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Appendix 1, 2, and 3

        The following appendices are supplements to “Womb of Diamonds,” so that one can quickly understand the historical background of the memoir.  They are meant to be read after the completion of the book, as they will provide some context.  They are a combination of Lucie Choueke’s memories and citations from other sources.  The works cited in the endnotes are excellent.  I highly recommend them if you wish to do any further reading on these subjects. 

Appendix 1:

The Path of a Few Resourceful Refugees from Europe to Kobe, Japan


        Our Jewish guests in Kobe during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s were part of an exodus from Europe that started years before.  When Adolf Hitler took office as the President and Chancellor of Germany in 1933, a boycott of all Jewish businesses was implemented, and Jews were forbidden from working in many branches of the economy.  In the years that followed, Jews were systematically murdered and shipped to death camps.  The persecuted Jews, as well as people of other races, tried to escape Germany and the grasp of its rapidly expanding political influence.

        The Jews who left Europe in the early stages of Hitler’s attempted genocide were generally wealthy and immigrated to North and South America, among other areas, by ship.  From autumn of 1938 to the middle of 1940,[i] these refugees escaped on the Lloyd Triestino line, which sailed to Shanghai as well as other destinations in the Far East.[ii]  They used a similar route to the one I had taken on the Conte Verde in 1936. 

        In September of 1939, Germany and Russia attacked Poland and divided the country between them.  The Jewish Poles not only feared Germany but Russia as well.  They were afraid that the Russians would send them to work camps in Siberia or leave them to starve.[iii]  The Russo-German Pact designated Lithuania as a geographic buffer in between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.[iv]  This buffer zone offered a glimmer of hope to the refugees.  By escaping to Lithuania, they could avoid being at the mercy of the German and Russian governments.  When the Soviets announced that they were returning Vilna to the Lithuanians, it gave many refugees a means of escape.  Since both Vilna and a portion of Poland were under Soviet control,[v] the refugees could travel to Vilna without a visa.  If they could make it to Vilna before it was returned to the Lithuanians, they would not need to risk a dangerous border crossing.[vi]  

        The first migrations of refugees into Lithuania were generally successful, but after the fifteenth of October, the borders were closed.  Hillel Levine writes, “Soviet border guards shot at anyone trying to cross the border.  Nazi guards, in turn, fired at anyone trying to get back.  The unfortunate refugees, caught between two lines of fire, had no choice but to remain in a no man’s land along the border… When finally the refugees had reached a point of desperation, they stampeded past the Soviet guards.  Several were shot, but most of them got across after overpowering the sentries by the sheer weight of numbers.”[vii]

        It was evident to the refugees who were lucky enough to escape to Lithuania that they were still not safe.  Beatings, a pogrom, and other difficulties quickly evidenced that immigration to another country was the only alternative.[viii]

        After Italy’s entrance into the war, an escape from Europe via the Mediterranean Sea was no longer an option.[ix]  The only way to reach the promising western destinations of the United States, Latin America, or Australia was by traveling east through the dangerous Soviet Union.  However, a refugee needed a number of visas even to attempt such a daring passage.  And in order to secure these visas, the refugees needed the help of righteous gentiles in their midst.

        The very crucial first step of obtaining a destination visa was exceedingly difficult since most of the world’s countries did not want to accept any new refugees.  Fortunately, Dutch Ambassador L. P. J. de Decker coordinated with the Dutch Consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, to stamp many travel papers with destination visas to Curacao.[x]

        Once a refugee possessed a destination visa, it was necessary for them to obtain a transit visa.  Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Kaunas, altruistically issued thousands of transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews.  The visas helped them to escape from Soviet-occupied Lithuania in 1940 via the Trans-Siberian railway on their way to Japan or occupied China.  Their destination, according to the visa, was Curacao.  However, it was well known that the visas were only for the purpose of leaving Europe and Russia.[xi]  Curacao was a remote island without custom agents,[xii] and arranging travel there may have been impossible.  Once the refugees arrived in Japan, they would have to search for another country that would accept them.  Sugihara gave some parting advice to each refugee he awarded with a transit visa.  He said that once they arrived in Japan, they should say, “Banzai Nippon” to the Japanese immigration officials.  He said that “they would be more sympathetic.”[xiii] 

