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An Interview with David Kranzler

An expert in Holocaust studies, Dr. David Kranzler specializes in the stories of Jews who survived Nazi persecution. Now retired from his teaching position at the City University of New York, Kranzler has published extensively on the topic over the course of his career. His books include Japanese, Nazis and Jews: the Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938-45 and Holocaust Hero: the Untold Story of Solomon Schonfeld, the British Rabbi Who Saved Thousands of Jews During the Holocaust. Filmmaker diane estelle Vicari interviewed Kranzler on November 8, 1998, for the making of Sugihara. What follows is an edited transcript.

After almost 300 years of economic and ideological isolation under the feudalistic Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan entered the world scene at the end of the 19th century in an aggressive posture. Its imperial rule restored, Japan went to war with China, and later with Russia, for control of China's eastern ports and resource-rich Manchurian region. One of the most crucial areas in which Japan gained a foothold was the international port of Shanghai. Japan was a presence in the city throughout the 20th century, taking official control in 1937 after the bloody Nanjing Massacre.

Tell us a little bit about Shanghai before our story of Sugihara begins. What type of city was it, and why were the Japanese so interested in it? Why was it such a target for Japanese imperialism?

DAVID KRANZLER: Shanghai ... started out as a swampy area before the British came in the 1840s and developed it as a port. ... So the Europeans had great sway in China, beginning in the middle of the 19th century when they opened up the ports in the so-called Opium Wars. And they actually created a center for trade. At first it was opium, and then it became tea and many other products. ... Eventually, slowly, through the decades of the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Shanghai developed into a major international port.

There were really three sections in Shanghai. There was the international city, which was controlled by 11 countries including the United States, Japan, and Britain, which had mostly administrative rule of Shanghai. There was the French concession, which was ruled exclusively by the French. And then there was the Chinese city, ruled by the Chinese proper.

... Until 1937, you really had a Chinese control of the port, ... [but] that disappeared in the wake of the hostilities between the Chinese and Japanese in 1937. Once that had occurred, the Chinese were out of the picture. And it was in fact ... the Japanese who controlled the harbor. Even though they were not the rulers of all of Shanghai, they controlled the harbors to determine who comes in, who does not come in.

The Europeans had long encouraged wealthy foreigners, including many Jews, to settle in Shanghai, in hopes of reaping gains from their development and trade in the region. Japan continued this policy. The city remained open to Jewish refugees after the Nazis began persecuting them in Europe.

There had been a Jewish community in Shanghai for a while. Can you give us an overview of what that community was like?

KRANZLER: So, what really happened in Shanghai was [that] it was an open city, meaning it was an undeveloped country, to use the contemporary terms, to which the British invited anyone to come ... help to develop. Develop literally in a real estate [sense] — develop the commerce.

And Jews took advantage throughout history and particularly in the 19th century. They took advantage of open areas, invitations to settle, invitations to do business, because they had known too many restrictions in Europe and they had an opportunity here to do things they couldn't do in their home country.

The Jews in Baghdad in the 19th century, even the end of the 18th century, were living [under] the fairly oppressive Arab rule. And many of them, by the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, migrated to India under British rule. And there they had greater freedom to prosper, to do commerce, to conduct their religious affairs without hindrance. So many Baghdadi Jews moved to India, and Bombay especially, and from those in Bombay were Jews that went to Shanghai.

At the beginning of the 1840s you had entrepreneurs ... like the Sassoon clan, which was somewhat analogous to the Rothschild family. ... [The Rothschilds] had the patriarch, of course, and a number of sons who spread out through Western Europe to create a financial empire and to help to develop, industrialize, commercialize much of western Europe.

Similarly, the Sassoons are a very entrepreneurial and old Babylonian or Baghdadi family from India, [who] via India came to Shanghai and developed a commercial interest and commercial centers in a number of ports in East Asia. ... The Sassoon family sent out their sons to different ports through Shanghai. ... Some went to Japan, others went to south Asia and the Dutch East Indies, etc.

Interestingly enough, they were very religious, just like the Rothschilds at the beginning. [Rothschild] established at least a quorum of 10 men so they could have what you call in Hebrew a minion, a prayer quorum. Every one of them ... studied how to do ritual slaughter, at least of fowl, so they could eat kosher meat. They tried wherever to create a small Jewish community with 10 men, you know, in the families.

