Mayor of Japanese Hero’s Hometown Visits Houston Exhibit

HOUSTON, TX (Aug. 31, 2005) Mayor Shingo Akatsuka of Yaotsu Town, Japan, visited Holocaust Museum Houston recently to view the Museum’s summer exhibit dedicated to the life of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who risked his life and career to save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution.

Akatsuka, mayor of Sugihara’s hometown, presented the Museum with 1,000 paper cranes made by Yaotsu middle school students from copies of visas that Sugihara personally hand wrote for Jews despite the danger to himself.

The Aug. 20 ceremony honoring the exhibit Sugihara: Japanese Righteous Gentile was attended by more than 60 people, including the consul general of Japan at Houston, Yoshihiko Kamo; and representatives of the Japan-America Society, the Japanese Business Association, Japanese American Citizens League of Houston, Asian Pacific American Heritage Association and the Japanese Association of Greater Houston.

The exhibit ended its five-month run at the Museum on Aug. 31.

At a related event, Houston City Council Member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs honored the Museum in ceremonies on Aug. 23 at Houston’s City Hall. Holocaust survivor Edith Hamer was introduced to the council members and spoke on the Museum’s behalf. Council Members Adrian Garcia and Mark Goldberg also expressed appreciation and respect for Hamer and the Museum.

Hamer would not be alive today had it not been for Sugihara. Daughter to a German father and Russian mother, she was born in 1937 in a dangerous place and time. Their home of Kleipeda, Lithuania remained part of Germany as the rest of Lithuania was annexed to Russia. They fled to Kaunas where Sugihara held his diplomatic post. Her family’s visas were among the first issued, number 7 and 8, and they soon traveled the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok on to the port of Tsurga with a final destination of Kobe, Japan.

The Hamer family embarked on yet another journey by ship to Hawaii and on to San Francisco. When they arrived in the United States, their papers were questionable to authorities. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society interceded, and the family went on to New York City to join relatives who had lived in the United States prior to their harrowing escape.

In 1939, Sugihara had opened a one-man consulate in Lithuania as World War II broke out in Europe. The near-by Soviet Union annexed Lithuania and ordered the consulates closed. Sugihara was confronted with thousands of requests for visas by Polish Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland.

After requesting authorization three times to issue Japanese visas to these victims of Nazi persecution and being rejected twice and ignored once, he disregarded his government's instructions and issued thousands of visas to Polish Jews. For 29 days, from July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, he and his wife hand wrote more than 2,000 visas, barely stopping for meals or sleep.

Thanks to those documents, many of the refugees were able to escape to Kobe, Japan, and from there were able to find refuge in other countries. When asked why he made the choice to defy his orders and save these people, he simply replied, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I would be disobeying God.”

Not long after issuing these visas in Lithuania, Sugihara was assigned to serve in Germany. When he returned to Japan at the end of World War II, the Japanese government forced him to resign from the diplomatic service. He had to start his life over and worked a series of jobs for which he was underpaid and undervalued. Sugihara never spoke about his humanitarian deeds in Lithuania.

In 1969, the families of those he saved found him and told the world about what he’d done. Sugihara died in 1986 at the age of 86 without ever being officially recognized by the Japanese government for his outstanding humanitarian service. He is now recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” by the state of Israel and a tree was planted in his name at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Near his rural mountain home of Yaotsu, Japan, the Sugihara Memorial Museum was erected on the Hill of Humanity.

The Houston exhibit was sponsored by Marathon Oil Company and  Donna Fujimoto Cole, with special thanks to Continental Airlines, official airline of Holocaust Museum Houston.

Holocaust Museum Houston promotes awareness and educates the public of the dangers of prejudice, hatred and violence against the backdrop of the Holocaust by fostering remembrance, understanding and education. Holocaust Museum Houston is free and open to the public and is located in Houston’s Museum District at 5401 Caroline Street, Houston, TX 77004.

For more information, call 713-942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.

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