Documentary profiles 'Japanese Schindler' who saved thousands during WWII
The Day of Remembrance commemorates Japanese-American internment during World War II, but on this Feb. 19, Alaska's Japanese American Citizens League is also remembering a Japanese official who helped save thousands in Europe from internment.
During World War II, Sugihara worked at the Japanese consulate in Lithuania. Defying orders from his home country, he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jews to escape Europe, via Russia, to Japan.
"At the time, Japan was allied with Italy and Germany, and he was risking [his] family as well, but he made the decision to saving so many people," said Japanese filmmaker Jun Ichi Kajioka.
Now, Kajioka says he's determined to save Sugihara's story.
"Mr. Sugihara is a hero for me. He is brilliant," Kajioka said. "People don't know about this, even Japanese."
Much like Schindler, Sugihara also had a list, and Kajioka has tracked down some of the people on it.
The film, "Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese, Past and Future," offers a glimpse into the lives of three Holocaust survivors — people who wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for Sugihara.
"[I had] three sisters and two brothers, and unfortunately they didn't survive, nobody survived," Benjam Fishoff, a Sugihara survivor, tells Kajioka in the film.
It's estimated that Sugihara was able to issue around 2,100 visas before he was forced to leave the consulate. The visa Fishoff credits for saving his life was number 2,017 on the list.
"My name is at the last minute, just before he closed," Fishoff says in the documentary.
By bringing this history to Anchorage, Kajioka says he hopes to inspire bravery. In his short time in Alaska, he's already learned much more about the war's history in the state, like the Japanese invasion of Attu in the Aleutians and the internment of Japanese-Americans at Anchorage's Fort Richardson.
"Before coming to Alaska, I never knew about this battle happening in Alaska. Even this internment camp things happening in Alaska for Japanese people," Kajioka said.
Knowledge is power, Kajioka says. If Sugihara could save the lives of thousands, what could thousands working together do, he asks.
"Even though I'm one filmmaker, but by making this film, showing this film, and the people take some message. Then maybe their feeling leads to other courageous things," he said.
By spreading the power through storytelling, perhaps courage can be contagious.
A special presentation of the film will air Tuesday, Feb. 19 at the Z.J. Loussac Library in Anchorage from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Wilda Marston Auditorium. A photo exhibit will be on display at the library through March 2.
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