Anxious Search for Final Destinations
Most of the 2,100 Polish Jewish refugees from Lithuania arrived in Kobe, Japan, exhausted and penniless. They revived with devoted care from the local Jewish community and funds from the Joint Distribution Committee. A minority proceeded quickly to the United States and other countries. But for hundreds of others the stay stretched from weeks into months, and many refugees despaired of ever obtaining final destination visas at the American and other consulates they visited.
Uncertainty about the future tempered these transients’ appreciation of exotic Japan. Their endless anxieties about loved ones still in occupied Poland worsened with the news that Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. That July, the United States imposed an embargo on oil exports to Japan, which soon after occupied French Indo-China. The refugees’ nervousness mounted at the sight of military exercises in Kobe, a major naval base, as war in the Pacific loomed.
Help from Kobe’s Jewish Community
With the consent of Japanese authorities, a representative of the Jewish community in Kobe met the now-destitute refugees upon their arrival in Tsuruga and accompanied them on the train to Kobe. Using funds largely from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish community, led by Anatole Ponevejsky, set up group homes, arranged for housing and food, and interceded on the refugees’ behalf in dealings with local officials.
“One does not think about the exodus from Egypt from long ago, only about the forbidden borders one had to run through…and who knows what is in store for us. Where will we have to run now?”
—Rose Shoshana Kahan, Passover 1941
Anatole Ponevejsky was born in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. In 1930, he and his brothers moved to Harbin, Manchuria, where they began a business importing woolens from Japan. In 1935, Ponevejsky went to Japan to run the exports side and later settled in Kobe with his wife and two daughters. He organized the Ashkenazi Jewish community of 25 families, renting a building on Yamamoto-Dori Street that housed a synagogue, community center, and in 1940 and 1941, refugee relief offices. After the war, Ponevejsky opened a retail store in Tokyo where Chiune Sugihara briefly worked.
New Search for Visas
The “Curaçao visas” that had enabled the refugees to leave the Soviet Union proved useless for proceeding beyond Japan. Needing valid destination visas, they made the round of consulates in Kobe, Yokohama, and Tokyo. More than 500 Polish Jews succeeded in obtaining U.S. visas, but new war-related immigration restrictions barred hundreds of others sponsored for entry. Certificates for entering Palestine were even scarcer, and arrangements for traveling more complicated and expensive.
“Menaced by the increasing influx of refugees from Europe of all kinds – among others Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Baltic States – the various countries of America are shutting their doors more and more inexorably against them.”
—Polish ambassador Tadeusz Romer, Tokyo, January 15, 1941
A descendant of Polish nobility, Tadeusz Romer became Poland’s ambassador to Japan in February 1937. During 1940 and 1941 he reported detailed information on the Polish refugees in Japan and the assistance that consular officials provided, including issuing proper identity documents, meeting ships at Tsuruga to make formalities easier, and helping some acquire visas to British dominions. Romer advocated special treatment by Allied countries for Polish refugees in the Far East that was “not subordinated to considerations of race, religion, or political creed.”
The “Final Solution” Begins
While stranded in Japan, the refugees remained anxious about family members from whom they had been separated. Postcards from home provided some comfort, but most communication by mail or telegram ceased after June 22, 1941, when German forces invaded the Soviet Union. In Vilna and elsewhere in captured Soviet territory, the first mass shootings of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators began the killing phase of the Holocaust. The refugees learned little about these events or the fate of loved ones until after the war.
The Japanese public was hospitable as well as intrigued by the refugees. The rabbis and yeshiva students appeared particularly foreign. In Kobe, the refugees caught the interest of the avant-garde Tanpei Photography Club, whose members captured on film many of the refugees in late April 1941. After the war, most refugees remembered the curiosity of the Japanese and noted the absence of antisemitic attitudes and behavior that they had endured in prewar Poland.
“Notwithstanding Japan’s close relations with Germany, there have been no cases reported of discrimination against Jewish refugees, and newpaper comment has not been unkind.”
—U.S. vice consul Roy M. Melbourne, Kobe, May 22, 1941
Members of the Tanpei Shashin Club of Osaka photographed the refugees during two days in April 1941. The Osaka Asahi Kaikan exhibited 22 of their works as “Wandering Jew” in May 1941. Commenting on his portrait of a yeshiva student (“Man”) printed in the magazine Asahi Camera, Kaneyoshi Tabushi wrote: “What is floating in the wanderer’s brows is not only sorrow and misery . . . but also the tenacity of a people gloomily scattered throughout the world. Still they cannot hide their troubles. It is a battle for them not to be defeated.”
By autumn 1941, more than 1,000 of the Polish Jewish refugees had left Japan for more permanent destinations. Nearly 500 sailed for the United States, and small groups gained permission to enter Canada and other British dominions with the help of Poland’s Ambassador Romer. But close to 1,000 people remained stranded, having failed to secure any destination visa. As Japan prepared for war in the weeks before its attack on Pearl Harbor, police cleared the military port of Kobe. From mid-August to late October 1941, they deported the rest of the refugees to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China.