“I just did what human beings should do. You do the right thing… not for gain. Not for recognition. The refugees needed my help. I could give it to them. It was the right thing to do. That’s all.” Chiune Sempo Sugihara
In his new feature film, Persona Non Grata, director, Cellin Gluck sheds light on a little-known hero of WWII: Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sempo Sugihara, who in 1940 issued 2,139 exit visas for 6,000 Jews fleeing Poland from Lithuania.
He was not the ‘Japanese Schindler’ as he has been so erroneously compared, because he had no ulterior motives but compassion.
The Canadian Premiere of Persona Non Grata opens at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre’s 5th annual Toronto Japanese Film Festival on June 12th when director, Cellin Gluck will be in attendance.
“The idea for Persona Non Grata had been percolating with me for six or seven years,” recalls Gluck, who was the production manager in Japan for the film, Memoirs of a Geisha and assistant director on Transformers and Godzilla.
Skyping from his office in Los Angeles, Gluck relates, “I had read a fascinating book called The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During WWII by New Yorkers, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz. Tokayer was an American Air Force Chaplain in Japan. It described the little-known fact that Japan planned to resettle a million Jewish refugees in the puppet state of Manchuria! They felt that the refugees represented the top doctors, lawyers, teachers, industrialists – the best of Jewish society, that would enrich Japan. Although, Sugihara was actually sent to the consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939 to gather Soviet and German intelligence in the area, he became (unwittingly,) one of the crucial players in the Fugu Plan.”
The amicable Gluck’s sense of humor belies his fascinating personal ties with both Japanese and Jewish cultures.
“My parents met in New York- my Mom, (Sumi Hiramoto,) Japanese and my Dad, (Jay Gluck,) Jewish. He served in the Navy and was an archeologist with The Asia Institute. My Mom was actually sent to an internment camp in the U.S. with her family. My late parents moved to Kobe, Japan and I spent my first 15 years there and we also lived for a time in Iran.”
I asked Gluck, now 58, if he had ever studied anything about Sugihara while going to school in Japan. “You must be kidding!” he says emphatically. “It was so typically Japanese to cover up what he did in the war. Don’t forget, he went against official policy by issuing all those visas during the war. What the Foreign Ministry did to him was shameful.”
Part thriller – part history lesson, the role of diplomat, Chiune Sugihara is played by Japanese Academy Award-winning actor, Toshiaki Karasawa and his wife, Yukiko, portrayed by actress Koyuki Kato from The Last Samurai. Persona Non Grata, like many films whose storylines revolve around the Holocaust, captures life and death situations that turn on the slimmest of threads. Often truth is stranger than fiction. When the father of a family offered a visa by Sugihara, procrastinates on leaving Kaunas, his family is sent to a concentration camp. But his young son Sollie, (based on real life, Sollie Ganor,) is discovered alive in a snowbank following a death march from Dachau and liberated, ironically, by the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The Unit was the most decorated for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.
“Unfortunately we didn’t have the time or the budget to go to Israel before shooting in Poland which stood in for Kaunas, but several survivors who escaped with visas from Sugihara, including Sollie Ganor, are living there or made it to the U.S. and Canada,” explains Gluck.
“We will never forget you.” Those were the last words that Chiune Sempo Sugihara heard from the refugees.
“Interestingly, there has been a Russian Jewish community in Kobe, Japan for over 100 years, says Gluck. “The European refugees granted exit visas by Sugihara who made it to Japan were then transported to Shanghai after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.”
At the end of the war, the Soviets imprisoned Sugihara, his wife, Yukiko, and one son in an internment camp in Rumania for 18 months. The Japanese Foreign Ministry dismissed him from the diplomatic service when he returned to Japan in 1947. At age 50 he suffered the indignity of not being able to find a job and was reduced to selling light bulbs door to door. He returned to Moscow as a translator where he lived in relative obscurity.
In 1984 Chiune Sempo Sugihara was declared Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He died at age 86 in Japan. The Japanese Government did not honor him publicly until 1994, at The Hill of Humanity, where a memorial for Chiune Sugihara, is set high in the mountains near his hometown of Yoatsu, near Tokyo.
“You know, there isn’t one screening I’ve attended for Persona Non Grata, that a survivor saved by Sugihara, hasn’t come up to me afterwards to shake my hand. That’s extremely gratifying,” says Gluck.
TOP PHOTO: Chiune Sempo Sugihara, who in 1940 issued 2,139 exit visas for 6,000 Jews fleeing Poland into Lithuania. Photos courtesy, Cellin Gluck.