Welcome (Alan Le Fevre)
My name is Alan Le Fevre, and it is my honour to welcome you to the 15th Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day. On behalf of the Civil Courage Society, in honour of Wallenberg and Sugihara, I would like to welcome our distinguished guests: City of Vancouver Deputy Mayor, Councillor Christine Boyle; Deputy Consul General of Japan, Masayo Tada; Honorary Consul of Ukraine, Mir Hukulak; past Civil Courage Award recipients, Chief Dr Robert Joseph, and Mary Kitagawa; and past Doctors Without Borders presenter, Dr Joseph Copeland.
We would like to thank the Estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson, our generous sponsor for today’s event. We are a small society with big aspirations, and donations such as this make a huge difference to our ability to do this work. Thank you to our supporters, listed on the back of the program, and volunteers today for your valued help.
We in the Civil Courage Society are here because we are so enthusiastic about promoting strong ethics and civil courage in our society. For us, each celebration of civil courage is a chance to learn about human goodness and to see the world with new, more optimistic eyes. We hope you'll consider joining our circle of volunteers to share this stimulating work.
In addition to volunteers, we rely on donations, small and large. We will again have the donation jars in the reception. Amounts of $40 or more qualify for a tax receipt.
And now to today’s program. You’ll have seen when you entered that we have a schedule to follow! Shortly, our presenter, George Bluman, will give us his key address. To accommodate everybody’s needs, there will then be an optional three minute restroom break! The film, Persona Non Grata, which is 2 hours 20 minutes long, will start at 1:25; we’ve been wanting to show it for a few years. It will end at 3:45 and we will move to the Ray Whittick Lounge across the hall for the reception for 1 hour. There are signs to direct you to the restrooms, and our volunteers can assist you. For those not needing the break, George may answer a few questions during that time. He will also be available during the reception. Lastly, we have some additional information sheets about Wallenberg and Sugihara available and don’t miss the display posters in the reception on Sugihara.
And now I’d like to invite City of Vancouver Deputy Mayor, Councillor Christine Boyle to read the proclamation.
City of Vancouver Proclamation
(Deputy Mayor, Councillor Christine Boyle)
George Bluman Introduction (Alan Le Fevre)
Thank you, Councillor Boyle
Our keynote speaker is George Bluman, whose parents were issued life-saving Sugihara transit visas. For many years, he has maintained regular contact with the Sugihara family in Japan. On his website he continually updates information on the list of all Sugihara visa recipients. Many of those saved by the visas ended up in Canada, including Vancouver. George was an invited speaker in 2019 at the opening of the Chiune Sugihara Sempo Museum in Tokyo.
Keynote Address – “Light in the depths of darkness: Chiune Sugihara and his legacy” (George Bluman)
I am honoured to be invited today to speak about the heroic Japanese diplomat Chiune Sempo Sugihara. In a September 2017 poll in a Tokyo weekly, Sugihara was rated as the most important Japanese person ever. Why? In 1940 he was the vice-consul in Lithuania. Against advice from his superiors in Tokyo, he issued transit visas to Japan that ended up saving about 2100 Jewish refugees who otherwise would have been likely murdered. Those saved included my parents as well as one of my uncles and his wife. About 15% of those saved eventually came to Canada.
Perhaps as many as 40,000 people owe their lives due to the extraordinary heroic deeds of Sugihara, including 23 in my family – my parents Nathan and Susan Bluman, their three children, eight grandchildren, soon to be eight great grandchildren and my uncle and aunt.
What led to Sugihara’s actions?
After the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Poland was divided into German and Soviet zones. Vilna, Poland was in the Soviet zone and in October 1939 was transferred from Poland to neutral Lithuania. For this reason, perhaps 20,000 risk-taking Polish Jews fled to Vilna until the border was closed in March 1940. From Warsaw via Lvov, my parents fled to Vilna, now called Vilnius, arriving in February 1940.
In mid-June, the Soviets occupied Lithuania and in early August Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union. Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania and after annexation all consulates had to close within four weeks, including the Japanese consulate run by Chiune Sugihara.
