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The Untold Story of Japan’s Oskar Schindler

Willy Foerster saved Jews fleeing the Nazis by employing them in his Tokyo factory but was framed as a collaborator after the war and has remained largely unknown

Liane Grunberg
May 30, 2019
Photos courtesy Erica Foerster
Foerster with his employeesPhotos courtesy Erica Foerster
Photos courtesy Erica Foerster
Foerster with his employeesPhotos courtesy Erica Foerster

On his way to the gallows, Josef Meisinger, a Nazi officer and pathological liar with a gangster’s disposition, committed a treacherous act toward his archenemy. Meisinger turned his attention to a German-born anti-Nazi Tokyo factory owner named Willy Foerster and accused him of complicity in his own long list of Nazi crimes. And that is how Foerster, who might otherwise have been championed as a Japanese Oskar Schindler, was instead defamed and largely forgotten, his deeds remaining buried for decades beneath layers of deception.

The real story of Foerster’s actions during the war and Meisinger’s successful plot to defame him by spreading a false account was only chronicled for the first time in 2017 with the publication of Fall der Foerster, written by Dr. Clemens Jochem, a German scientist from Hamburg. The book, thus far available in the German language only, has remained largely unknown. But in an exclusive interview with TabletJochem sheds new light on his findings and the latest developments in the story, including the troubling role American forces played in upholding Meisinger’s accusations after the war, and the ongoing efforts to see Foerster recognized by Yad Vashem as a “righteous gentile.”

“What made me curious was a letter that Foerster wrote to Fritz Bauer, the famous attorney general who helped capture Adolf Eichmann,” Jochem told Tablet. “In this letter, Foerster gave a summary description of how he had employed Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. I really was astonished, because if Foerster’s story was true, he seemed to be some sort of second Oskar Schindler.”

There are limits to the comparison. Foerster was not carrying out his work inside of Nazi Germany and there were far fewer Jews who came to work for him than did so for Schindler. But the parallels between the two factory owners who sheltered Jews within their businesses at great personal risk are striking.

Jochem expanded on his findings:

At the beginning of my research, it was hard for me to believe that an untold story like Foerster’s could really exist. In Germany, especially as a part of the younger generation, you get the impression that the topic of World War II and the Shoah is well documented in thousands of books, documentaries and movies. But as I learned, step by step, the topic of National Socialistic (Nazi) influence in Japan and the territories occupied by the Japanese, especially the arrest and torture of anti-Nazis, was a rather empty book.

A chapter of that book would begin in 1941 when Josef Meisinger, then known as the “Butcher of Warsaw” for crimes he had earlier committed in Poland, was sent to Japan. From 1941 until 1945 Meisinger served in Tokyo as a liaison between the German secret service and the Japanese secret police. He worked tirelessly in those years at influencing the Japanese officials to persecute, imprison and kill off its miniscule Jewish population and the approximately 20,000 refugees of Nazi-occupied Europe who had fled to Japan-occupied Shanghai. Failing at this aim, Meisinger turned to the persecution of those he suspected of anti-Nazi activity in Japan, chief among them, Willy Foerster.

Foerster first arrived in Tokyo in the early 1930s to launch a turret lathe factory. In 1936 he lost his citizenship in his home country after Germany passed a new law that punished evaders of military service. Being a stateless resident of Japan didn’t hinder Foerster’s rise to fortune. He became wildly successful, founding several companies and employing hundreds of workers—among them many Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation of Europe—a move that provoked Meisinger’s ire.

The records of the Jewish employees Foerster employed at his Tokyo factory can be found in archives discovered by Jochem and described in his book. Foerster didn’t actually do the hiring. That he left to his friend Karl Rosenberg, co-director of a rescue operation based in Tokyo called the Jewish Refugee Committee. Rosenberg helped stateless Jews fleeing the Holocaust find work in Japan and if the qualifications were a fit, they went to work for Foerster’s F. & K. Engineering Factory.

The lathe department in Foerster’s factory
The lathe department in Foerster’s factory

The number of Jews Foerster protected through employment is still unknown as archival research continues, but Jochem estimates that there could be scores.

