Japan day 20: Shabbat in Kobe

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May 25th 2019
Published: June 13th 2019
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Kobe was a safe haven for Jews fleeing Europe in 1940 and 1941. Jews started coming to Japan in the 1860s, when Japan was opened to trade. There quickly became a small population of Jewish businessmen in Kobe, along with the other port cities of Yokohama and Nagasaki. By the early 1900s there existed a Zionist organization and well established Jewish community in Kobe, and its first synagogue, Ohel Shelemo, was constructed in 1912. When trade with Russia declined in Nagasaki prior to the Russo-Japanese War and the great Kanto earthquake struck Yokohama in 1923, the majority of the Jewish population in Japan ended up in Kobe. As the Jews fled Europe and settled in Kobe, there was a well-off Jewish community of about 1000 people and 50 families. The community was composed primarily of Sephardim originally from Iraq and Iran, and Ashkenazim who had originally lived in Russia. This Jewish community of Kobe was treated without prejudice by the Japanese government. A Japanese official stated in 1922, "The number of Jews in Japan is comparatively small. We treat them the same as we treat all foreigners. We do not distinguish between them." Such an attitude towards Jews was rare in the world at that time, and would prove to be lifesaving for the community in Kobe. As the world became more anti-Semitic and the Nazis began their plans to annihilate the Jews in Europe, Kobe would serve as a safe haven for thousands of refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

In 1904 the Japanese government needed money to fight the Russo-Japanese war. No European bankers would take a risk that Japan would beat Russia, a bigger and mightier country than Japan. A New York banker by the name of Jacob Schiff agreed to grant $200 billion in loans. Schiff became the first foreigner to receive the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor. For this reason the Japanese felt indebtedness to the Jews whom they considered to be wealthy and powerful.

During WW2, there was an influx of about 4,600 refugees, many from Poland who had travelled 6,000 miles to get to safety. However, this was a large amount of people for such a small Kobe community to deal with. About 1000 people managed to get transit to other parts of the world.

A Japanese diplomat named Chiune Sugihara, was working as a spy in the consulate in Kovno. A group of Jews arrived at his consulate requesting a transit visa through Japan. These Jews had little money and were missing the documents normally required for a visa, but were clearly helpless and Sugihara knew they would perish without his help. After long debate, Sugihara took a stance against his foreign ministry and began to issue necessary documents for travel through Japan to any Jew who came to him. The consulate was closed shortly after the war began to escalate, but within a few months Sugihara issued thousands of visas that undoubtedly saved the lives of the Polish Jews who received them. Now called the "Japanese Schindler", Sugihara’s heroics have been honoured many times, including the highest honour that Israel gives to those who helped Holocaust survivors.

Unfortunately for the recipients, many of these Sugihara visas were valid for little more than travel across Russia and a 14-day stay in Japan. The final destination of Curaçao in the Caribbean was put on paper because it did not require an entry visa, but no one ever really intended to reach the island. To make matters worse, many of the Jews who escaped from Lithuania to Japan had forged Sugihara visas. This was all very clear to the Japanese officers who inspected the Polish refugees’ papers at Tsuruga, and a solution had to be reached if the Jews were to avoid deportation from Japan.

The Jewish Organisation, known as JEWCOM knew the gravity of the situation, and turned to Setsuzo Kotsuji, a bible scholar and Japanese "Jewish expert". Kotsuji was a friend of the Jews, and personally appealed to foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka on behalf of the Jews of Kobe. A conclusion was reached that the central government would ignore the forged and expired visas if the local Kobe police would accept such a decision and let their city welcome thousands of refugees. Kotsuji then obtained 300,000 yen, no small amount, to bribe the Kobe police and get them to approve the extension of the Polish visas.

Amongst the refugees from Poland came students from the Mir Yeshivah. It became the only Polish yeshivah to remain intact after the War and they were given a building to continue their Torah studies.

The Japanese were nervous about foreigners and the population in Kobe was obviously foreign. It was decided to deport the Jews to Shanghai. Unfortunately, much of the Jewish way of life has disappeared. But the rabbi and his family and the small number of regulars and the visitors keep the synagogue going.

The service started at 10.30 am. The rabbi gave a lesson on the week’s Torah reading at 10 am. As we thought that this would be in Ivrit we did not go at that time. More fool us as usually the lesson is in English but because there were no visitors (without us) so the lesson was in Ivrit.

We were waiting for the 10th man to start when some visitors arrived with their guide. Whilst they were Jewish they didn’t want to stay for the service, they were just looking at shul. As one of the men wanted to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) the man agreed to stay but his wife was not happy!!! Then they left. Eventually the 10th man arrived and the service continued.

We had lunch with the community and once again we had fish. As soon as we had finished lunch the men went back into the synagogue for afternoon prayers and then we went back to the hotel where we had our Sabbath snooze.

For supper we finished the pot noodles. As soon as Shabbat was over we went to Starbucks for another iced coffee and then back to the hotel to pack.


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