        The Russians gave the Polish refugees in possession of these travel papers permission to leave Lithuania—“an otherwise treasonable crime.”[xiv]  David Kranzler explains, “Since Russia was still on friendly terms with Germany, arrangements could be made with Intourist, the Soviet Government Travel Bureau, for tourists from foreign countries to travel by rail through Siberia.”[xv]  The six-thousand-mile journey cost 170 to 240 U.S. dollars[xvi]—a very steep sum to raise.  The fare for the trip was donated by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Vaad Hatzalah, and relatives of the refugees in the United States.[xvii]

        The refugees en route to Japan rode the train through Siberia and Manchuria and disembarked in Vladivostok.  The Harbin Maru, a small ship that rocked violently when crossing the Sea of Japan,[xviii] transported passengers once a week from Vladivostok to Tsuruga, Japan.  The ocean crossing was made possible by a contract drawn up between the JDC and the Japan Travel Bureau.[xix]

        Once the refugees arrived in Japan, the Jewish community of Kobe took responsibility for them.  The entire permanent Jewish population of Japan at the time was approximately one thousand people.[xx]  The residents were spread out among Kobe, Yokohama, and Tokyo.  Kobe’s twenty-five Ashkenazi families and five Sephardic families represented Japan’s largest Jewish community in 1940.[xxi]

        Anotole Ponevejsky, whom I called Ponve, was one of these residents.  He had moved to the city after spending time in Irkutsk, Siberia; Harbin, China; and Yokohama, Japan.[xxii]  In 1937, he had organized the Ashkenazi community and established a synagogue and a community center.[xxiii]  In June of 1940, a cable from Lithuania arrived.  It asked Ponve, on behalf of the Jewish community, to write a letter to the Japanese government in which he would guarantee support for seven refugees on their way to America.[xxiv]  After Ponve submitted the first letter, he was immediately flooded with further requests.   

        The community responded quickly and in the affirmative to every request received, and it soon became necessary to coordinate the efforts of Kobe’s thirty Jewish families to accommodate the incoming refugees. [xxv]  They were subdivided into committees to handle immigration procedures, temporary housing, local travel, onward travel, visa problems, and anything else that was necessary.[xxvi]  The JDC in New York helped subsidize the activities with generous donations.[xxvii] 

        The community’s first important task was to meet the refugees at the port of Tsuruga, make sure they were admitted into the country, and arrange for the one-hundred-mile journey by train to Kobe.  Alex Treguboff, a tall, handsome man, recalled that as soon as the Harbin Maru anchored in Tsuruga, he or other representatives would board it to assist with the entry process.  Although refugees were always advised to state Curacao as their destination, some inevitably mentioned the United States.  The local officials would call Mr. Treguboff over, and he would quietly correct the refugees.[xxviii]  The immigration officials knew that half the visas were fake[xxix] and did their best to ignore the unprofessional forgeries made in underground stamp-making shops.[xxx]  Similarly, when an individual came without a visa, Mr. Treguboff would quickly issue one while the Japanese officials waited, watched, and stamped the papers with the “ink still wet.”[xxxi]

        The second crucial task was to find food and lodging for the refugees.  Community members converted their houses and neighborhood hotels into dormitories.  Sometimes meals would be cooked in the synagogue, but generally each visitor was given a daily stipend to purchase food.[xxxii]  The funds were sent from the JDC and HICEM,[xxxiii] charitable organizations from the United States.  A difficult endeavor was completed by a committee whose members included Nissim Tawil, Rahmo Sassoon, my husband, and other Sephardic Jews.  They procured a few trucks of potatoes during the Passover holiday to satisfy the refugees’ religious dietary needs.  Some of the funding for their projects came from the UJA in New York.[xxxiv]

        Another community responsibility was to expedite the visa process.  Pamela Rotner Sakamoto explains, “People who applied to the government bureaucracy for visas had no guarantee of approval… Those who went through the Kobe Jewish community, even if they had no clout themselves, had a better chance, because the community knew the corridors of power and had earned the trust of the authorities.”[xxxv]

        The first refugees to arrive in Japan were relatively easy to help.[xxxvi]  Most of them came from Germany and rapidly proceeded onward since each had an authentic destination visa from a country in North or South America.[xxxvii]  The work became much more difficult when receiving the thousands of Polish refugees who arrived via Lithuania from 1940 to 1941.[xxxviii]

