Rabbi recounts ‘best page’ of Jewish history

Rabbi recounts ‘best page’ of Jewish history

Refugees from Nazi Europe found welcome in China and Japan

Rabbi Tokayer signs a copy of one of his books about the Jews of the Far East.     
Rabbi Tokayer signs a copy of one of his books about the Jews of the Far East.     

While Jews were being persecuted, murdered, and forced into ghettos in Europe, they were welcomed for centuries in the East, where they were viewed as “the sugar in the tea.” 

“We are blinded by the Western world,” declared Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who has lived with and studied the Jews who found refuge in the Far East. “We think of Jews as living in Europe, the Middle East, and America, but there is another page in Jewish history.”

Speaking June 5 at Temple Beth El of Somerset, Tokayer referred to it as “the best page” of Jewish history, pointing out that the first prime minister of Singapore was Jewish and that a vibrant Jewish community remains there. 

Tokayer served as military chaplain with the U.S. Army in Japan and returned after his discharge to serve for eight years as rabbi to the country’s Jewish community. He has written 20 books in Japanese — including several best-sellers — discovered the last of the Chinese Jews, and located a long-lost Jewish cemetery in Nagasaki. 

The first Jews arrived in Asia — in India — 2,000 years ago and have lived “without one second of anti-Semitism,” Tokayer said. Most important, both China and Japan provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. In fact, Japan devised a plan to create “an Israel in Japan,” known as the Fugu (Japanese for “pufferfish”) plan, to take in Jewish refugees from Europe.

Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Kovno, Lithuania, is credited with saving 6,000 Jews by granting them 10-day transit visas to go to Japan. Once there, the refugees were supposed to go onto the Dutch island of Curacao.

Despite Japan’s being an ally of Nazi Germany and at war with the United States when thousands of penniless Jews arrived, the Japanese let them stay beyond the 10 days, although some were relocated to Japanese-controlled Shanghai.

“Kobe in one day took in 2,500 refugees,” said Tokayer. “They got free medical care. Their children went to Japanese schools. When the local farmers heard about these poor refugees who were forced out of Europe, they brought them apples.” 

These scenarios paint “quite a different picture” of the Japanese than that presented by Pearl Harbor, said Tokayer.

The Germans were so infuriated by the Japanese response, Tokayer said, they sent Josef Albert Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw,” who was later executed for war crimes, to Japan to chastise their Axis allies. 

Tokayer said the Japanese response was, “We don’t tell you what to do in Berlin. Don’t tell us to be anti-Semites.”

The Fugu plan was proposed after the 1938 Evian Conference failed to find a solution to the Jewish refugee crisis. A Japanese diplomat came to New York and proposed to the president of the World Jewish Congress that Japan take in a million Jews. He was turned down, said Tokayer.

“Does anybody here know who Yaakov Rosenfeld is?” Tokayer asked, introducing yet another chapter illustrating the welcome environment for the Jews in the Far East.

Just like his synagogue audience, Israeli leaders were baffled when, on the first day after diplomatic relations were established between Israel and China in 1992, the new Chinese ambassador said he had orders to pay his respects to Yaakov Rosenfeld. Not recognizing the name, the director of the Society of Former Residents of China called Tokayer.

Tokayer told them that Rosenfeld was a Viennese doctor, playwright, poet, and intellectual. Imprisoned in Dachau after the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, and later in Buchenwald, Rosenfeld was released in 1939 but was given 10 days to leave the country.

“The only place in the world he could go was to China,” said Tokayer. During that time, thousands of European Jews found refuge in places like Manchuria and Shanghai, where they established hospitals, schools, and synagogues.

Like other Jewish doctors, Rosenfeld tried to open a practice in the Shanghai ghetto, but he found the world of modern medicine had yet to reach China. There were no pharmacies or doctors, and sanitary conditions were so bad that toilet and drinking water were coming from the same source.

In gratitude to the country for having provided him with a safe refuge, Rosenfeld volunteered as a doctor with the Chinese army after the Japanese invasion, said Tokayer. He learned Chinese and, while traveling from village to village, taught residents basic hygiene, sanitation, and first aid and how to make medications from herbs and flowers.

“He became a general in the Chinese army,” said Tokayer. “He became chief of medical care in China. They loved him.”

After the war, Rosenfeld learned he had a surviving brother in Palestine and decided to join him, but died of a heart attack not long after arriving. He is buried in Tel Aviv.

“Today every person who comes to Israel from China pays their respects to Yaakov Rosenfeld,” said Tokayer. “There is a hospital in China named for Yaakov Rosenfeld. They are building a new city to be named for Yaakov Rosenfeld. They issued a postage stamp for Yaakov Rosenfeld.” 

How is it, asked Tokayer, that “no one in the United States or Israel has ever heard of Yaakov Rosenfeld?”

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