Tokyo The young man’s monochrome portrait is at least 70 years old, the whites all faded to yellow, but it is still clear he had style. His hair is slicked down, eyebrow arched, suit perfect with matching tie and handkerchief.
He also had the good fortune to escape Europe in the early days of World War II. The photo, a gift to the man who helped him escape, is one of seven recently discovered snapshots that cast light on a little known subplot of the war — even as Germany sought to seal Jewish Europeans in, a small army of tourism officials from its main ally, Japan, helped shepherd thousands away to safety.
“My best regards to my friend Tatsuo Osako,” is scrawled in French on the back of the picture, which is signed “I. Segaloff” and dated March 4, 1941. His fate is unknown.
An effort is under way to find the people in these portraits or their descendants, all of whom are assumed to be Jewish. Personal photos of such refugees, who often fled with few possessions, are rare.
The photos were found in an old diary owned by Osako, who was a young employee of the Japan Tourist Bureau at the time, and died in 2003. Akira Kitade, who worked under Osako and is researching a book about him, has contacted Israeli officials for help and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The museum said he gave it about 30 photographs that he is trying to identify, and received a list of over 2,000 Jews who received travel papers that enabled them to reach Japan.
Nissim Ben Shitrit, the Israeli ambassador to Japan, says he has passed on the information to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which tracks and honors victims of the Holocaust, and is optimistic some of the individuals can be tracked down.
“I thought that we discovered almost everything about the horror of the Holocaust,” Shitrit said. “And yet there is more to discover.”
The photos shed further light on the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania who granted transit visas to several thousand Jews in the early days of the war. In doing so, he defied strict stipulations from Tokyo that such recipients have proper funds and a clear final destination after Japan.
He was one of a handful of diplomats such as Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg and Hiram Bingham IV of the U.S. who used their bureaucratic machinery, often without their government’s knowledge, to issue the paperwork that would get Jews to safety.
Dubbed the “Japanese Schindler,” Sugihara was honored in 1985 by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a high honor reserved for non-Jews who saved Jews at their own personal risk from the Holocaust, Hitler’s destruction of 6 million Jews.
A short movie about him, “Visas and Virtue,” won an Academy Award in 1997.
In league with Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch consul in Lithuania, Sugihara worked nonstop on visas for Jews in the months until Russia annexed Lithuania in August 1940 and he was forced to leave the country. He issued thousands of documents and continued to slip blank visas out of the window of his train as it pulled away, according to accounts of his departure.
Visas issued by Sugihara, who died in 1986 at the age of 86, are estimated to have given around 6,000 Jewish refugees a lifeline out of Europe, though records are incomplete.