        The influx of Polish Jews created a problem that had not been present with the previous groups of European refugees.  Many Poles had to flee at a moment’s notice to preserve their lives and thus had few or no resources with which to better their situations abroad.  The comparison of their arrivals versus their departures, compiled by the Jewish community,[xxxix] illustrates that even when looking only at February and March 1941, fourteen hundred forty-five more displaced people entered the country than exited.  This quickly growing body of refugees required the Jews, Japanese, and sympathetic foreigners of Kobe to help the suffering people in any way possible.  Due to increased international visa restrictions, the Poles entering the country with their Curacao destination visas had nowhere to go.  For example, many countries denied visas to immigrants with close relatives in occupied Europe, which excluded the refugees who had just escaped from the region.[xl]  American consulates denied visas to “people with relatives in Germany and the Soviet Union.”[xli]

        The entire community worked together to care for the refugees, help them obtain scarce visas, pay for transportation from Kobe to their final destination, and convince the local governments to allow the displaced people to overstay their allotted time in Japan.  Organizations such as the JDC, HICEM, Agudath Israel, Vaad Hatzalah,[xlii] and the Kobe Ashekenazi and Sephardic Jewish Communities helped defray the cost of the undertaking.

        After the Amshenower rebbe Rabbi Kalish arrived in Kobe, he sent a clever cable back to some colleagues remaining in Lithuania.  The astute Japanese censors would not let the cable through without checking the meaning of the message, which read, “Shisho miskadshim b’talis ehad,”[xliii] or, “Six persons may pray under one prayer shawl.”[xliv]  Leo Hanin, a key member of Ponve’s organization, translated the message for the censors by explaining that the rabbi was giving religious instruction to a colleague.  It was only later, when Mr. Hanin asked Rabbi Kalish personally, that he understood the true meaning of the phrase.  The rabbi was informing his associates in Lithuania that a Japanese transit visa was valid for an entire family.  He was suggesting that instead of wasting precious time to secure additional visas, six strangers could pretend to be a family.[xlv]

        The local government was surprisingly accommodating to the many destitute foreign visitors flowing into the city.  The governor of the prefecture communicated only a few practical guidelines for the behavior of their unexpected guests.  Anyone who contracted an illness was to be treated right away to prevent it from spreading.  Care needed to be taken not to start fires.  Permission needed to be granted from Ponve’s organization if any foreigner intended to travel outside of Kobe.  No one was permitted to loiter.  The refugees were not allowed to crowd into stores unless they needed to buy something.  And after making a purchase, they needed to leave quickly.[xlvi]

        The citizens of Kobe were just as accommodating as the government.  Even though most of the Japanese citizens had never before witnessed such a large group of strangely dressed foreigners, complete with long beards, curly sideburns, and skull caps, they were extremely helpful.  Many donated food and other items to help the refugees.  In order to answer the usual questions, articles and pictures were published in the newspapers that explained why the visitors had arrived.  They were described as Jewish refugees from the war in Europe, utilizing Japan as a transit point on their way to other countries.[xlvii]  Leo Hanin summarized the feelings of the local Japanese with the word kawaisoy, which is to say they felt sorry for them.[xlviii]

        When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the escape route East through the U.S.S.R. disintegrated.[xlix]  Some of the lucky refugees already in Japan were able to secure visas to the United States, Canada, England, South America, Australia, and Palestine.[l]  Travel to their ultimate destinations was arranged through shipping companies and travel agencies “since domestic travel…was practically non-existent.”[li]

        Roughly one thousand refugees were able to arrive at their final destination before the beginning of the Pacific War. [lii]  But the closing of many borders resulted in a group of refugees left waiting for destination visas that would not come.  Many of these refugees remained in Kobe for over eight months.[liii]  “At the conclusion of the High Holy Days in September of 1941, all eleven hundred of the Kobe refugees who had been unsuccessful in obtaining destination visas” were “relocated to Shanghai.”[liv]

        Around twenty-one thousand[lv] Jewish refugees waited out the World War Two conflict in Shanghai.  Despite the fact that Japan was a key German ally, Japan and occupied China were some of the only relatively safe areas for Jews in the Eastern Hemisphere.  By World War Two’s conclusion in 1945, seventy five percent of Europe’s Jewish population had died.[lvi]  The Japanese government provided Jews, who were lucky enough to escape Europe, a refuge from the Nazi reign of terror.

