaku, who headed the Japan Travel Bureau and resisted government pressure to refuse a request from the organisation's New York office to transport Jewish refugees.

The Israeli embassy in Tokyo is assisting Kitade's research and has submitted copies of the photos to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in an effort to identify the people in the images and trace them or their descendants.

'We are very much hoping for a positive outcome from this because in 2012 we plan to have a series of celebrations to mark the anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Japan,' Israeli ambassador to Tokyo Nissim Ben Shitrit said

'We are trying to locate ... the survivors of Sugihara's actions and we plan to bring them to Japan for events in Tsuruga and Yaotsu, Sugihara's home town. We hope some of the people in these photos can be located and can return to Japan then.'