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The 75th Anniversary of Japan’s Stand Against Anti-Semitism

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December 8, 2013
by Dennis Listort 00747350It's been a fascinating journey, both of the historical and the literary sort, raking through over three hundred faded, typewritten pages authored by Ingelore Rothschild, my deceased mother-in-law — her notes and reminiscences, left behind in a tattered cardboard box, of her journey from Berlin to Kobe, Japan. She undertook this in 1936 to escape the burgeoning Nazi juggernaut in Europe, and eventually settled on the island of Honshu for the decade following. For months, her father and mother had planned their escape out of Germany: she, then only 12, by train alone to Amsterdam to stay temporarily with an uncle while her mother went to Merano, Italy, for a medical procedure and her father scurried to the London home office of the company he worked for in Berlin to tidy his business affairs and to obtain Japanese visas. Reunited in Merano, the three then traveled to Moscow to board the Trans-Siberian Railway for points east through Russia, Mongolia, Manchuria and China, then via Harbin and Mukden to Korea, of which the penultimate leg was a ferry from Pusan to Shimonoseki, and finally to Kobe by rail. They remained in Japan during the war years and for part of the American Occupation before sailing to the U.S., eventually arriving in New York City in 1946. Two years after the Rothschilds were established in Japan, official envoys under Hitler's orders, Gestapo Lieutenant Colonel Josef Meisinger, Nazi liaison with the Japanese government, and Dr. Franz Spahn, the political advisor of the NSDAP (Nazi) party, called for all Jewish immigrants in Japan to be extradited back to Germany. Even though they were half a world away from Berlin, Ingelore and her parents realized the relentless Nazi wolves were still on the hunt. On December 6, 1938, Japan's Five Ministers' Conference was held to explore the political and economic ramifications of carrying out Hitler's directive. With war on the horizon, Japan was in a tenuous position with no overwhelmingly clear advantage on either side of its dilemma: whether to defer to the Nazis, since they might very well be Japan's confederates against future mutual enemies, or to decline and, by doing so, maintain and nourish Japan's financial and political interests with influential Jewish investors in Japan, Europe and even in America. Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye; Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita; Army Minister Seishiro Itagaki; Naval Minister Yoani Mitsumasa; and Minister of Finance, Commerce and Industry Ikeda Shigeaki analyzed options. From the outset the Japanese were unable to fathom how German-born Jews could be denied the rights and privileges of citizenship in their native land. This denial was repugnant to them. As Hitler's legions were overrunning Europe with the annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Japan, two years into the Second Sino-Japanese War, was advancing toward what it considered to be its destiny by bulldozing China into submission as a precursor to its conquest of the Pacific. In the face of this witches' brew of escalating events, the ministers' initial answer was no. No extradition. Japan's response did not sit well with the Führer. Negotiations between the parties became increasingly hostile and continued for months and months on end, climaxing on September 27, 1940 when Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy signed the Tripartite Pact. It's likely Emperor Hirohito then was asked, What do we do with the Jews now? However, with both the Nazis and the Japanese focused on armies, armaments and attacks, the Jewish question, still in committee, remained on the proverbial back burner. Yōsuke_MatsuokaThe Nazi demand for extradition was never granted. The Japanese allowed Jews to remain on their islands. On December 31, 1940, then Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke (who would die in prison before his trial for war crimes in 1946) said, “I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world.” Seventy-five years have passed since Japan's decision. It remains a benchmark of national conscience. Dennis Listort is a retired teacher in New York State and a freelance writer, author of a novel, The Writing Box. This article was inspired by Ingelore Rothschild's journal, which Istort and Darilyn Stahl, Ms. Rothschild's daughter, have now collected into a book-length manuscript.