Two diplomats from Holland played crucial roles in Sugihara’s heroics. After the Nazi occupation of Holland in May 1940, an anti-Nazi Dutch government-in-exile was established in London, which remained in charge of all Dutch embassies. The anti-Nazi Dutch ambassador in Latvia, de Decker, dismissed his pro-Nazi Lithuanian honorary consul. He was replaced by Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch engineer heading Philips electronics in Kaunas.
Two young Dutch rabbinical students approached Zwartendijk, requesting documentation to go to Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the West Indies with the aim of travelling east through the Soviet Union, Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal to tiny Curaçao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, about 1/6th the size of metro Vancouver.
They also sought permits for their mostly Polish classmates. Why Curaçao?
Because no visa was required to enter Curaçao. The local governor had sole authority to permit entry. But this was rarely granted!
Zwartendijk was given permission by de Decker, the Dutch ambassador in Riga, to issue permits to Curaçao to their fellow rabbinical students that stated in French “A visa for entry is not required,” leaving out the condition of the Governor’s permission. Moreover, Zwartendijk courageously agreed to issue such permits to all Jewish refugees who applied for them.
A Jewish refugee delegation approached Chiune Sugihara about obtaining Japanese transit visas, a necessary step for the fake scheme. Without permission from Tokyo, and after getting Soviet approval, signed by Stalin, for refugee transit through the Soviet Union, Sugihara issued transit visas valid for a stay of ten days in Japan based on the seemingly sufficient Zwartendijk Curaçao permits. Zwartendijk signed 2300 such permits until his office was forced to close on the day Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union. The scam worked!
Initially, Sugihara issued handwritten transit visas to all who requested them with Zwartendijk permits. Three days later he had two rubber stamps made for all issued transit visas, one in English and French, the other in Japanese which contained the following in English: Transit Visa, Seen for the journey through Japan (to Surinam, Curaçao and other Netherlands’ colonies). (In Japanese it stated that the visa was via Tsuruga for Surinam and was valid for 10 days)
After Zwartendijk left Lithuania, he returned to occupied Holland and said nothing about what he had done since his family would otherwise be in even graver danger. Sugihara was able to stay on for a further four weeks to continue writing transit visas. Three times Sugihara cabled Tokyo and each time was not encouraged to issue transit visas for the Curaçao travelers.
Furthermore, seeing all the desperate refugees with nowhere else to turn for help, Chiune Sugihara, showing extreme chutzpah, decided on his own, after Zwartendijk’s departure, with more careful scrutiny, to issue transit visas with the same rubber stamps for Jews without Zwartendijk permits. These Jews included my parents who approached Sugihara’s office six days after Zwartendijk had left.
With their life-saving Sugihara transit visa, my parents obtained a Soviet exit permit. They traveled to Moscow and then took the Trans-Siberian railway on a 12 day journey to Vladivostok, followed by a harrowing 48 hour boat ride to Tsuruga, Japan and then by train to Kobe, arriving in early February 1941.
About 80% of the Jewish refugees issued Sugihara visas survived and about 3/4 of them arrived in Japan. Almost half ended up in Shanghai. About 1/4 were associated with rabbinical schools.
Only about 10% of the Polish Jewish refugees in Vilnius seized the opportunity to obtain a Sugihara visa. The remainder were almost all likely murdered after the Nazis seized Lithuania in June 1941, except for those fortunate to get British permission to go to Palestine.
Now more about Chiune Sugihara. He was born on January 1, 1900 in the remote village of Yaotsu, famous for its rice paddies. Incidentally, Chiune means 1000 rice paddies.
In 1919, he went to Harbin, China, studied many foreign languages, especially German and Russian, and became a rising star in the Japanese foreign ministry. In 1919 he also converted to Christianity and married a Russian woman.
In 1935, they divorced, Chiune resigned his post, and returned to Japan, apparently in protest of the Japanese military’s brutal behavior towards Chinese civilians. In 1935 he also married Yukiko. In 1937 he was posted to Helsinki, Finland. They left for Helsinki by boat from Yokohama, arriving in, of all places, Vancouver on August 30, 1937 before landing in Seattle to travel by train to the East Coast, finally by boat to Helsinki. Vancouver was the first stop on Sugihara’s fateful trip that led to saving thousands of Jews!
