Akira Kitade stumbled onto a story and, in the process, stumbled onto his own calling: to uncover the identities of seven photographs preserved in an album from 1940 by his former superior in the Japan Tourist Bureau (now JTB). What resulted is Kitade's research into the history of the behind-the-scene role that Japan played in saving the lives of thousands of Jews, told in his stunning book, Visas of Life and the Epic Journey:How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan, newly translated into English by a team and edited by my friend. Donna Ratajczak. Kitade relays the stories of brave Japanese, unknown and ordinary people, who transported thousands of Jewish refugees --providing an exemplar of civilians' courage to defy Japanese friends and enemies and define the human heart. Visas of Life comes just when we need a moral compass to encourage ourselves to open borders, not wall them off.
Called the Japanese Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara is the extraordinary hero of a recent film, Persona Non Grata. He served as the Japanese Consul in Lithuania during the chaos of WWII. When Jews from Europe tried to flee certain death by the Nazis, they found that no country would take them in. That Japan was the only one to offer them safety is ironic since Japan was an ally of Germany. Yet Sugihara, a young diplomat, was so moved by his conscience that he issued unapproved transit visas to nearly 4000 thousand Jewish people blocked from leaving Europe, not knowing their fates, let alone being able to communicate with each other in their different languages - French, Polish, Bulgarian, German, and Norwegian. Without funds, clothes, food, even passports, they were lucky , to board the Tran-Siberian Railroad for ten days before embarking on an aging small ship, bound from Russia to Japan under the control of Tatsuo Osako. Osako was a young tourist bureau employee who acted, without orders, with the grace of a diplomat. In return for his kindness, seven of the passengers, six women and one man, gave him all that they had: photographs of themselves inscribed with their gratitude, one signed "Remember me, Zosia." Osako wrote an account of this event, Distant Memories, for his 1938 college class alumni publication and kept the seven photos in an album titled "People Without Nations." He was, however, modest about his own heroic role on these many transports providing the refuges with a safe harbor. When his colleague Akira Kitade visited in 1998, he read it for the first time. Later, Osako's daughter gave him the album after her father's death. His heart leaping at the sight of these photographs, Kitade began to write his book: "I felt as if I had stepped inside a novel...I wonder who these people are. I want to trace their footsteps."
So began his mission. He visited as many of the Sugihara survivors he could find as well as those who landed in the Japanese port city of Tsuruga before they emigrated to the United States. In the middle of preparing the English edition for publication, he was surprised when a Canadian Japanese journalist contacted him with the identity of one of the six women whom she found on a website on the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. From there, he visited the Israeli Embassy in Japan. He has written about his research and his interviews with some survivors of Sugihara's Visas as well as their extended families in a most compelling way.
Akira Kitade feels far from finished. He is visiting UCLA's Clark Library where Toni Altschu (the rest of her name torn off the original post), one of the survivors, came to work, leaving her estate to the Library upon her recent death. Kitade hopes to return the photographs to their extended families as well as locating others to reveal the survivors' accounts of how the Sugihara Survivors reached Japan.
This serendipitous accident, discovering a story that connects your head to your heart and then having the tenacity and passion to follow it through gives meaning not only to yourself but to countless others.