Ernst Quastler was one such hire. Together with his wife and daughter, Quastler escaped from Stuttgart in 1939 after Foerster hired him to be his plant manager.

Dr. Ernst Wittenberg was another employed by Foerster in the capacity of physician.

Dr. Kurt Bauchwitz, a renowned lawyer and essayist who escaped from Berlin with his family, became Foerster’s company lawyer.

On it goes: Hanus Neubrunn worked for Foerster as an engineer alongside other Jewish employees named Bernstein, Hoffman, Pollak and Friedlander.

This leads to the question that occupied Jochem and inspired the research that led to his book: If records showed that Foerster had taken risks to employ Jews, affording them a lifesaving chance to escape Europe, if he had effectively used his factory to carry out a rescue operation (much like the one Oskar Schindler was known for though on a smaller scale), how had he remained virtually unknown for seven decades? Jochem embarked on a 10-year quest to find out and in the course of his inquiry examined more than 30,000 documents in archives around the world related to Foerster’s wartime activities.

Foerster’s hiring of Jewish refugees fleeing Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, undertaken at considerable personal risk, “was a great provocation for the Nazis in Tokyo and Yokohama,” Jochem concluded. “And much more than for Japanese government officials, who despite their alliance with Hitler, were inclined to tolerate a small number of Jews residing in Japan.”

It’s believed that less than a thousand foreigners lived in Japan during the war. Germans numbered in the hundreds. Jews in Tokyo were even smaller, a fraction of a fraction, though thousands passed through Japan on their way to the Shanghai ghetto.

In his book, Jochem presents a body of evidence detailing Meisinger’s attempts at getting Japan’s government to enact more aggressively anti-Semitic policies. This scheming included a variety of diabolical scenarios. The high-ranking Gestapo member and Nazi Party official offered the Japanese various ways to dispose of its small population of Jewish refugees. In one, Meisinger would have had the Japanese put Jews on ships and starve them at sea. Another proposition involved massacring the Jews of the Shanghai ghetto in concentration camps as in Europe. Thankfully, the Japanese government ignored every ruthless proposal Meisinger put forward.

Foerster’s name first caught Jochem’s attention in connection with the Shanghai ghetto. The factory owner had offered testimony upon his forced repatriation to Germany in 1947 that it was Meisinger, not the Japanese, who came up with the idea of rounding up Jews and placing them in a ghetto in Shanghai. By insinuating to Japanese officials that anti-Nazis, mostly Jews, were also anti-Japanese, Meisinger may have played a role in getting Japan’s government to pass the 1943 “Proclamation Concerning Restriction of Residence and Business of Stateless Refugees.” That act forced some 23,000 Jewish refugees living in Shanghai to relocate to a one-square-mile ghetto inside the city.

In May 1943 Meisinger had Foerster arrested, accused of spying for the Soviets and spreading antiwar propaganda. While in captivity, Jochem reports, Foerster was tortured by Meisinger. Foerster sat in prison until June 1944 when he was released after he agreed, under force, to sell his factory drastically below its value. Together with his Japanese wife, Hideko, and infant daughter, Erica, he was then put under house arrest.

Imprisoned during the war for being a Soviet spy and antiwar subversive, Foerster should have had reason to celebrate Japan’s crushing defeat by the allies. Instead Foerster was accused of having been complicit in the Nazi’s crimes and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers, SCAP, issued an order to confiscate Foerster’s vast financial assets. On August 20, 1947, Foerster was tried as an alleged Nazi on board the USS General Black while being deported with his family back to Germany.

Yet, at nearly the same time that Foerster was being found guilty and punished by SCAP, others were attesting to his innocence.

Hugo Stern, one of Foerster’s former Jewish employees in Tokyo testified in Foerster’s defense. A classified letter by CIC (US Counterintelligence Corps) Gen. Charles Willoughby detailed the general’s suspicions that Foerster had been framed by German diplomats. His report concluded that Meisinger had falsely denounced Foerster as a Soviet spy to the Japanese: “There is no evidence that subject has ever been a security risk from a military or political point of view.”

