Film premiere Leads to Historic Meeting of Descendants Tied to Heroic Japanese Diplomat

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At the dawn of World War II, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania at the time, saved thousands of lives by going against his country’s wishes to issue transit visas to Jewish refugees trying to escape Lithuania. Descendants of three families of those survivors met Madoka Sugihara, the storied diplomat’s granddaughter, and Keisuke Sugihara, his great-grandson, during the San Francisco premiere of “Persona Non Grata,” a historical drama depicting Sugihara’s efforts to save some 6,000 Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

According to the 2005 PBS documentary, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” Chiune Sugihara was posted to Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939 to set up a consulate for Japan, primarily to help monitor German and Russian troop movements near the border. He is most remembered for helping to save some 6,000 Jewish refugees, many originating from Poland, who were fleeing east to escape the Nazi invasion.

The Jewish refugees relied on a loophole that those traveling to the Dutch colony of Curacao did not need an entry visa. Sugihara, in turn, issued transit visas, documents that would allow travelers safe passage to Japan before heading to their final destination. Sugihara issued these visas even though most recipients lacked the financial means to make the trip, and some even lacked passports according to the documentary.

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Madoka Sugihara

For his actions, Sugihara was summarily fired from the foreign service after he returned to Japan and lived in relative poverty for the remainder of his life.

Director Cellin Gluck’s “Persona Non Grata” was released in 2015 to Japanese theaters. The film was a box-office hit, second only to “Spectre,” the new James Bond film, and garnered more than one million viewers, according to the director. However, for Los Angeles-based Gluck, who is of Japanese and Jewish descent, his favorite screenings of his film are when they are taken outside of Japan where family of survivors come to attend.

“The best part about being able to travel with the film is be able to share it with audiences around the world,” he said. He said the film received a five-minute standing ovation when it was shown in Kaunas. “I think the best part about seeing the film with audiences outside of Japan is that I get to meet the descendants of survivors, people that have a personal connection with Sugihara … To me, that’s the best part about it.”

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