The daughter of a man saved by the ‘Japanese Schindler’ is making a film about both men
Linda Royal only found out about the story which would change the direction of her life ten years ago. Until then she had lived a relatively ordinary existence in Sydney, Australia, working as a copywriter in the advertising business.
She knew, of course, she was different from the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who dominated her industry.
She was Jewish, and both her parents had come to Australia a generation earlier from Eastern Europe. But until a decade ago, when her father was 80, she had no idea how. That was when he first told them of his epic journey through war-torn Europe and Asia, and that when was she first heard the name Chiune Sugihara.
Many Jews will be familiar with how the mild-mannered Japanese diplomat disobeyed his superiors to save thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. Sugihara’s legacy in Israel is secure, with a place in Yad Vashem with the Righteous Among the Nations.
But Ms Royal, whose father was one of those saved in 1940, feels strongly the time has come for the wider world to learn the name of Chiune Sugihara. And how better than to follow in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg and make the ‘Japanese Schindler’ as famous as Oskar himself via his own Hollywood film.
“It’s 25 years since Schindler’s List and it’s time for another one,” she tells the JC. “Schindler was glorified in Schindler’s List; in reality he was a profiteer from the war and cheap labour. Sugihara had no agenda and he saved ten times the number of people.”
Her father’s story is in some ways typical of those saved by the diplomat, but no less remarkable for it.
Born in 1929 in Poland, he and his parents decided to escape their homeland in December 1939 as the reality of what the Nazis intended became clear.
They reached the border with Lithuania and tried to bribe the guards to let them across, but were caught before they could reach the other side. The German soldiers lined up their captives, preparing to execute them, but at the last moment their commander decided not to waste precious bullets on the Jews. Instead they were forced into a boat and pushed across the river, where they would probably drown anyway.
Somehow, Ms Royal’s grandparents and their 11-year-old only child survived the journey and made it to relatives in Vilnius, the capital. But it was not a safe haven for long, and within months they realised they must flee again as the Nazis advanced. This was where Sugihara enters the story. As a senior diplomat in the local Japanese embassy, he was able to sign and stamp transit visas which would allow Jewish refugees to pass safely through the USSR and on to Japan, where they could then catch boats to as far away from the horrors of Europe as possible.
He contacted his bosses in Tokyo to ask permission to begin issuing the visas. “Three times he asked and three times they said, absolutely under no circumstances,” Ms Royal recalls her father explaining. “And he just defied his government and decided these people were desperate and it was the right thing to do.”
Ms Royal’s grandparents and father were among as many as 6,000 Jews who obtained a Sugihara visa. After a perilous train journey across the expanse of the Soviet Union, they took a two-day boat journey from Vladivostok to Yokohama, and then on to Kobe, where the existing Jewish community took them in. Eventually, they settled in Sydney, where Ms Royal was born.
“They left all their parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunties in Warsaw, who all perished. That was it. They said goodbye to them and never saw them again,” she said. Neither her father nor her grandfather had wanted to talk about their ordeal, so scarred were they by the experience. “They were all very, very traumatised. They wanted to forget the past, compartmentalise it, put it away and live. I didn’t know a thing until my father turned 80.”
But as soon as she heard the tale, Ms Royal knew she wanted to tell it again to a wider audience. Although she was trained as an advertising copywriter and had never worked on film scripts before, she decided to quit her career and focus on making her father and Sugihara’s story come to life in a Hollywood feature.