Nobuki Sugihara, Son of ‘Japan’s Oskar Schindler,’ Visits B’nai Abraham Chabad

Sue Isenberg holds up the transit visa that allowed her family to flee Lithuania
Sue Isenberg, left, holds up the transit visa that allowed her family to flee Lithuania before the Nazis invaded. It was signed by the father of Nobuki Sugihara, who attended B’nai Abraham Chabad’s annual fundraising event on May 19. (Photos by Eric Schucht)

Sue Isenberg was just 7 when the Nazis invaded in 1939. The family of Polish Jews fled for their lives, seeking refuge in nearby Lithuania.

But when the Soviet Union invaded in the summer of 1940, they weren’t safe there either. They had to get out. The plan was to head to the United States to reunite with Isenberg’s father. Word was going around that a man at the Japanese Consulate was signing transit visas, allowing travel across Russia into Japanese territory and then beyond.

Now 86, Isenberg recently got to meet the son of the man who helped her family escape when she went to B’nai Abraham Chabad’s annual fundraiser on May 19, where Nobuki Sugihara, the son of the man known as “Japan’s Oskar Schindler,” was a featured guest.

Prior to the fundraiser, Sugihara attended a ceremony at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia on May 17, where he met Rabbi Yossy Goldman, the son of one of the 6,000 Jews Sugihara’s father helped save. Although they had never met before, the two embraced like childhood friends and then shared in a Japanese tea ceremony.

Nobuki Sugihara, Rabbi Yossy Goldman and Rabbi Yochonon Goldman sit for a tea ceremony at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
From left: Nobuki Sugihara, Rabbi Yossy Goldman and Rabbi Yochonon Goldman sit for a tea ceremony at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia on May 17.

“I’ve been looking forward for many years now to be able to say thank you, in person, for what his father did,” said Goldman, whose son, B’nai Abraham Chabad Rabbi Yochonon Goldman, was instrumental in bringing Sugihara to Philadelphia.

Sugihara is the youngest and only living son of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of travel visas to Jewish refugees in Lithuania against orders from superiors. In recent years, he has traveled around the world from his home in Belgium to tell his father’s story and clarify any embellishments in the tale. The trip marked his first visit to Philadelphia.

“I’m very honored and very happy to meet Rabbi Goldman, who is the son of my father’s visa survivor,” Sugihara said. “Each survivor had a different life. It’s very interesting to know how they could survive and reach their last destination.”

Chiune Sugihara was a vice consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania, stationed in Kaunas (then named Kovno). In 1940, foreign diplomats were ordered to leave the country after the Soviet Union annexed it. Sugihara was visited by a Jewish delegation requesting him to issue Japanese transit visas allowing them to cross the Soviet Union.

Despite being denied permission from superiors in Tokyo — as only refugees with proper funds and pristine papers would be granted passage — he issued the visas anyway.

Chiune Sugihara issued more than 2,000 visas, which helped about 6,000 people escape the Nazis, who invaded and occupied Lithuania about a year later. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people alive today are descendants of a visa recipient. Chiune Sugihara eventually lost his job with the Japanese Foreign Ministry and became a trading company office manager. He died in 1986.

It was this story that David Mink read about in the book In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust by Hillel Levine. Mink serves as the congregation president at B’nai Abraham Chabad and spoke of the book to Rabbi Yochonon Goldman.

That grandfather, Shimon Goldman, was a 14-year-old rabbinical student who fled Nazi-occupied Poland to seek refuge in Lithuania. His family refused to leave, having assumed the worst had passed, so the young student left on his own with another family. After the Russians invaded, school administrators were able to get his class Sugihara transit visas.

Shimon Goldman traveled across Siberia to the port of Vladivostok, then sailed to Kobe, Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he fled to Shanghai for the remainder of the war. He later immigrated to New York and would write of his life story in the 2004 book From Shedlitz to Safety: A Young Jew’s Story of Survival. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. He died in 2016 at the age of 91, leaving behind more than 100 descendants.

One of those descendants is Rabbi Yossy Goldman, senior rabbi of the Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg, South Africa, and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. Mink and Yochonon Goldman devised a plan to have Yossy Goldman and Nobuki Sugihara be guests of honor at the congregation’s annual fundraiser.

“We banged our heads together and thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we bring two sons of these participants of this tragic moment in history to talk about their father?” Mink said. “Both men have very compelling stories, and it’s a story that’s not told enough, so we’re happy that we’re a vehicle to get that story out to the local community.”

On May 19, the two guests got the chance to have brunch together at Mink’s apartment. Yossy Goldman said the two struck up a friendship as they compared notes and stories for about four hours. Both men grew up knowing little of their fathers, only getting a complete picture later in life. Yossy Goldman said meeting a family representative of Chiune Sugihara was a chance to say thank you.

“It’s an opportunity to express eternal gratitude, literally. People say eternal gratitude as a nice term or phrase. This is literally eternal gratitude. I would not be here, my children, my grandchildren. So we’re talking about generations,” Yossy Goldman said. “The power of one, that one individual can change the world, the Talmud long ago said he who saves one life has saved the whole world, and when you see this, you actually see it unfolding.”

Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi
Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, the counsel-general of Japan in New York, speaks to an audience at B’nai Abraham Chabad on May 19.

At the gala, about 200 guests, including Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, the counsel- general of Japan in New York, got to hear a public conversation between Yossy Goldman and Nobuki Sugihara.

Isenberg was listening, and during the Q&A, she raised her hand and said she had her family’s travel visa with her, signed by Chiune Sugihara.

It was this document that allowed her family members to travel across Russia to Japan, and then to the United States. Today, Isenberg lives in Philadelphia.

“I decided I wanted to come because when [the Exponent events calendar] mentioned Sugihara, I immediately knew that was the man, the Japanese counsel that helped us get out and get to the United States,” Isenberg said.

When Rabbi Yochonon Goldman spoke to the audience to introduce the two guests, he recalled the story of Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover. He talked of second chances and how this event was one of them.

“This is our story, not only those who are actually blood descendants of survivors, but each one of us is impacted in a positive way thanks to the heroic efforts of council Sugihara,” he said. “So tonight is our second chance to say thank you and to express our eternal gratitude to the agent, the emissary of God at that moment in history who allowed my grandfather and so many others to live and lead fulfilling lives.”

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