As an adjunct professor of history at the College of New Jersey, Jodi Weinstein’s specialty is 18th-century China.
But somewhere during her education — which began at Oberlin College and continued after she earned her doctorate at Yale University — Weinstein came across the intriguing story of a Japanese diplomat who was instrumental in saving several thousand European Jews from extermination. His name was Chiune Sugihara, and he worked quietly and heroically to help Jews under threat, despite his country’s wartime alliance with Nazi Germany.
After the Japanese government appointed him its consul in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1939, he started meeting members of the Jewish community. Without the permission of the Japanese government, Sugihara began issuing transit visas to Jews to prevent their deportation to Nazi concentration camps
Weinstein, a resident of Lawrenceville, will speak about Sugihara in a talk Sunday morning, March 15, at Adath Israel Congregation in her hometown.
She discussed her topic, “Unlikely Refuge: Japanese Assistance to European Jews during the Second World War” in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: Why would a Japanese diplomat assist several thousand Jews during World War II when his country was the major ally of Nazi Germany?
Weinstein: Japan and Germany were close allies, but there were a few people in Japan’s military and diplomatic corps who went out of their way to offer refuge to Jews in Europe. The best-known example is Sugihara. The transit visas he gave to Jews in Lithuania allowed them to stop in Japan, then move on to wherever — even to travel freely over Nazi-occupied territory. So the Jews with those visas would travel across Russia to Vladivostok or some other point on the Pacific Ocean, then await transport to Japan and from Japan to somewhere else. Some of the Jews waited out the war in Japan. Others went to China, with many of them moving to Shanghai.
NJJN: How did you discover Sugihara?
Weinstein: My field is Chinese history and I have always taught World War II from the perspective of the Japanese occupation of China. I learned that Sugihara is the only Japanese citizen to be honored at Yad Vashem.
NJJN: Were the Japanese anti-Semitic in the way the Nazis were?
Weinstein: Some Japanese were anti-Semitic simply because they wanted to fall in line with Nazi thinking. Some Japanese intellectuals were involved in eugenics in the 1920s and ’30s, and many were convinced that the Jews were in some way inferior. However, other Japanese intellectuals were convinced that Jews were superior to everyone else because they believed the stereotype that Jews were very shrewd business people. Even if they did not understand Jews in a cultural or religious level, they would’ve been happy to work with them on a business level.
NJJN: What do you think motivated Sugihara to help save so many Jews?
Weinstein: I believe he acted out of the goodness of his own heart. He was a genuinely decent human being with an unshakeable moral compass, and he was sickened by the atrocities committed in Asia by Japanese troops, which he was powerless to prevent.
NJJN: Did he get into trouble with the Japanese government for what he did?
Weinstein: He got into a tremendous amount of trouble. He had a very difficult time in Japan after the war. He was never imprisoned but he was blacklisted. It was very difficult for him to find work. He was dismissed from the diplomatic corps and refused to talk about his experiences. Eventually, because he was fluent in Russian, he found a job in the Soviet Union and changed his name so that no one would recognize him from the days of World War II. He eked out a miserable existence in Moscow in a one-room apartment. Eventually he returned to Japan and died [in 1986] in obscurity. You would think that someone with such a big heart would have an easier time later in life, but he didn’t. They made sure he was never hired for what he did and they made his life as difficult as they could.
NJJN: What do you want your audience to know about Sugihara and what he did?
Weinstein: The most important takeaway is to honor Sugihara and other Japanese who helped Jews survive in World War II.