Shanghai began the same way. They brought over 10 men at first. And then many more co-religionists from Bombay to work with them, people they could trust. And some of these became entrepreneurs and tycoons on their own. The Hardoons and Kadoories [other Jewish families in Shanghai], etc., were sought out as workers in the Sassoon establishments. And they ended up, some of them, doing much better than Sassoon himself, or some of the Sassoons.

... And they rose to the pinnacle of the social economic level of Shanghai society. Originally, some of them were in the opium trade when that was popular. Then they went into tea and into real estate and into the transportation. Oh, some of them owned half the transportation of Shanghai, for example. Real estate. They were big real estate magnates. They had the vision also to build up and to have confidence in the future of Shanghai. And their confidence paid off handsomely. ... Some of them [such as Sir Victor Sassoon] were knighted because of their value to the British empire. They were an outpost to the British empire.

... They never reached more than 5,600 at their peak, the Sephardim [Jews] in Shanghai. But they had a tremendous influence in all areas of social, economic, and political [life], and later on we see in the religious spheres of Jewish life as well.

Now, let's jump ahead to the late 1930s and look at the amazing fact of how many Jews came from Europe.

KRANZLER: The first Jews to come as refugees to Shanghai came from Austria. ... While the German Jews were oppressed, ... strangled slowly, bit by bit, until Crystal Night in November, 1938, ... the Austrian Jews were primarily [former refugees] themselves, or children of refugees. ... So they were all relative newcomers and they found it much easier to relocate. Or if they saw things were tough, they would look elsewhere more readily than the German Jews. So the first Jews left Austria in August of 1938.

And the only problem was — you can go to Shanghai without any papers — but you need a ship card, and these ship cards were only available on luxury liners. And the way to go to Shanghai was to buy a ship card. You didn't need a visa, you didn't need an affidavit, you didn't need any other papers, but you needed a ship card. And those were expensive, and those who could not afford it sometimes got help from the Jewish community, from the Joint Distribution Committee, the American Relief Organization, or other Jewish relief organizations in Europe.

The Italian Line was the primary luxury line that ferried its boats constantly from Italy to Shanghai. In other words, you had to travel by train to Italy, to the port. And from there you took the boat through the Suez Canal, around the Indian Ocean to Shanghai.

... The vast majority took the ship route from August; especially heavy was the traffic after Crystal Night in November. And heaviest, of course, in November, December, and January '39. And it petered off by May.

By May 1939, you had about 15,000 [German and Austrian Jewish] refugees in Shanghai. ...There was a section that was bombed in 1937, and the refugees would settle there. And they rebuilt houses, rebuilt the wrecks and Jewish relief organizations helped them find space there.

In 1941, the last group of refugees came — and this was in the middle and latter part of '41 — the Polish group. And they comprised approximately, pretty close to a thousand, Jews. So all together you had at the very maximum, 17,000 to 18,000 refugees in Shanghai that ended up before Pearl Harbor and lived through the war and exited after the war.

While Japan officially welcomed Jews into her territories, conflicting stereotypes about the Jewish population abounded. Most Japanese, especially those within government, had developed a certain reverence for Jews, particularly since a Jewish American banker, Jacob Schiff, had helped finance Japan's war against Russia in 1904, when no one else would. On the other hand, Jewish people were seen by many as an inherently powerful group that could be dangerous to Japan's culture and international status.

What was the Japanese perception of the Jews during this time?

KRANZLER: The Japanese got to know Jews originally in the 1870s and '80s through Christian missionaries and Western ideas. ... And one of the things that they learned about the West was anti-Semitism, first introduced through [the character of] Shylock, because they took up Shakespeare. They translated [The Merchant of Venice] into Japanese and found out [there was] such thing as a Jew and [an] "evil" Jew, Shylock.

There were other ideas about Jews they learned from the [Christian] missionaries. ... They discovered the terrible Jews, the anti-Christ and other negative pictures or stereotypes that were presented by the missionaries, or what they studied in the Western countries.

But on the whole, the picture of the Jews that the Japanese formed by the turn of the century was very, very minimal. Very few Japanese knew anything about Jews other than that they were whites.