The physician Wittenberg, the composer and conductor, professor Klaus Pringsheim and his son the journalist Hans-Erik Pringsheim, the legal scholar professor Theodor Hermann Sternberg, and others, including another lead player at the Jewish Refugee Committee in Tokyo, Hans Alexander Straus, offered testimony in Foerster’s defense. Karl Rosenberg described how Foerster had “worked desperately” to get permission for his family to gain entry to Japan and how he was able, “despite extreme difficulties,” to convince Japanese authorities to prevent the deportation of Jews in Japan to the Shanghai ghetto. But it was to no avail.

Foerster would later fight a legal battle to claim compensation for the loss of his factory in Tokyo and his vast holdings of property. According to U.S. documents, 104 pieces of real estate in various parts of Japan (totaling about 30 square kilometers), 80 cases of personal property at his home, and about 40 railroad cars full of personal belongings were expropriated in 1947. But this too failed to restore either his financial holdings or his reputation.

Gen. Willoughby’s investigations were kept confidential until 2012, even though in April 1947 he had summarized Foerster’s case as follows: “Under these circumstances, I am reluctant to place this individual in repeated ‘jeopardy.’ It is definitely established that he [Foerster] was anti-Nazi in fact and in action.” Fifty-six years would pass after Foerster’s death in 1966 before this report exonerating him for his actions during the war would be declassified.

“My opinion is that the Foerster case is very embarrassing for the German Foreign Office and the Allied Forces in Japan,” said Jochem. “Some NS-Diplomats [Nazi Party] from Tokyo involved in the Foerster case made careers in the new German Foreign Office after the war and supplied disinformation to defame Foerster. The reason was to hide crimes Foerster knew about and tried to uncover.” Jochem’s bleak conclusion on the matter is that: “The Allied Forces in Japan continued, too, in some perverted way, what the Nazis in Tokyo began.”

Jochem’s research and the documentation to prove it led him to his stunning and history-making conclusion: Foerster deserves to be recognized as a righteous gentile.

Yad Vashem’s highest honor goes to those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust at great risk to themselves. To date, the only righteous gentile recognized from Japan has been Chiune Sugihara, who stamped exit visas that allowed Jews in Nazi-occupied countries to transit through Japan on their way to safer refuge in Shanghai.

Dr. Daniel Moskovich, a member of the Chabad community in Tokyo whose relationship with the Jewish community of Japan goes back more than 20 years, has joined in Jochem’s search for any surviving Jewish factory employees who worked for Foerster. Moskovich is reviewing hundreds of hours of microfiched archives at the Hebrew University in search of employment records of foreigners in Japan during the war years.

“It’s a part of the history of our community in Japan, one that I had not known, and not a negative one. As a longtime Japan Jew, I feel it is important that we know and recognize our history—and this part of our history, the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, always gets told in a way that gives all credit to Sugihara and no credit to anyone else. Maybe that’s a nicer narrative, but one with which I do not hold.”

A spokesperson at Yad Vashem explained that Foerster could qualify for righteous gentile status if family members of Foerster’s former Jewish employees stepped forward.

Chiune Sugihara became the subject of Hollywood movie, Persona Non Grata, and a latter-day national hero in Japan for his role issuing transit visas that granted Jewish refugees safe passage through Japan during the war. A museum in Yaotsu, a rural mountain community, was built to honor Sugihara. It welcomes a daily stream of tour buses, carrying Japanese school children along with Jewish tourists and other interested visitors to its secluded hill location just a few miles from where Sugihara was born. Sugihara has been dubbed the Oskar Schindler of Japan, but Jochem’s discoveries suggest that the moniker may be a more accurate description of Foerster who rescued Jews—just as Schindler did—by employing them at his factory at great risk to himself.

Liane Grunberg was an active member of the Jewish community of Tokyo and its two Chabad Houses for 30 years (1987-2017). She is currently completing a memoir about her life as a Jewish mother in a Japanese family from her new home in Jerusalem.

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