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March 23, 2023 11:00 am

Carnegie Hall Concert to Honor Efforts of Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews During WWII


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A bust of the late Chiune Sugihara, on the Hill of Humanity in Yaotsu, Japan. Photo: Barney Breen-Portnoy.

A concert taking place in New York City’s iconic Carnegie Hall in April will commemorate Chiune Sugihara, former Japanese vice consul to Lithuania, and the risks he took to help thousands of Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution and flee Europe during World War II.

The performance on April 19 will feature Karen Tanaka’s Guardian Angel and the US Premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 6, Vessels of Light, which is dedicated to Sugihara and all heroes who risked their lives to save others. The symphony was commissioned by Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem and the American Society for Yad Vashem. The performance will be accompanied by world-renowned Japanese-American-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus and conducted by Constantine Orbelian.

Sugihara was serving as Japan’s vice consul in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas when World War II broke out. He helped save European Jews, in defiance of orders by his superiors in Tokyo, by writing thousands of transit visas by hand that allowed them to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Before the consulate was closed down during the war and Sugihara had to leave Kaunas, he provided between 2,100 and 3,500 transit visas and continued stamping passports even at the railway station as he was leaving Lithuania, according to Yad Vashem.

Shortly after Sugihara was forced to resign from the Japanese Foreign Ministry for going against orders by issuing the transit visas. He then lived in obscurity in his country, never publicizing his heroic efforts during the Holocaust, until Vad Vashem in 1984 recognized him as “Righteous Among the Nations.” He died less than two years later at the age of 86.

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Auerbach — a Jewish, Soviet-born Austrian-American conductor, composer and concert pianist — was approached by Cooper to write Vessels of Light. Cooper’s father-in-law, Irving Rosen, was one of the thousands who received visas that Sugihara issued.

The cellist, who now lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and children and is a visiting professor of music at Tel Aviv University, said, “Chiune Sugihara’s story deeply touched me, and I felt utterly compelled to help bring this incredible story forward. I could not stop thinking about how my husband and children are alive, that they exist, because of this man’s bravery.”

Auerbach composed Vessels of Light during the COVID-19 lockdowns and the work made its world premiere in Kaunas, Lithuania, where Sugihara was stationed, in November 2022 with a performance by Cooper and the Kaunas State Orchestra and Choir.

“In today’s climate of rising antisemitism in the United States, Chiune Sugihara’s story is a powerful reminder of just what one person can do,” said Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem in a joint statement announcing the concert at Carnegie Hall. “Telling this story of bravery and humanity through music and poetry is a dynamic and compelling way to educate about the events of the Holocaust period and help keep its memory and lessons alive.”

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