Below, Akira Kitade, author of Emerging Heroes: WWII-Era Diplomats, Jewish Refugees, and Escape to Japan reflects on what sparked his interest in the subject of the book, the journey to publication, and what the book’s positive reception has meant to him. Emerging Heroes traces the story of several Jewish Holocaust survivors who were able to flee Europe thanks to the help of diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who provided them with “visas of life” to Japan. Akira Kitade—who was inspired by an old album featuring photos of seven such Sugihara survivors to uncover the story of what happened after the photos were taken—also deftly brings to light the actions of more hero diplomats who aided Jewish refugees in this “highly entertaining and gripping sequel to his well-received book Visas of Life and the Epic Journey: How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan.”
In 1951, when I was seven years old, the Rosenberg Trial took place in the United States. I was still too young to fully understand the truth of the case. However, the fact that the Rosenbergs, who were Jewish, were tried for espionage and sentenced to death was a great shock even to my childish mind. Then, in 1952, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was translated into Japanese, and the tragic story of the Jewish girl became widely known. I remember that I actually read the book a couple of years later.
The above two events occupied a great place in my mind as a child, and I became interested in the tragic history of the Jewish people. Later, when I was a college student (1962~), I came to know about a historical incident called the Dreyfus Affair. As I learned more about the history of the Jewish people and events like these, I gradually became knowledgeable about the history of the Holocaust.
Just around that time, the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued transit visas to Jewish refugees trying to escape from Europe during World War II, became known in Japan.
Later, in 1987, when I was working for the Japan National Tourism Organization, I learned that my former boss (Mr. Tatsuo Osako) had been involved in a mission to transport Jewish refugees from Vladivostok, Siberia to Tsuruga, Japan by ship in 1940-41.
It was now more than 10 years after I started my personal research into the Holocaust that I was finally able to meet Mr. Osako. At that time, he showed me an album. In it were photographs of seven people. It was that very album that inspired me to write this book, Emerging Heroes.
The impression I received when I saw the album was so great that I still can’t forget it. I decided to visit the United States in 2010 to follow in the footsteps of the seven people featured in those photographs.
Unfortunately, I was not able to track down these specific survivors during my visit. I was, however, able to interview several other Sugihara survivors who made a strong impression on me because they had survived such a harsh life. (For example, Samuil Manski was suffering from cancer and knew he had very little time left to live, but he never forgot to thank Chiune Sugihara for saving his life and was happy to have a wonderful family.)
Then, I compiled the results of my visit to the U.S. and published a book in Japan in 2012. To tell the truth, my first book focused not on Chiune Sugihara himself, but on what happened to the Jews who were saved by the Sugihara visas.
Fortunately, my intentions were well received by many readers, who sent me the following comments one after another:
“When it comes to the story of the ‘visa for life,’ it is usually limited to the fact that Chiune Sugihara issued visas to the Jews on his own initiative, against the orders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Your book is wonderful in that it tells the story of what happened to them afterwards.”
It was with the encouragement of readers like these that I published the English version of my first book in 2014 under the title Visas of Life and the Epic Journey: How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan.
The publication of this English version elicited the following responses from concerned people living abroad:
Dr. Sylvia Smoller (whom I interviewed in New York in 2010):
“I had always thought that there must have been many other people involved in the rescue of us Jewish refugees besides Mr. Chiune Sugihara, but after reading Mr. Kitade’s book, I am convinced that this was the case.”
Professor Charles Manski (eldest son of Mr. Samuil Manski, whom I interviewed in Boston in 2010):
“You have performed an important service by calling attention to and documenting the vital role that the JTB played, including Mr. Osako, in making it possible for the refugees to reach Tsuruga. Of course, Mr. Sugihara deserves enormous thanks for initiating the process that enabled the refugees to survive. Nevertheless, there is often an understandable tendency to personalize history too much, focusing attention on one great man and forgetting the contributions of others. Your book reminds us that many people helped to make the journey possible.”
Then, by 2015, I was fortunate enough to identify five out of the seven people from the original album. Considering that it had been more than 70 years since Mr. Osako had received the photographs that could be considered the only mementos of these people, it was truly a miracle that I was able to identify them all this time later.
What I am reminded of here is the time that I showed the Osako album to a representative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which I visited during my visit to the United States in 2010.
He was astonished and said the following: “It is amazing that someone from Japan, who had little to do with the Holocaust, has so many photos like this! This is truly a valuable historical document. Please let our museum keep a copy.”
I thought that the near-miraculous fact of the identification of these five people needed to be documented and decided to publish another book, a “sequel” to Visas of Life. It was published eight years later, in December 2020 in Japan.
Again, this time at the urging of some of my closest friends, I decided to publish an English version: Emerging Heroes. Fortunately, through the mediation of Rabbi Aaron Kotler, a prestigious publisher, Academic Studies Press, agreed to publish the book, which was published in June.
In addition to detailing the identification of the five individuals from the album, as mentioned above, Emerging Heroes also introduces other foreign and domestic diplomats who saved Jewish refugees in addition to Chiune Sugihara. This was important to be because I had been working on the topic of “visas for life” for some time now, and in the course of my research and study, I had come across a question that I wanted to answer: When we talk about Chiune Sugihara, do we not tend to regard him too much as a hero? Of course, as a Japanese, I have great respect for his humanitarian spirit and am proud of him as a fellow countryman. However, when I look at the way people around the world look at Chiune Sugihara, there is a tendency to feel as if he alone saved the Jewish people.
So, I have included the stories of five diplomats (two Japanese and three foreigners) in Emerging Heroes wishing that I would be able to correct this tendency and to convey the facts to the people around the world.
Akira Kitade received a BA in French Literature from Keio University in 1966. Between 1966 and 2004, he worked for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) and was stationed in Geneva, Dallas, and Seoul. Kitade retired from JNTO in 2004. Since then, he has published several books, including “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey” (2014). He received a 2017 Foreign Minister Commendation for the promotion of mutual understanding between Japan and Jewish society.
Emerging Heroes: WWII-Era Diplomats, Jewish Refugees, and Escape to Japan is available for purchase wherever books are sold.