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Songs of Sugihara’s Survivors

Paying musical tribute to the Japanese diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust

by
Karen Leon
May 05, 2023
Kyodo News via Getty Image
Japanese American cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, at center, plays a symphony together with the New York City Opera orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 19, 2023, in honor of wartime Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. He disregarded the orders of his superiors and issued visas in 1940 to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution as the acting consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.Kyodo News via Getty Image
Kyodo News via Getty Image
Japanese American cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, at center, plays a symphony together with the New York City Opera orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 19, 2023, in honor of wartime Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. He disregarded the orders of his superiors and issued visas in 1940 to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution as the acting consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.Kyodo News via Getty Image

In 2000, my mother, Masha Leon, spoke to a group of Boy Scouts touring the “Flight and Rescue” exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The boys were looking at a nearly life-size reproduction of a photo of my mother taken with her parents, Zelda and Mordechai W. Bernstein, in Lithuania, during 1940. She went up to them and said, “See that little girl, that’s me.” From their reaction, you would have thought they had just met a ghost.

It’s not surprising they thought that if someone’s photo was in that museum, it meant they’d perished. My mother, who passed away in 2017, survived thanks to a hero she never met: Chiune Sempo Sugihara, the heroic and righteous WWII Japanese diplomat in Kaunas, Lithuania, who saved the lives of more than 4,000 Jewish refugees trapped in that country—including my mother and grandmother, who had escaped Nazi-occupied Warsaw. To save these refugees, Sugihara issued 2,139 transit visas to Japan in 1940. The task involved high-level diplomatic finesse and the courage to disregard his government’s orders. He risked so much for people he didn’t know, hoping they would receive lifesaving sanctuary in his country.

It was in Kobe, Japan, in 1941 that my mother turned 10, learned to speak Japanese and the song “Sakura.” This gratitude for Sugihara’s selfless act of humanity is an ingrained obligation in my family, a welcomed debt with an honored place. Ninety-five percent of the Jews in Lithuania would be horrifically murdered. Sugihara Survivors as they are known, were a lucky few, and their descendants now number close to 40,000.

His remarkable legacy was honored recently at “A Concert for Sugihara,” held at Carnegie Hall on April 19. It was the U.S. premiere of “Symphony #6, Vessels in Light” by composer Lera Auerbach and showcased the Japanese American cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper. Cooper, who is married to the son of a Sugihara Survivor, was inspired by the diplomat’s story; that’s how the symphony came to be commissioned by Yad Vashem—which honored Sugihara in 1984—and the American Society for Yad Vashem. Also on the program was Karen Tanaka’s “Guardian Angel.”

My mother and I attended many events honoring Sugihara’s heroism. There was always the palpable sense of shared privilege, as there was across that diverse concert audience at Carnegie Hall. Sugihara’s son Nabuki, as well as diplomats from Japan, Lithuania, and Israel lit memorial candles honoring the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the victims of the Holocaust. The Jewish prayer for the souls of martyrs, “El Moleh Rachamim,” brought the sacred into Carnegie Hall. The chorus master was Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the son of a Sugihara Survivor.

When I first learned that it took nearly a generation before Sugihara came face-to-face with the fact that his actions had saved even a single life, I was stunned. Unknown to him, Jewish refugees made it to Tsuruga and Kobe, where they were treated with kindness and respect. In 1968, an Israeli diplomat in Tokyo finally found the man who saved his life. He broke down before his Japanese rescuer, as did my mother when we met Yukiko Sugihara, his widow, for the first of many encounters. The moment passed and my mother, respectful of Japanese etiquette, said, “I would give you a hug, but I know it’s not proper.”

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I am aware that telling the history is different for each generation. For my mother, it was always first-person. When we were in Japan, she participated in the opening ceremony of Sugihara’s memorial in Yaotsu in 1994. It was there that my mother finally gave Yukiko Sugihara that hug. In a message to the city of Tsuruga, where she first landed in February 1941 with her mother, she paid homage to the memory of Sugihara and her time in Japan. As the survivor of a murdered family of 200, she concluded with: “What more can I say than thank you … Arigato.”

My mother maintained her connection with Japanese culture, first embraced during that unforgettable time in Japan, all the rest of her life. Our home had Japanese art and books. Over the years, my mother took my sisters and me to see Japanese films, theater, and musical performances of Bunraku, Kabuki, Noh, and Takarazuka. I grew up a fan of the film star Toshiro Mifune, whom my mother and I both had the honor of meeting.

She wrote, spoke, and was interviewed extensively about Sugihara and her time in Japan and it led to a bond with Tsuruga and the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum. The museum preserves the legacy of Sugihara and the stories of the Jewish refugees welcomed to that port city. Material related to my mother is on display there. In 2020, when the museum announced its planned post-expansion reopening ceremony, my sisters and I felt it was both a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute to that event.

My mother built bridges to her early life and wartime past, through music and art. Of the mementos that traveled with her as she escaped the Nazis during World War II, many were songs. We chose to create a piece of music as a messenger to teach about Sugihara and the Holocaust. It was my sister Nina Leon, a composer, who wrote the solo piano piece. She intertwined “Sakura,” the Japanese folksong about cherry blossoms in springtime, with “A Kleyn Meydele” (A Little Girl)—my mother’s favorite Yiddish song from her Warsaw childhood, which she sang to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. That song tells of a little girl who went out to play, and knocked on the door asking to be let in. I titled Nina’s composition “Masha’s Arigato.” My sister Laura Leon, a classical pianist, recorded it. I then designed the CD cover art and sheet music booklet with text in English and Japanese.

Nobue Douda premiered “Masha’s Arigato” on Nov. 3, 2020, at the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum’s reopening ceremony, and continues to play it regularly for visitors. A month later, Laura’s recording premiered during the Sugihara “Visas for Life” webinar on Dec. 8, 2020. That event was under the auspices of the Embassy of Japan in Canada in cooperation with the Embassies of Lithuania and Israel, with representation from the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.

The day that one of my mother’s childhood mementos from Kobe—a beautiful and delicate fan—began its journey back to Japan was the day my sister Laura performed “Masha’s Arigato” in person. On Oct. 12, 2022, Ambassador Mikio Mori, the consul general of Japan in New York, held a reception honoring Takanobu Fuchikami, the mayor of Tsuruga City. The event was an opportunity for the 70 guests—including Sugihara survivors and descendants—to welcome the mayor and his delegation and strengthen the bond between Tsuruga City and the Jewish community. After meaningful statements from dignitaries and diplomats, I had the honor of presenting the fan to Mayor Fuchikami for the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum. Laura then expressed our family’s heartfelt gratitude to Sugihara and the people of Japan and concluded the evening’s program with her performance.

Creating “Masha’s Arigato” with my sisters was an emotional collaboration and creative fulfillment of our mother’s imperative to transmit Sugihara’s history. The arts are powerful gateways into personal stories and the history of the Holocaust, one hero at a time.

Karen Leon is a photographer, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her photos regularly accompanied Masha Leon’s columns in The Forward and Tablet. She is currently working on the biography of her mother.

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