Appendix 2:  Why Weren’t We Killed?

A Glimpse at a Few of Japan’s Jewish Policies, Ideas, and Preconceptions that Possibly Kept us Alive during World War Two


        Many wonder why the Japanese government was so kind to the Jewish refugees at a time when much of the world wanted nothing to do with them.  Many also wonder why the government didn’t decide to placate their Nazi ally at the expense of the approximately one thousand to two thousand Jews residing permanently on mainland Japan and the less than thirty thousand in occupied China.  If they had, this story would have never been written.  Allow me to review a few events that may have saved our lives.

        A situation that paved the way for Jewish-Japanese friendship was the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900’s.  The Japanese needed money to finance their military in 1904, but no European country would lend it to them.  The reason was that no one thought they could beat Czarist Russia.  Jacob Schiff, a Jewish New York banker with Kuhn, Loeb, and Company, arranged over two hundred million dollars in international loans to Japan, contributing to their eventual victory.[lvii]  Some of the funds were used to finance about half of the Japanese Navy[lviii]—which destroyed most of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.  At the war’s conclusion, Jacob Schiff was given a hero’s welcome in Japan, and was the first foreigner ever to be decorated with the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor.[lix]

        The Japanese government did not forget that Jacob had helped them when no one else would.  From 1917 to 1920, many Russian Jewish refugees were attempting to escape Bolshevik armies.[lx]  Several thousand refugees congregated in Vladivostok with less than the 400 yen of “show money” per person required to gain entrance into Japan.[lxi]  Jacob Schiff, who was the president of the American Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) at the time, requested “permission to use Kobe and Yokohama as transit centers for Jewish refugees.”[lxii]  His petition was “readily approved,” and the problem was resolved.[lxiii]

        The ability of Jacob Schiff to help Japan promoted his image in the country and, more importantly, bathed Jews worldwide in a favorable light.  Jews were given the image of powerful people in government and finance.  Furthermore, they had proven their ability to be powerful allies to an island nation in need of precious resources.  Later, propaganda from the Nazis that criticized Jews as manipulators of money and power may have reinforced the belief of some Japanese who wanted to keep these influential people on their side.  “A dateless, but probably early policy paper, ‘How to Manage Jews (in Japan),’ stamped ‘Top Secret,’”[lxiv] gives some insight into the Japanese government’s early thoughts concerning Jews within its borders and abroad.  It not only shows the extent of Jewish involvement in promoting Japanese business interests but also reveals how the prevalent anti-Semitic literature inflated the government’s image of Jewish global influence:   


(1)  Japanese trade relies on Jews.  It was developed and is managed in the hands of Jews.  If Jews oppose Japan, it will severely damage our trade.  (2)  We have to win Jews over to our side to lead foreign investments. We need much capital to develop the power of the product in Manchuria. If we make enemies of the Jews it will be impossible to draw capital from over-seas because Jewish influence on the global financial world is extremely large.  (3)  When America and Britain put economic pressure on Japan, we have to utilize Jews.  Jews have strong racial connections there so that it will be disadvantageous if we mistreat them… (5)  2000 Jews now live in Japan.  Most of them, in Tokyo or Yokohama, are teachers and musicians.  Most of them, in Kobe and Osaka, are involved in trade. About 20,000 Jews live in Manchuria and northern China.  We believe that they will not have any bad effects on Japan.[lxv]


        While early in the twentieth century Japan had very little interaction with Jews, Manchuria’s occupation in 1931 and 1932 and North China’s in 1937, included a sizeable Jewish population. [lxvi]  Japan suddenly controlled territories with approximately 27,000 Jewish people made up of Sephardim, Ashkenazim from Russia, refugees from the Bolshevik revolution, and escapees from Nazi, Germany.[lxvii]

        A number of Japanese officers in key positions throughout occupied China began programs to infuse loyalty into their new Jewish subjects.  The goal had more to do with attracting Jewish capital and expertise than with bridging cultural gaps.  One focus involved seeking the friendship and capital of the wealthy Sephardic Jews who ran businesses in China, such as Sir Victor Sassoon and Sir Ely Kadoorie.  The officials involved were so confident of their eventual cooperation that “the Commerce Bureau in the Foreign Ministry even delegated authority to various ministries for future purchasing of necessary goods.”[lxviii]  These goods were to be bought with funds secured from Sassoon’s “alleged $200 million in ‘idle capital,’”[lxix] among other sources. 

