By Richard Friedman
Fourteen time zones from Birmingham, Gary Perlman laughed and shook his head. No, he admitted over Zoom, he never could have envisioned living his adult life in Japan. Moreover, he never could have imagined that he would become a driving force behind a new Holocaust museum in his adopted country.
Perlman barely recalls ever seeing an Asian while growing up, an intriguing irony, he admitted, as he reflected on his younger days. The oldest of five boys, the 64-year-old Perlman grew up in Mountain Brook, a Birmingham suburb, where he lived on heavily-Jewish Richmar Drive.
As an undergraduate and graduate student at Duke University, his curiosity and passion for learning blossomed. The acceleration point came during college, when Perlman spent a summer at England’s Oxford University. The experience was the eye-opener that changed his life.
Perlman expected England to be like America. He soon realized there were sharp differences — such as the British emphasis on class. “What else might be out there?” he began asking himself. “What would it be like to explore a culture that was dramatically different?” He wanted to go somewhere new. “I didn’t care where I went, as long as it was not an English-speaking country.”
Searching for opportunities worldwide, he wound up teaching English in Tokyo. “The city was so interesting. This was in the 1980s and Japan was not yet a major presence on the world horizon. That made it even more of an attraction. It was a whole new world. I came knowing nothing.”
Perlman would learn Japanese, and 42 years later he is still there, having built a career as a financial and theatrical translator. Animated and engaging, he has retained a youthful enthusiasm infused with energy and inquisitiveness.
One of the people in Japan he has become close to is someone he’s never met.
Asked to assist in a project for UNESCO, Perlman learned about a remarkable individual known as Chiune Sugihara. Serving as Japan’s consul in Kaunas, Lithuania during World War II, Sugihara was shocked when thousands of Jews converged on the consulate one day seeking visas to Japan to escape persecution in Europe.
After wrestling with his conscience, Sugihara ultimately defied direct orders from his own government and, risking his career and family’s future, devoted the following weeks to issuing thousands of visas to desperate Jews, allowing them to transit through Japan and on to freedom.
His actions saved the lives of an estimated 6,000 Jews. In 1984, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, recognized Sugihara as a Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Descendants of those Sugihara helped are estimated today to number 100,000.
“What I Had to Do”
Perlman came to know the Sugihara family through the UNESCO project, which involved Sugihara’s memoirs and other papers.
The Sugiharas liked his work and asked him to help set up the Chiune Sugihara Sempo Museum in Tokyo to commemorate the former diplomat’s legacy. Sempo was Sugihara’s nickname among foreigners, who found this easier to remember than his actual name. All exhibits were tagged not only in Japanese and English but, unique for a Tokyo museum, Hebrew, with an Israeli living in Birmingham doing the translation.
The museum enjoyed great success until it was forced to close due to the Covid pandemic. It maintains an online presence at http://en.sempomuseum.com/. The website starts with a quote from Sugihara: “I might have done the wrong thing as a diplomat. But I couldn’t abandon those people who had come to me for help. I didn’t do anything special. I just did what I had to do.”
Sugihara died in 1986, his actions unacknowledged by the Japanese government until many years later. In an interview with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko, described those difficult days.
“At the beginning, there were about 200 people, maybe 300,” she said in the edited excerpt. “They stood there from morning until night, waiting for an answer. They also stood like this the following day and the day after. They stood there all the time. They had their children with them. They had escaped from Poland, a place dangerous for them, and, after walking with their children day and night, had reached the Japanese Consulate to ask for visas. They had risked their lives to reach this place; their bodies exhausted, their clothes torn and their faces tired. I would see them from my window. When they saw me looking at them, they would put their hands together as if praying. It was so hard to watch these scenes; they were so miserable.
“Two days passed and my husband sent another telegram to the Foreign Office, for the third time. The answer was the same answer, no matter how many telegrams: do not issue visas. We did not know what to do. We could not sleep at night. We kept thinking and thinking what to do. In addition to that, I had a baby, we had three young children. If my husband issued the visas contrary to the Foreign Office’s instructions, then when we returned to Japan, my husband for sure would lose his job. We were thinking and thinking what to do while the representatives of the refugees begged and begged ‘please give us the visas.’
A more detailed history of Sugihara’s deeds, written by Perlman, can be found on the website of the family’s foundation, NPO Chiune Sugihara Visas for Life.
Also read: Sugihara’s Legacy Felt in Huntsville
First for Japan
“I am embarrassed to admit that before I got involved in the UNESCO project, I had never heard of Sugihara,” said Perlman. “This man saved 6000 lives with no benefit whatsoever to himself, taking great personal risk. It is a fantastic story.” Perlman’s view, however, is that the Japanese diplomat didn’t see himself as rescuing Jews per se. Instead, he was helping people in need.
Perlman and others involved with the museum have been approached by members of the Israeli government to explore expanding the facility into a full-fledged Holocaust museum — which would be a first for Japan. “Japanese know very little about the Holocaust,” explained Perlman. This, along with Perlman being Jewish and caring deeply about his adopted country, is driving him.
In Japan today, Jews play no consequential role. They represent only a tiny fraction of the population, though America’s current ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, is Jewish. Estimates suggest there are only 1,000 to 2,000 Jews living in the country. Nonetheless, Perlman feels comfortable as a Jew and when he attends synagogue enjoys hearing Hebrew and meeting Jews who have traveled to Japan.
One place where Sugihara is recognized is the Alabama Holocaust Education Center. During a recent trip back to Birmingham, Perlman visited the center and was pleased to see a picture of the Japanese diplomat displayed. “It made me feel great to see this in my hometown.”
After 42 years in Japan, does he miss Alabama? “I miss my family and the food. You don’t get grits and barbeque here. I have wonderful memories of Alabama and return as often as I can. But my home is in Japan.”