While he was in Helsinki, the Japanese government decided to open a new consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania with Sugihara as vice-consul, reporting to the ambassadors in Riga and Berlin as well as the Japanese foreign minister, Matsuoka. Matsuoka had known Sugihara when they were both in Harbin. In reality, Sugihara’s primary responsibility was to spy on Soviet and German movements for which he employed two Poles and a German. Chiune Sugihara arrived in Kaunas five days after the Soviet/Nazi pact and four days before the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
Before his heroic activities 11 months later, Chiune, his wife Yukiko, their three young sons and Yukiko’s sister Setsuko lived a comfortable life in Kaunas amidst his supposed diplomatic activities. All was knowingly at risk for him and his family when he defiantly issued the life-saving visas. He expected repercussions at the end of the war, if not sooner.
In early September 1940, Chiune and his family left Kaunas for Berlin, followed by postings in Prague, Königsberg, Germany and Bucharest, Rumania. In Prague, he submitted to foreign minister Matsuoka the now famous Sugihara List containing 2141 names of which about 90% were Polish Jews.
In Bucharest, his family was later imprisoned by the Soviets in a POW camp for 18 months.
Back in Japan in 1947, Chiune was dismissed from diplomatic service. He took odd jobs for several years. In 1960, he went to work for Japanese companies in Moscow for 16 years, except for an annual visit to Tokyo to see his family.
In 1968, through a visitor from the Israeli embassy in Tokyo, for the first time Chiune learned that most of the Jews he helped actually survived. In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was finally recognized by the State of Israel, receiving the Righteous Among the Nations award from Yad Vashem. Jan Zwartendijk was so honoured in 1997. Moreover, Chiune Sugihara and his descendants were given perpetual Israeli citizenship.
There are many Sugihara descendants here in Vancouver. Many of their stories have been filmed by Aya Takahashi, a reporter for the local Japanese Shinpo newspaper. They include the current BC environment minister, an honoured leader in local theater and the first importer of MSG in Canada. Some are in the audience here today and I would request that they rise at this time, if they wish to do so.
There are many museums dedicated to the heroics of Chiune Sugihara including museums in Lithuania, Tsuruga, Yaotsu and the Chiune Sugihara Sempo museum that opened in Tokyo in March 2019. Members of my family were honoured to be the only Sugihara descendants invited to the opening. We have loaned our father’s passport for display at the museum.
Chiune Sugihara was celebrated worldwide as the day’s Google Doodle on July 29, 2019 – the 79th anniversary of the day he started issuing his transit visas.
My sister Barbara wrote a memoir about my parents escape to Canada that was completed by her daughter Danielle. It is called, “I Have My Mother’s Eyes.”
On my UBC website, I have documented information gleaned from various sources about those issued visas by Chiune Sugihara from his Lithuanian consulate, including their age in 1940, prior occupation, family relationships, additional included family members, arrival in Japan, arrival in Shanghai (usually from Japan), their destinations from Japan and Shanghai and information about those who apparently did not survive. [See http://www.math.ubc.ca/~bluman/ChiuneSugiharaLists.html for detailed information on the 2100 Sugihara visa recipients, compiled by George Bluman and Akira Kitade.]
In my family, there is one great hero we always carry in our hearts and to whom we will be forever grateful, Chiune Sugihara.
3-minute optional break /
George Bluman question interval (Alan Le Fevre)
This is the time for the optional restroom break. We will start the film in three minutes, at 1:25. George has agreed to answer one or two questions until the film starts. He will also be available for questions in the reception after the film.
Are there any questions?
Film Introduction (Alan Le Fevre)
The film director, Cellin Glick, wrote, “It is said that true heroes are born when ordinary people encounter extraordinary events. I believe the life of Sugihara truly embodies this principle. He was not one to have done what he did to intentionally become a hero, he merely followed his heart to do what he believed to be right. It is impossible to tell the story of a man without examining the world around him, for only then can a man’s actions bear true weight and meaning.” Since its completion in 2015, the film has received many awards.
The film is 2h 20 min long. We are pleased to share this fine film with you. Please check your phones are turned off now.
And finally, there will be a reception with light refreshments in the Ray Whittick Lounge, just outside the door. Our volunteers will show you to the room.