Phil Rappoport’s grandfather didn’t sail across the Atlantic to Ellis Island like many Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
Instead, 100 years ago last month, his ancestor boarded a ship from Kobe, Japan, to San Francisco, after traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, Russia.
More than 6,000 Jews took the same route during World War II, after being issued transit visas by the Japanese vice consul in Lithuania. The diplomat Chiune Sugihara is sometimes referred to as the “Japanese Schindler” for his efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.
On a recent visit to Tokyo, Rappoport, an Oakton resident, told his family’s story to the director of the Jewish Community of Japan, an egalitarian congregation and social center in the Shibuya neighborhood.
Its leader recommended a book by Japanese author Akira Kitade, Visas of Life and the Epic Journey: How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan, about how ordinary Japanese helped the Sugihara Jews fleeing Nazi persecution reach safe passage in Japan.
After buying a copy, Rappoport began a correspondence with Kitade, 71, a resident of Tokyo.
Last weekend, Rappoport welcomed Kitade to Washington for a screening of a film about Sugihara, Persona Non Grata and drove him to speaking engagements, including a presentation Monday at the Ring House in Rockville.
There, residents learned how Kitade’s discovery of a photo album with pictures of seven Jewish refugees who’d safely arrived in Japan led him on a journey to find out their fates and contact their descendants.
“Very few people know the story behind how these Jewish refugees fled Europe and who helped make their escape possible,” said Kitade. “I want to shed light on those ordinary Japanese citizens who were behind the scenes and supported Mr. Sugihara’s humanitarian deed.”
It was Kitade’s old boss at the Japan National Tourism Organization, Tatsuo Osako, who showed him the photo album in 1998. Osako, who died in 2003, helped ferry Jewish refugees aboard the Amakasu-maru from Vladivostok to the Japanese port of Tsuruga for nine months in 1940 and ‘41.
Kitade said he was so moved by seeing the photos that he decided to try and trace their footsteps. He traveled to the United States in 2010 and met with nine survivors but none of them could identify the people in the photos. Finally, in November 2014, Kitade was able to identify one of the seven, returning the photo of the late Sonia Reed to her daughter in New York. Reed, originally from Poland, was 16 or 17 at the time. On the back of the photo, she wrote the message, “Remember me, nice Japanese.”
“The theme for me is that goodness can be found everywhere in the world, despite all the problems that Jews face. There are people who are good — and both in Sugihara’s time and before Sugihara’s time, people helped Jews find safe haven or safe passage,” Rappoport said. “Jews are, generally speaking, held in high regard when you meet ordinary Japanese. They really embrace the Jews, and it’s nice to know that we have friends around the world.”