Los Angeles Discovers the “Righteous Gentile” Sempro Sugihara


Rabbi Arye D. Gordon

On Thursday afternoon June 23, 2016, the Japanese American Society of California and the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania jointly presented a panel discussion on “Chiune Sugihara’s Legacy: Japanese-Jewish Bonds” and showed the film Persona Non Grata at the downtown Aratani Theatre.

During the Holocaust, there were non-Jews who stepped forward and were responsible for saving yidden doomed to death. Among those saved were future leaders of Klal Yisroel, roshei reshivas, rabbanim, and others whose existence has greatly impacted our history.

Mr. Nathan Lewin was in Los Angeles to participate in the panel discussion. Although the prominent attorney has been honored many times – for defending the right to wear a yarmulke in the armed forces, not to be fired from one’s job because a person can’t work on Shabbos or yom tov, and other issues relating to the Jewish community – this time he honored others. At four years old, Mr. Lewin found himself at a most historic and significant time in Jewish history. What occurred resulted in the saving of his life, those of his parents and many other Jews, as well as the shearis hapleita, the talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva, future disseminators of Torah in America.

In a fascinating slide presentation, Mr. Lewin retold the true story how his mother was the impetus for the saving of thousands of Jews. Once the rescue operation was conceived, it’s success required the insight, intelligence, and the monumental courage of a man called Sempro Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Kovno, Lithuania. Sugihara disobeyed his government’s orders in 1940 and issued transit visas through Japan to over 5000 Jews seeking to flee war-torn Europe. Mr. Lewin’s family and other recipients of those visas – including the members of the Mir Yeshiva – made it to Shanghai because of Mrs. Lewin’s determination to save her family. There, they waited out the Holocaust.

It took over 40 years until, in 1985, Yad Vashem honored Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. He died quietly a year later without much acknowledgement for his courageous activities.

While much has been done since then to recognize his bravery, the Japanese people have shown a desire to recognize Sempro Sugihara as well. The film Persona non Grata tells his story and includes others who made it all possible. Among them were the Dutch consul in Kovno, Jan Zwartendijk, and the Dutch Ambassador in Riga, L.P.J. de Decker.

Persona Non Grata exquisitely relays the story of Sugihara and others who endangered their lives to save Jews. At the time of production, the film’s producers did not know the catalyst that generated these visas. They did not know the story of Rebbetzin Lewin, with her tremendous emunah, who put in motion the plan for escape.

At the Los Angeles screening, only a handful of the 600-plus audience members were Jewish – the rest were Japanese.

Sempro Sugihara became Persona Non Grata for a lifetime of decisions he made to do what was right and not to follow the misguided actions and directions of others. Having saved thousands of lives, his actions – with the passage of time – will grow to represent hundreds of thousands of lives. What can one say, but yehi zichro boruch.