My Shabbat with Sugihara

December 9, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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Sydney’s Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Levi Wolff’s grandfather was one of 6,000 Jews who owed their lives to Chiune Sugihara…last Shabbos Rabbi Wolff hosted the heroic Japanese’s great-grandson in the synagogue.

Japanese Consul-General Masato Takaoka and Keisuke Sugihara    Photo: Yoshiko Arakawa, Nishigo Press.

Japanese Consul-General Masato Takaoka and Keisuke Sugihara in Central Synagogue                            Photo: Yoshiko Arakawa, Nishigo Press.

For 21-yr-old Keisuke Sugihara it was his first visit to a synagogue and a Shabbat service. The education student’s father change his family name earlier this year to his wife’s who was Sugihara’s granddaughter.

Now Keisuke, or Kei as he prefers to be known, carries the family name of the Japanese consul in Lithuania who in a seven week period issued exit visas to Jews facing Hitler’s death camps allowing them residence in Kobe until Japan entered the war in 1941. At that time most of the Jews rescued by Sugihara were sent to Shanghai.

Attending the service were representatives of seven families whose forbears had been recipients of exit visas in defiance of orders from Tokyo…including Rabbi Levi Wolff.

Rabbi Levi Wolff told J-Wire: “We invited Kei to Shule and thought it appropriate to also invite the Japanese Consul-General and his wife in Sydney given that Kei’s great-grandfather Sempo Sugihara  was the Japanese Consul in wartime Kaunas in Lithuania. It was one of the most memorable experiences for all this who were in shul on Shabbat. I addressed my drosha to Kei Sugihara and the Consul-General.

Following my address in which I asked ‘will be the Sugiharas of today?’ I called on Keisuke to come forward and I presented him with a framed document containing one of the many pages  on which were the names of some of the recipients of his great-grandfather’s visas and on the bottom of that was a very beautiful photo of a group of yeshiva boys from a yeshiva in Otwock, Poland in which my grandfather appears…and the photo was taken in Shanghai following their move from Kobe. At the bottom of the frame I had a silver plaque made on which is engraved “He who saves one life, saves the whole world.

Rabbi Levi Wolff shows Asher Grynberg and Keisuke Sugihara his grandfather's photograph at the Sydney Jewish Museum

Rabbi Levi Wolff shows Asher Grynberg and Keisuke Sugihara his grandfather’s photograph at the Sydney Jewish Museum    Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire


I gave Kei a very big hug and there was a standing ovation from the whole community. It was very emotional.”

It was then time for the emotion-charged Central Synagogue to daven Musaph.

The Consul-General Masato Takaoka then spoke to the congregation pointing out that recently a poll taken in Japan showed that Sugihara is one of the top ten people who young Japanese seek to emulate. The Consul-General revealed that a new film about Sugihara is reaching completion and that there is a museum in his honour in his home city.

Rabbi Wolff added: “He spoke about the heroism of Sugihara and in effect it was very special because it was recognising the mistake Japan had made by being an ally of Germany at that time. I paid recognition to the Government of Japan by saying that in 1941 the Germans wanted the Japanese to give up the Jews or even exterminate them, the Japanese refused and sent them to Shanghai.”

Masato Takaoka also received a standing ovation. Rabbi Wolff continued: “He was noticeably very emotional as was his wife.”

After the service, the congregation was invited to a fahbrengen. 200 chairs had been provided by the caterers. Rabbi Wolff said: “It was far from enough. People were standing in every available place in the room. I started proceeding by telling a story that there is a special relationship between the Japanese and Jewish people dating back 110 years. In  1904, the Japanese Empire was fighting Tsarist Russia and the needed money to finance the war…a difficult situation as no non-European country had ever won a war against a European state.

The deputy governor of the Bank of Japan went to London in an attempt to secure funds but the only person who would help them was Wall Street financier Joseph Schiff who granted them a $200 million loan. Schiff’s motives were founded on the slaughter of his own family in the Kishinev pogroms. Schiff said that Russia had to be defeated because of the way it treated human beings and especially Jews.”

The story features in the documentary being made on Sugihara.

A member of tone of the families saved told J-Wire:

Rabbi Wolff delivered an absolutely brilliant drasha. You should have seen the tears that flowed, including of course from me, as descendant after descendant, again including me, told their family’s stories, and thanked Keisuke, during the fahbrengen afterwards, all in the presence of Keisuke, the Japanese consul and his wife ..

And then Yankel Kancepolski ( once known as John Kay ) rounded off the fahbrengen when he thanked the Japanese Government, through the consul, for having the strength to acknowledge and apologise for, albeit belatedly, how wrong they were to recall and dismiss Sugihara, and then go even further by erecting and opening memorials to Sugihara both in Japan and Lithuania.”

Rabbi Wolff continued: “Representatives of the eight families spoke and one after one they broke down crying. One member of the congregation actually remembered that as a child  his father receiving the visa and making the trip to Kobe.”

He added: “The event offered two main dishes…sushi and gefilte fish.  And we made a L’Chaim with kosher sake!It was a most uplifting, moving  emotional Shabbas.”

CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Vic Alhadeff told J-Wire: “What occurred at Central Synagogue will stand as a moment in time for the Sydney Jewish community. Rabbi Levi Wolff spoke magnificently, followed by a stirring address from the Japanese Consul-General, after which droves of congregants approached him and Keisuke Sugihara to thank them – many in the midst of tears – for saving their family members. It was an inspirational reminder of the power of an individual to make a difference and an experience that those who witnessed it will not forget.”

The Consul’s presence at the Central Synagogue was facilitated by The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies .

Conservative guesses put the number of Jews throughout the world today who owe their existence to “Sempo” Sugihara at over 40,000

If your family was saved by Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara please email





One Response to “My Shabbat with Sugihara”
  1. Patrick Mehr says:

    The biography of Chiune Sugihara by Hillel Levine is now available as an eBook

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