And what really turned the tables was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. That was the first war Japan fought against a Western power and in that was part of its concept of warding off Western conquest of Asia. ... Japan was very much afraid of being taken over. And so they first fought China, and then they fought Russia in 1904. And lo and behold, they find out that with a modern war, one has to have money. In order to get money, you went to the money capital, and at that time London was the financial center of the Western world.

So they send [special finance minister] Baron [Korekiyo] Takahashi to London to raise money, especially to buy a fleet, because they knew the Russians would send their Baltic fleet to attack the Japanese. ... He went to London to raise 10 million pounds: it was a fortune. Ten million pounds would be equivalent today of perhaps two billion dollars.

He was unsuccessful simply because Japan at that point had not won a single victory. And people really felt, well, the sleeping giant, Russia, he'll wake up and swat the fly Japan, and that will be the end of it. Nobody had confidence in Japan winning the war.

And [Takahashi] did manage to get assurance of half the loan, but he couldn't get the whole loan, which he wanted badly. So, he happened to be sitting at a dinner about the last day before he was going to go home disappointed, and sitting next to [him was] a gentleman [to] whom he was telling his tale of woe. And the fellow told him, "I'll take care of the loan for you."

[Takahashi] couldn't believe his ears, because, you know, it's nice for a sympathetic fellow to listen to you but a hard-headed banker doesn't do things based on these emotional stories. And he found out, of course, this gentleman's name was Jacob Schiff.

Jacob Schiff was the head at that time of the Kuhn, Loeb and Company. It was like a banker's bank, investment bankers. So, Schiff really followed up on his word and he floated the loan for Japan. ... It was Schiff that had the faith in Japan when nobody else did.

Schiff was the first Westerner honored by the emperor after the peace. His name was revered by all Japanese. And so, in the mind of the people — who didn't know what a Jew was — but here was the man who saved Japan. [And he] was a Jew, so every Jew must be rich. ...

The real understanding of Jews on a certain level came through another route. And that came through a clique of Russian-language experts who were part of the little war going on in Siberia, 1917 through '20, '21 I think even, between the communist Bolsheviks and the White Russians.

Japan was part of the allied forces that were inside Siberia fighting with the White Russians. And Admiral Alexander Kolchak was not only the head of the White Russians, he was also the primary anti-Semite who propagated a new book that came out at that time called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which, in essence, relates a story of how the elders ... of the Jews met in 1888, I believe, ... to plot the control of the world through various means: communism, capitalism, you name it.

In this book it ... gave a very clear-cut picture of how the Jews are controlling much of the world, especially the Western world. ... You would pick on certain figures in the government or in the financial world to prove that they control that country. For example, in the 1930s, the Japanese proved that the Jews controlled America: Look, Morgenthal was secretary of the treasury. Of course he told Roosevelt what to do, in their mind. And they would pick on Jews in Germany and Jews in England and so on as proof positive of the Jewish control of the Western world.

... The important thing to realize is that the same group [of Japanese officers who read this book and related works] were what you would call ultra-nationalists. They resented Western ideas while at the same time [were] interested in Western technology and things for Japan. What they resented were the Western concepts of individuality, of democracy. In Japan, they had a more collective perspective of society. ... One is trained from babyhood, infancy on, to bring honor to the family and to the extended family and to Japan as that larger extended family.

So many Western cultural ideas clashed with Japanese ideas. ... In fact, they had the three S's, which symbolized Western intrusion: Screen (that's the movies); Sports; and Sex. Those were three things that they felt were Western concepts that intruded upon the Japanese culture and ideas. ... The Jews seemed to symbolize the problems that the West had brought to Japan.

... And so they saw the Jews on the one hand as the villain, on the other hand as the extraordinary power which they could utilize. You know, a love/hate relationship in some ways. ...

Paradoxically, the Japanese government officials who were most influenced by Russian anti-Semitism were also those promoting policies to bring Jews into Japan's territories. Some of the most prominent members of this powerful group were General Kiichiro Higuchi, Colonel Senko Yasue, Captain Koreshige Inuzuka and General Nobutaka Shioden. While their motivations remain ambiguous to historians, their policies indisputably saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees.

KRANZLER: So in 1936, there started to evolve a policy towards the Jews, which by December 1938 ended up being a pro-Jewish policy. Not "pro," meaning we are favoring Jews, but a policy which ended up, in pragmatic terms, favoring the Jews.