        In order to advertise Japan’s receptiveness to the needs of Jewish refugees, for the purpose of attracting Jewish capital and favorable American media coverage, the Far East Jewish Conferences were conducted annually in Shanghai from 1937 to 1939.  They were organized and presided over by the Kwantung Army.[lxx]  In the first Far East Jewish Conference, General Higuchi, chief of the Japanese Military Mission,[lxxi] gave a speech condoning Japanese-Jewish cooperation.  He expressed that if the Jews were given the ability to work in economics and science, as well as maintain “close business relations,” [lxxii] it would make cooperation productive.[lxxiii]  

        The other speakers each expressed and re-expressed that the Jewish leaders present should communicate the news of the generous intentions of their Japanese hosts.  The organizers of the conference were rewarded with a statement that was “sent to every major Jewish organization in the world”:[lxxiv] “We Jews, attending this racial conference, hereby proclaim that we enjoy racial equality and racial justice under the national laws, and will cooperate with Japan and Manchukuo in building a new order in Asia.  We appeal to our co-religionists.”[lxxv]

        Not only did the occupying forces hold forums to celebrate Japanese-Jewish relations, but they also commonly acted on behalf of the Jewish population.  One example was when an anti-Semitic magazine, Nash Put, was shut down by the Japanese authorities in Shanghai.[lxxvi]

        The solution to the world problem of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany’s reign of terror and the desire of Japan to settle the occupied areas of China (Manchukuo and Shanghai) seemed to go hand in hand.  The answer to solving both problems at once was explored in the Fugu Plan.  A fugu (blowfish) that is prepared incorrectly will poison someone.  However, when it is prepared properly, and consumed in moderation, the blowfish delivers a magnificent sensation.  This was used as a metaphor for how the Jews could be valuable if treated correctly and a curse if handled incorrectly.  Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz discuss these ideas in their book on the subject.  The plan was to settle occupied China and organize it economically by locating the displaced Jews there.[lxxvii]  This would benefit both parties by providing the refugees with a home, providing occupied China with a base of skilled managers loyal to Japan, and aiding Japan in currying favor with the influential Jews of the United States.[lxxviii]  As the Jews were said to control the United States media and film industry, it was hoped that a positive spin in the press would improve Japan’s image in the West, and make their political aspirations attainable. [lxxix]  Ultimately, the Fugu plan was never implemented due to the signing of the Tripartite pact with Germany in 1941. 

        Other indications of Japan’s effort to avoid alienating the Jews, despite its courting of axis powers, were also present.  On December 6, 1938,[lxxx] the Jewish issue was allegedly[lxxxi] addressed at the Five Ministers’ Conference, which was attended by the Prime Minister, Army Minister, Navy Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, and Finance Minister.  According to David Kranzler, the meeting “set the tone for the Japanese relations to the Jews for the next three years”[lxxxii] and promoted an inflow of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria.[lxxxiii]  He states that the policy owed “it’s creation not to the refugee influx… but to earlier Jewish residents of the Far East.”[lxxxiv]

The declaration was as follows:

Our diplomatic ties with Germany and Italy require that we avoid

embracing the Jewish people, in light of their rejection by our allies.  But

we should not reject them as they do because of our declared policy of

racial equality, and their rejection would therefore be contrary to our spirit. 

This is particularly true in light of our need for foreign capital and our

desire not to alienate America.”[lxxxv]

These provisions followed the declaration:

  1. At present we will not reject the Jews presently living in Japan, Manchuria and China and we will treat them equally with other foreigners. 

