KOBE – During World War II, about 5,000 Jews fleeing persecution by Nazi Germany stayed in this western Japanese port city for several months before moving on to third countries. Berl Schor, now 95, was one of them, and he recently spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun during those turbulent days.
One morning in September 1939, when Schor was 11, two loud explosions shook Kraków in southern Poland. As the German army rolled across Poland’s borders, his older sister and her husband decided to flee to Lublin in the east of the country with their children and relatives, and Schor went with them. Along the way, the family of seven encountered invading Soviet troops pushing west. His homeland had been divided in two and occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
A split-second decision sent them north to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where the Japanese consulate in downtown Kaunas was rumored to be issuing visas. When they arrived at the consulate, the building was crowded with people applying for Japanese transit visas. Schor’s sister’s husband discovered a small door to the right of the main entrance. As they walked through, they found a Japanese diplomat sitting there.
He was Chiune Sugihara (1900-86), Vice Consul at the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. Sugihara issued transit visas to Jewish refugees fleeing Poland in the summer of 1940, despite the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s policy of limiting the admission of refugees. He is believed to have saved about 6,000 Jews. Schor, who was issued a visa for his entire family, was entered as “number 77” on the list.
Schor and his family took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union and boarded a ship for Japan. In March 1941, they landed at the port of Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture and made their way to Kobe, where they were supported by the largest Jewish organization in Japan. In Kobe, Schor was greeted by many smiling and waving Japanese people. He recalled the scene and said that for the first time he felt free of any danger to his life.
A house was set up in the Ijinkan neighborhood of the city’s Kitano neighborhood by the Kobe Jewish community (Kobe Jewcom), who were helping the refugees from Europe. Schor befriended local boys, helped deliver milk, and lived a “free” life for the first time in about a year and a half. He also visited a nearby public bathhouse.
After staying in Kobe for about four months, they moved on to New Zealand via Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Java and Sydney and saw the war there. After graduating from a local university, Schor moved to Switzerland and then to Israel in 1955. He now has more than 10 grandchildren and lives a happy life.
It is estimated that around 6 million Jews were massacred at Auschwitz in Poland and other Nazi concentration camps, including Schor’s parents who were murdered in June 1943. While many of his fellow Jews were dying, Schor stressed that one of the reasons he was able to survive was the warmth of the people of Kobe who welcomed him and his family. Since it was a port city with many foreigners, they were less likely to be discriminated against.
Kobe Jewcom provided housing and support, such as advice on where to seek asylum, to Jews like Schor and others who came to the city to escape Nazi persecution. Since it opened its port for foreign trade in 1868, many Jews have come to Kobe by sea. The organization is said to have been founded around 1937 by Anatole Ponevejsky and others who came from a Jewish community in Harbin, China.
The Kobe Jewcom building was destroyed by US air raids in 1945, but a stone wall about 2 meters high and 25 meters wide remained. The site is now the site of the Kobe Institute of Computing College of Computing and in November 2020 an information board was installed near the wall. In English and Hebrew, as well as Japanese, it explains the history of exchanges between Kobe citizens and Jewish refugees.
On October 7, 2022, about 40 students from Kagawa Prefecture’s Takamatsu High School, the alma mater of Sugihara’s wife Yukiko, visited the site to learn more about this story and the Holocaust.
Koharu Kimura, 16, a first-year student, said, “I’ve learned that regardless of race, we should try to help people in difficult situations. I want to do something to keep this story alive.”
(Japanese original by Atsuko Nakata, Kobe Bureau)