And how did that develop? There were eight Russian Jewish communities in Manchuria and north China, Harbin (the capitol of Manchuria) being the largest. The Japanese saw these Russian Jewish communities as a potential weapon in their hand for utilizing the Jewish power.

These Russian Jews were stateless, because they were refugees from Russia, fleeing from the Bolshevik revolution, and they ... had no recognition, no papers of any kind. And the Japanese said, "Well, we're going to give something to the Jews in ... north China and Japan. We will give them status. We will also protect them from Russian anti-Semitism," which was fairly rampant in Manchuria and in some parts of north China.

So in 1936 already, there evolved the beginnings of a plan to treat the Jews better, treat them well, in order to find a way of utilizing their tremendous power. And so they decided, the heads of this clique, which included Japanese naval officers and army officers and ministers and the head of the Manchurian Railroad, who was the de facto boss of Manchuria — they decided they're going to be good to the Jews, these Russian Jews.

... And they're going to allow them to achieve a status and permit these eight Russian Jewish communities to create the Far Eastern Conference. Every year, representatives of all these eight communities will get together in Harbin. And there we'll have a conference to discuss the issues affecting the Jews under Japanese influence.

The Jews, of course, hadn't the foggiest idea what was behind the Japanese concept. They were grateful that a Colonel Yasue, who was the main officer in charge of the Jewish affairs in Manchuria, was very helpful in Manchuria. And they saw him as a friend.

As we mentioned before, in 1940 the Japanese authorities permitted thousands of German and Austrian Jews to cross through Manchuria. That was a Japanese policy, a conscious policy to permit them to go through Manchuria.

Let's talk about the refugees. What was the policy then towards refugees?

KRANZLER: The policy evolved as the Japanese saw hundreds and then thousands coming, shipload after shipload, into Shanghai.

You had Colonel Yasue, whose idea for the utilization of Jewish power and influence was to settle the refugees in Manchuria. He would create a Palestine for Jews in Manchuria, which had a dual purpose. It would attract the Jews, in their mind. Number two, it would counter the Soviet Jewish homeland, Bura Bijon, which the Soviets foisted on the Jews.

[They thought:] "We've got to create a Palestine in Manchuria, so we bring in all the refugees and they'll settle in Manchuria." We'll provide them with their own ... land and power. And, in addition to which, what will it do for Japan? This same group will be the intellectual and scientific class for Manchuria, which it lacked. They will help develop the many natural resources, especially with the help of Jewish money, because we know the Jews control the financial world, especially in America and Britain.

So the Jews in Manchuria and North China will tell their brethren in the United States to lend them money so the Japanese could develop Manchuria, which has tremendous amount of natural resources, into its full potential.

And the Jews were fit into that scheme of utilizing Manchuria and developing Manchuria with their money and, of course, [the Japanese] also wanted the Jews who controlled the United States, in their mind, to mitigate the harsh American policy towards Japan. Because ... the US secretary of state, [Cordell] Hull, was very inflexible. [He] said [to Japan], We will not talk to you until you get out of the occupied territories — to use contemporary terms. In other words, get out of Manchuria before we talk to you about the issue.

... [The Japanese] sent a message; they made one of the heads of the Russian Jewish community send a cable to Treasury Secretary Morgenthal, who in their mind controlled Roosevelt. ... In other words, they were ready to deal with the United States, but they couldn't deal with an inflexible boycott. And so they asked the Jews to intercede, because they thought the Jews had that tremendous power in the United States.

And we'll see that same perspective even middle of [World War II], twice at least that we know of, that they asked Jews to intercede to stop the war in the middle of the war. Because they still believed to great extent that the Jews had that power.

At any rate, it was that perspective of the Jews that created that policy which manifested itself in December 6, 1938, in the Five Ministers' Conference, which officially declared, in effect, a welcome to the Jews of Europe, the refugees, to come into their territory, to come into Shanghai.

There was an official Japanese radio program aired by Inuzuka in which he extended an official invitation to European refugees to come settle on the Japanese rule. As long as they are loyal to Japan, we welcome them, he said. We are not racists. We will not harm you. They welcomed the refugees, and the German consulate or embassy in Tokyo was going crazy: Who is this Jew-lover inviting the Jews to Japan?