  2. Jews to enter Japan, etc. in the future will be treated under the same entry as other foreigners. 

  3. We will not extend a special invitation to Jews to come to our territories, but capitalists and engineers will be mentioned.”[lxxxvi]

        Another example of Japan’s support appears when Pamela Rotner Sakamoto shows that Sugihara was not the only Japanese consulate employee to aid the Jewish refugees.  She explains that 3377 transit visas were issued from Hamburg, Stockholm, Vienna, Moscow, and Berlin in 1940 and early 1941,[lxxxvii] compared to 2,132 issued in Kaunas—at Sugihara’s consulate.[lxxxviii]

        Even after war with the United States had begun, it was evident that Japan’s Jewish policies still remained benign.  Over three years after the Five Ministers’ Conference, “Foreign Minister Togo sent a statement entitled ‘Emergency Jewish Policy’ to the consulates in Manchukuo, Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanking.”[lxxxix]  From this statement, one can conclude that the Jews present within Japan’s occupied territories would still be viewed with regard to their political or national affiliation instead of with regards to their religion.  “The policy was an alteration to the decisions of the 1938 Foreign Ministers conference.”  It mandated the following:


  1.        Treat German Jews as stateless.

  2.        Treat favorably those neutral or stateless Jews whom Japan is using or would use in the                 future.  As for others, strictly observe them to eliminate espionage maneuvers. 

  3.        Treat the Jews of allied countries whom they would use as nationals of those countries.                 Treat others according to the latter part of #2.[xc]

        Quickly reviewing Japan’s relationship with the Jewish people from the Russo-Japanese war up until the beginning of World War Two, helps us understand why the government rejected Nazi demands for our extermination.  Despite the history of the Japanese-Jewish relationship, which was unknown to all of us at the time, the early 1940’s was a very frightening time for every Jew in Europe and Asia.  All the stories recounted to us by the refugees flooding into Kobe, in addition to the German officers and propaganda appearing in our neighborhood, made us all fear for our lives.  However it gradually became apparent that Japan’s alliance with Nazi Germany had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with religion.


 Appendix 3: A Review of Jewish Worship in Kobe


        Please indulge me for a few moments as I paint a brief history of Jewish worship in Kobe during the 1900s.  From the early to middle part of the century, the Kobe Jewish community was mainly composed of immigrants from Russia, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe.[xci]  In some cases, the Russian Jews moved to Kobe from the Manchurian city of Harbin, a city with an organized Jewish community of over twenty thousand.  The Middle Eastern Jews moved to Kobe from present-day Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Egypt.[xcii]

        Boris Sidline, Louie Jedeikin, and Edward Sherbanee were three men who immigrated during this period in history.  Boris Sidline fled the Bolshevik Revolution, arrived in Japan in 1918, and opened up a grocery store and an import-export business.[xciii]  Louie Jedeikin left Moscow to avoid being drafted into the Russian army and opened up a factory in Kobe.[xciv]  Edward Sherbanee arrived from Baghdad in 1927 at the age of eighteen and started a company trading in textiles, Indian wheat, Iraqi dates, and toys.[xcv]

        In 1923, the devastating Kanto earthquake caused the Jews of Yokohama to move to Kobe.  The city’s Jewish population subsequently expanded to about fifty families.[xcvi]  Among  those buried by the earthquake was Vera Bidger, Louie Jedeikin’s wife.[xcvii]

        In the thirties, a man called Rabbi Jacob led the Ashkenazi community.  He prepared the children for their bar mitzvahs and performed the role of mohel (circumciser of children) and shochet (religious supervisor of animal slaughter).  He wasn’t a real rabbi but led the religious observance of the community, often organizing holiday parties in peoples’ homes.[xcviii]

        The first Japanese synagogue I remember was formed around 1931.  It was little more than four walls, a roof, and some prayer books.  Nonetheless, compared to cluttered boarding houses, where three or four poor bachelors shared a tiny living space, it was someplace special.  Isaac Antaki, an Egyptian Jew, coordinated the prayer for the community at the time.[xcix]

        In 1936, Nissim Tawil, a textile exporter,[c] moved to Kobe and became the chazzan and rabbi for the community.  In 1937, Anatole Ponevejsky organized the Ashkenazi community’s twenty-five families in a building he rented to serve as a synagogue and community center.[ci]  Another building was rented in early 1941 to provide enough space for the fleeing Eastern European refugees.[cii]

        During the early stages of World War Two, separate Ashkenazi and Sephardic prayer services ran simultaneously in the city.  The Sephardic synagogue was located in a house near the intersection of Yamamoto-Dori and Tor Road.[ciii]  Ironically, it was probably the only time in Kobe’s history when Jews, in danger of worldwide extinction, had more than one place of worship to choose from.  In 1945, the prayers were moved to the country town of Bunkamura for the last six months of the war.

