Israeli Memorial to ‘Japanese Schindler’ Razed Without Family's Knowledge

A grove planted in honor of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who helped save thousands of Jews during World War II, was destroyed to build a residential neighborhood in Beit Shemesh

Chiune Sugihara

The family of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who helped save thousands of Jews during World War II, was shocked to discover last month that a memorial grove planted in his memory 34 years ago by the Jewish National Fund had been destroyed to build a residential neighborhood in Beit Shemesh. The sign honoring him had also been removed.

Attorney David Shor, whose father was saved by Sugihara, told Haaretz that he was shocked to the core. “As an Israeli, I am ashamed by the way they have disgraced the honor of this Japanese national hero,” he said. Shor is working with the JNF to correct the injustice; the JNF has promised to examine the matter and to plant a new forest in his name.

Sugihara, sometimes referred to as the “Japanese Schindler,” was Japan’s consul-general in Kovno, Lithuania, during the war. In the summer of 1940, many Jewish refugees were seeking to flee Lithuania, but the Soviet Union, which had annexed the territory, made leaving conditional on obtaining a transit visa. In violation of his government’s orders, Sugihara signed visa after visa to Japan, paving these refugees’ way to freedom. He produced 1,600 such visas according to Yad Vashem, although Sugihara himself estimated the number at 3,500. He was transferred just before the consulate was closed in the fall of 1940. For disobeying his government, Sugihara was dismissed after the war.

Yad Vashem named Sugihara a Righteous Among the Nations in 1984. “I thought to myself … I can’t let these people die, people who came to me for help when death hovered over them. Whatever punishment I would get, it was clear that I had to act on the order of my conscience,” he later said.

In his later years he became a national hero at home. He is memorialized there as well as in Lithuania and Israel, to where some of those he had saved later emigrated. In 1985 a grove was planted in his memory near Beit Shemesh, whose hundreds of trees were donated by his friends and businessmen in Japan seeking to honor his memory. Officials of the JNF, on whose lands the forest was planted, attended the dedication ceremony, along with Sugihara’s son Nobuki and dozens of the people he’d saved, including Berel Shor, David’s father.

The new residential neighborhood where Sugihara's memorial grove once stood, Beit Shemesh, February 13, 2019.
David Shor

The memorial plaque placed in the forest read, “In appreciation of the humane and courageous actions that saved 5,000 Jews from World War II.” Sugihara was too ill to attend the ceremony and he died eight months later, in July 1986, in Japan.

Last month, Nobuki Sugihara visited Israel with his wife and daughter. Sugihara told Shor that for years Japanese tourists had been seeking to visit the memorial forest but were unable to locate it. Shor looked into the matter and was shocked to discover the forest had been uprooted a few years ago to make way for a residential neighborhood in Beit Shemesh – now known as Kaneh Habosem. “An entire memorial grove was destroyed without anyone being informed. It was trampled in a predatory fashion,” Shor said.

After the family was informed, the JNF sent them a letter of apology. “I was surprised and angry that a residential neighborhood in Beit Shemesh had replaced the grove and that the sign had been removed,” said a representative of the JNF’s international relations department. Calling the case “heartbreaking,” she promised that the JNF would investigate how it happened, draw lessons and plant a new grove in his memory.

Nobuki Sugihara sent a harsh letter in response. He noted that the grove was famous throughout Japan and that the family had hoped that the young trees planted 34 years ago would have grown into a forest by now. “How could these trees be killed on purpose? I suppose the memorial sign has been turned into trash by an unfeeling bulldozer,” he wrote. “What would the Japanese businessmen, who had contributed to the grove's planting, feel if they heard about it? Most of them are already dead.”

Shor has difficulty repressing his anger. “What was done in this case cannot be undone,” he said. “Any grove, as respectable and grand as it may be, which would be planted in the most prestigious location in Israel, can never replace those trees planted in his honor by the hands of those whom Sugihara rescued and who are now deceased, that were brutally trampled and uprooted.”

Nevertheless, Shor found comfort in the words of Nobuki Sugihara, who had quoted to Shor the biblical verse, “You shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man,” (Deuteronomy 20:19) but added that the planting of a new, even more impressive grove, with the help of the families’ descendents, would illustrate the Talmudic saying, “He who saves a single life is regarded as having saved an entire world.”

The JNF commented that growth of the neighborhood had led to significant changes in the area, including the construction of a wall around it and the paving of roads. "In light of all these changes, there is no longer convenient access to the site, and it is not fit for use as a memorial," the JNF said. "However, in light of the Jewish people's great admiration for Mr. Sugihara's deeds and bravery, it was decided before the matter was checked in depth to dedicate an additional orchard to commemorate Sugihara."