And then they would really go crazy if they had known that the same Inuzuka was behind an anti-Semitic fair in 1940, in which they gave out millions of anti-Semitic pamphlets and books and what not; to which the same German embassy said, "Oh, what a wonderful thing" — not knowing it was the same person who was behind both, Captain Inuzuka.

But this is the complex, contradictory situation of the idealogues, the Japanese idealogues, who in theory wrote anti-Semitic works and distributed anti-Semitic works.

While Chiune Sugihara was not one of Japan's ruling elite, his knowledge of Russian and his work in the foreign service suggest that he was likely well aware of the conflicting stereotypes regarding Jews. It is in this context that Kranzler evaluates Sugihara's efforts to bring Jews to freedom.

An important point is the fact that we know Sugihara had been in Harbin, and we know a lot of these individuals involved with the Manchurian Railroad. He too was involved with the railroad. How does Sugihara fit in?

KRANZLER: Well, Sugihara was one of the Russian language experts ... and certainly imbued with the same perspective as that element that control[led] Japanese policy at the time concerning the Jews. ...

... Sugihara's mission was to stay [in Kaunas, Lithuania] and keep tabs [on German troop movements]. And the Jews happen to come across his way. And the first Jews, of course, came quite legitimately. The first Jews who wanted transit visas were ... some of the German and Austrian Jews who needed permission to cross Manchuria into Japan. And they had visas to other countries. Or they went to Shanghai.

... The only route to freedom was through the east, through Russia, Siberia, and Japan. So those were the so-called Curaçao visas. The first few real Dutch nationals had no problem, and there was no problem giving them the transit visas.

But then the numbers proliferated into tens and hundreds and then thousands. And my estimate, based on very detailed, careful analysis of statistics, is approximately 2,400 Polish refugees made it through with the Curaçao and Japanese transit visas. And later, of course, Russian exit visas.

... Sugihara started out quite legitimately, giving a few Dutch nationals the transit visas. And the numbers started to proliferate. Once word got around that the Japanese was a nice kind man in giving out these transit visas — and these were 10, 12, and later, 14-day transit visas — Jews ... came to Sugihara to get these transit visas.

Talk about Sugihara and what you think was going through his mind.

KRANZLER: Now, Sugihara was a true humanitarian, despite the fact [that] his concept of the Jews fit in so well with the government's, and [that] he was not going against his government's grain, per se, until the number of refugees became too many.

He was not going against their policy because the Japanese policy at that time was benign towards the Jews, and they certainly accepted all the Jews in Japan. And it's important to realize, every Japanese certainly knew that these Curaçao visas were phony. They all knew, and many of these transit visas were forged in Japan and sent back to Lithuania for other Jews to utilize. Not reading Japanese, [the refugees] didn't realize it was so easy to tell [the visas] were a forgery. Or that they're out-dated or they're the wrong ones.

Never the less, every single one of those people was permitted into Japan. Some of them had to go back and forth from Vladivostok to Japan several times, but eventually they were permitted to enter Japan. The refugees averaged a stay in Japan of eight months, some over a year. And one cannot understand it without realizing the Japanese governmental policy.

And believe me, they kept tabs on every refugee. Every foreigner, in fact. The word for foreigner in Japan meant "spy." So Japan was not that open at that point; ... they were not interested in foreigners coming in general. And yet, they permitted the Jews to stay there; they were even good to the Jews in Kobe.

[In Kobe], there were Japanese who gave of their food. Japanese who gave of their rations, because Jews are not used to the rice ration, gave of their wheat ration, bread rations to Jews. ... Doctors gave free inoculations. It had nothing to do with the government. ...

Sugihara did not go against his government's grain. But he was a humanitarian by providing them with the opportunity to go to Japan. What they did in Japan was beyond his power. But he wanted to give them an opportunity to leave Russia, to leave German and Russian territories.

And so he has to be highly, highly commended and honored for that. He was fired by the Japanese government after the war. The defeated country had no need of a spy; he was not fired for helping the Jews. Again, he was in consonance with [the Japanese government's] perspective, but he was not given orders to provide these transit visas. So he did it on his own, and for that, credit has to be given to Sugihara.