We remember the perished. We remember the survived and their way to survival.
That’s why we offer free guided tour to follow their footsteps.
Do you know “Kobe” means “God’s Door”? Kobe was literally the door to life for them.
In 1940, the people of Kobe were surprised by the entrance of thousands of Jews. Fleeing rampant persecution in Eastern Europe, these Jews crossed over Russia to enter Japan. They faced death in Europe, but in Kobe, they could breathe a sigh of relief.
After Kristallnacht in 1938, many Jews tried to escape Europe, but it was increasingly difficult. With the breakout of WW2 in 1939, it became almost impossible for Jewish people in East Europe to travel westward, so their only escape route was to the east. Many crossed over Siberia and came to Vladivostok by train, then crossed the sea to Tsuruga port in Japan and traveled by train to Sannomiya, Kobe.
There were two waves of refugees, each bringing to Kobe about two thousand Jews. The first wave comprised of German Jews who arrived in the summer of 1940. Many of them held travel documents that allowed their departure from Kobe within a few weeks. The second wave comprised mainly of Polish Jews who arrived between October 1940 and the summer of 1941. They made their way to Kobe with transit visas issued by the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Lacking the proper travel documents to go any further, these Polish Jews remained in Kobe for many months. But by the summer of 1941, Kobe’s remaining one thousand refugees were sent to Shanghai. They remained there until the end of WWII.
People who helped the refugees
In July of 1940, many refugees were gathering in front of the Japanese consulate in Kaunus, Lithuania. These were Polish Jews, and they were in Lithuania because Poland had been invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union. Yet Lithuania too would soon be annexed. The last hope was to obtain transit visas for Japan. After a lengthy and difficult negotiation, Chiune Sugihara decided to issue thousands of visas for them in spite of objections from the Japanese foreign ministry. With help from Jewish aid organizations they bought train tickets and made their way to Kobe.
Yad VaShem later acknowledged Sugihara’s heroic acts and gave him an honorary title of “Righteous Gentile.” And there are many more who helped the Jewish refugees.
Zorach Warhaftig, who later became the religious minister of Israel, was among the refugees. He put in tremendous effort to negotiate with diplomats, government officials and Jewish aid organizations.
The largest group among the refugees was Mir Yeshiva students. They all went to Shanghai and continued their Torah study until the end of WWII. The yeshiva is now in Jerusalem.
The stories of these refugees are recorded in many books, including Zorach Warhaftig's Refugee and Survivor and Rabbi Marvin Tokayer's The Fugu Plan.
The Tour Course
Here are major spots to visit during the guided tour.
① Sannomiya Station
Our tour starts from JR Sannomiya Station. Although the building has been renovated, the main structure is the same as when the refugees arrived. When they arrived, those who had arrived earlier came to welcome them, and the hall was full of people hugging and kissing each other and crying with joy!
② JEWCOM Office
Then we will visit where the Kobe Jewish community office (JEWCOM) used to be. Food distribution, humanitarian aid, and of course, typical office work happened here. Although the building is gone, we can compare the location to old photos and get a better sense of what it was like.
③ Houses They Stayed
The refugees stayed in several dozen houses, but most of them were destroyed in the heavy bombing during WWII. However, we can visit the sites and think about what their daily life might have been like. If circumstances and your schedule allow, we may be able to see one of the remaining houses.
④ Bus Stop
The refugees took the bus almost every day to go to the JEWCOM office. Some people in Kobe still remember seeing many Jews standing by this bus stop.
⑤The Fourth Pier
Most of the refugees sailed out from Kobe port. Many of them departed from the fourth pier that is still used today for luxurious cruise ships. Fortunately, the old terminal building still remains. Although it is not open to visitors, we can see the building from the outside and imagine what departing may have felt like.
⑥ Other Spots
If you have time, we can visit several other spots, including current Kobe synagogue, Former Jewish residents’ houses in Kobe, old custom office building, good observatory and so on.