‘Chiune Sugihara saved 10 times more people than Oskar Schindler’

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.

She has teamed up with scriptwriter Nico Lathouris, who has already found fame by penning the hit Mad Max: Fury Road, and a producer who is also the child of Holocaust survivors. The first draft of the film, tentatively titled The Saviour, is coming together. 

“It features a version of me in my early 20s, and word gets out that Sugihara has been found in Moscow,” she explained. In the script, she and her grandmother go on a pilgrimage to the Soviet Union to thank the man who saved their lives, and through it reconnect with her estranged father, who comes to save them in Russia after she falls into trouble. He then meets Sugihara and finally engages with his trauma as repressed memories of their flight from the Holocaust come bubbling up.

“The children of Holocaust survivors take on the trauma of their parents,” Ms Royal said. “So we really wanted to highlight that and talk about survivors, talk about refugees and the trauma of settling in new countries. And the heightened antisemitism which has cropped up once again.”

In her travels around the world to drum up funding and support for the project, Ms Royal has met the ever-growing community of Sugihara survivors and descendants, now estimated to stretch into the hundreds of thousands. And through that work, she has also befriended Nobuki Sugihara, Chiune’s son.

Buki, the younger Sugihara, as he is known, was also ignorant of his father’s heroism for the first years of his life. Quietly fired from Japan’s diplomatic service, Sugihara senior worked a series of menial jobs before moving to Moscow to work for a Japanese trading firm.

But in 1968, an attaché at Israel’s Tokyo embassy, who was himself a recipient of a Sugihara visa, finally tracked the humble man down to honour his actions. It was only then his son heard what his father had done in 1940 for the first time.
“He said he issued many visas but he didn’t remember how many. I asked him how many, ten, 20, 100 or more,” Buki Sugihara told the JC. “He really didn’t remember, but he hoped two or three could survive from his visa.”



Linda Royal with Sugihara’s son, Buki

In reality, the number was thousands, as Buki Sugihara soon discovered for himself. Granted a scholarship to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem by the Israeli government in a gesture of thanks, he ended up spending 13 years living in Israel.

One by one, more and more Sugihara Jews began coming forward, including the then-minister for religious affairs, Zerach Warhaftig, a signatory to Israel’s declaration of independence. Eventually, Sugihara survivors planted a forest in his memory outside Jerusalem and in 1985 he was inducted into Yad Vashem. “He was rather quiet, not exciting. He felt good, I am sure,” Mr Sugihara recalled.

“He never imagined there were so many survivors. He didn’t think even 50 or 100. He was happy to see one or two. Then, I think he felt well. But he was never proud of it. He did what he could, he said.”

Buki Sugihara now spends much of his time travelling the world, meeting groups of survivors and descendants. Every time, he is greeted with warm hugs by those who would not be alive were it not for his father. “It’s amazing. Yes, they feel me as my father. I appreciate that very much. We hug each other, they are happy, I am happy. I wish my father could see it.”

But he also spends much of his time correcting the record. Chiune Sugihara’s story has belatedly been picked up back home in Japan. There are plays written about him, landmark trails for tourists to follow in his footsteps, and he has even been added to school curriculums. But much of it is exaggerated and inaccurate, his son said, with a sigh. He thinks Ms Royal’s film project, which she has explained to him in detail, is a “good idea”, but ultimately not about his father but about hers.

“She is more making a film for survivors,” he remarks, something Ms Royal is happy to concede. Her script, although based on the historical events, does use a healthy dose of artistic licence. In reality, neither she nor her father ever met Sugihara in Moscow, or anywhere else for that matter.

“I think I would have been very emotional to have met him,” she said. “When I met Nobuki, I thought this is the closest thing to the guy I owe my life to. I wouldn’t be here without Chiune Sugihara, and neither would my kids.”

Now, she wants the Sugihara Jews around the world to buy into her film project, by chipping in financially and spreading the word. “So we can own this as a dedication to perpetuate his memory, for giving us life.”

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