TOKYO, Sept 23 -- The Jewish Community Center in Tokyo seems an unlikely place for holocaust survivors to honor ethnic Japanese World War II heroes. Yet for a week the Jewish community has celebrated the acts of a man known as Japan's Schindler and the bravery of Japanese-American soldiers who liberated inmates from Germany's horrifying Dachau concentration camp. The story of Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis, was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. But little is known of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who risked his life and those of his family. Sugihara sacrificed his career by defying orders and issuing transit visas to 6,000 Jews in Lithuania so they could escape Nazi German and Soviet persecution. 'In a real sense Mr. Sugihara was a hero among heroes,' said U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale at one ceremony. He said Sugihara had everything to lose by ignoring the Japanese government, Germany's ally during the war. Mondale also praised the valor of the Nisei combat unit -- made up of Japanese-Americans whose heroic record went unrecognized for decades after the war. And he called 'disgraceful' the war-time internment of their families and thousands of other Japanese-Americans in the United States whose loyalty was questioned. The Nisei unit was the most decorated U.S. outfit in the war. It also had one of the heaviest per capita casualty rates, something most Americans don't know. A photographic exhibition of the unit's actions organized by the Holocaust Oral History Project is traveling in Japan.
'I kept telling them to tell their stories,' John Tsukano a 70- year-old Nisei veteran who lives in Hawaii told United Press Internatoinal. 'But those boys were so humble. I am so glad the story is now out.' One of the unit's most notable acts occurred at the end of the war. The Nazis were preparing to execute survivors of Dachau, a notorious camp where thousands had died, when the Japanese-American soldiers arrived and fought the Germans off. Solly Ganor knew Sugihara as an 11-year-old Jewish boy and later, as an inmate in Dachau, met Japanese-American troops. 'My destiny was tied up with the Japanese people from the beginning, ' said Ganor who lives in Israel. 'I knew Chiune Sugihara -- he was the only light in a sea of darkness. He issued us visas.' Still, for Ganor, a visa was not enough to save him from Dachau. He was Lithuanian, which meant he had forced Soviet citizenship. He was arrested trying to leave Lithuania by Soviet police who handed him over to the Nazis. Masha Leon was luckier. She was one of the 6,000 people issued an exit visas by Sugihara who made it to freedom, escaping Nazi and Soviet persecution. 'We arrived in Japan in February 1941 aboard the last ship to get here,' said Leon, who was accompanied by her artist daughter, Karen. 'I went to a convent run by Japanese nuns in Kobe (western Japan). After the hell of the Nazis and Soviets it seemed like heaven.' Leon, 63, was moved along with some of her fellow Sugihara visa recipients to Canada. After the war she went to the United States and now lives in Flushing, New York. 'After the war I remember befriending a Japanese-American girl at school in Chicago and being shunned by the other girls, because she was a 'Jap'...Racism knows no bounds, does it?' Sugihara was in Prague at the end of the war where he was imprisoned by the Soviets. After returning to Japan he was forced to leave the foreign service for defying orders for 30 straight days granting visas. Once a rising foreign service star, Sugihara had to work in disgrace as a part-time translator after being thrown out of his job. It was not until 1991, five years after his death, that his actions gained recognition from Japanese authorites who have had a trying time atoning for the actions of Japan in Asia during the war. His wife Yukiko Sugihara, who was with him during his mission of mercy, lives near Tokyo and travels across Japan to talk of their wartime experiences in Europe.