        At the conclusion of international hostilities, many Jews left Japan to join the remaining members of their families—scattered by German military campaigns or problems in certain Arab countries.  Our two previously swelling congregations merged to insure a weekly minyan.  The destruction of our synagogues in the American air raids required us to change our place of worship again.

        In August of 1945, American soldiers arrived in Kobe.  The American chaplain approached Rahmo Sassoon in September and asked permission to use his land for the holiday services.[civ] Rahmo agreed, and soon his furniture showroom was converted into a synagogue.  In the years immediately following the war, the Jewish community of Kobe had a relatively stable minyan.  This included the core group of Rahmo Sassoon, Dahoodeh Sassoon, Edmond Sassoon, Moshe Nissim, Joseph Naim, Ezra Mattuck, Victor Mattuck, Victor Kelly, Isaac Goldman, Saas Fattal, and Ezra Choueke.[cv]  The main attraction, besides the services, was the meza table Eliah Mizrahi set up on Saturdays—boasting hummus, tahineh, and other Middle Eastern delicacies.[cvi]  The community was too small to distinguish between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and they often had the pleasure of mixing with the large number of English and American Jewish soldiers who would show up for the High Holidays.  An American Rabbi would advise how many servicemen to expect, and the synagogue would provide the soldiers with matzah (the unleavened bread served on Passover) and other required foods.[cvii]

        After the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, a more promising destination emerged in the hearts of our community.  Many of our friends wished to reestablish roots in the land promised to our people in the Bible, a holy land flowing with milk and honey, and were ready to do what was necessary to help improve the new country.  A conflict between the body’s and soul’s spiritual and physical needs gripped each of us.  What was required of us?  Should we leave our successful lives in Japan for the economic uncertainty of Israel in search of closeness with God?  Or should we stay in Japan, while downgrading the importance of our spiritual calling?  These difficult questions were posed to a few rabbis who visited us.  The answer that emerged was that it would be better to support the building effort in Israel from a foreign position of wealth and strength.  They informed us that there were already many poor people in Israel, and they required financial resources to generate progress in the country.  It would be better to support their progress from Japan than to add to the poverty already present within the country.  The more religious members of our community reached an ingenious compromise.  They ran their businesses in Japan but sent their children to study in Israel and New York.  The latter destination provided a large religious community and multiple institutions of higher learning.  Many of us were helped by visiting scholars, such as Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who arranged for Victor Moshe’s children to attend Yeshiva University.[cviii]

        Notwithstanding the opportunities available elsewhere, in many ways it was easier to bring up Jewish children in Japan than in Western countries.  The reason was that a social divide existed between the foreign community and the Japanese population.  In business, we coexisted with trust and harmony.  Socially, we respected the differences between our cultures but generally did not mix.  Therefore, the household was largely free of outside temptations and influences.  The messages of our leaders, parents, and teachers were all communicated effectively in this atmosphere.  So, while the children in the community applied themselves daily to receive an excellent secular education at school, they were also able to identify with their cultural roots at the synagogue.  The religious education taught was uncompromised by many of the ideas introduced by Western popular culture that were continually influencing some Jewish communities in other parts of the world.  In other words, due to the differences between Japanese and Jewish fields of religious thought, and the difficulty in reconciling the two, one often received a purer version of Jewish learning in Kobe, Japan than in a much larger but more assimilated Western community.

        The most invaluable resources in our children’s continuing religious education were the visitors our community would receive from all over the world.  Scholars would stay from one week to a few years after initially arriving to Japan on business.  The community had a fund that would give the visitors free room and board in exchange for teaching our children.  Each individual added to our knowledge and gave us an international perspective on life.  A person’s actions became far more important than his or her geographic origins.  We reached out from Japan to these visitors, and they, in return, connected us to communities around the globe.

        On the High Holidays, the community accepted donations from congregation members for the privilege of performing certain religious honors.  These donations were originally pooled in a fund used to support the community’s religious activities.  Any extra money went to support refugees in the State of Israel through charities like B’nai B’rith.  After the community had rented a building for many years, the donations were understood to be used for the creation of a permanent Kobe synagogue. 

        After World War Two, we had all been using the large furniture warehouse, converted into a community center, for our daily prayers.  Upon the community’s request, Rahmo Sassoon, Isaac Djemal, and Edmond Sassoon, who shared ownership of the plot on which the community center stood, charitably agreed to sell the land at a low price.  Victor Kelly, Jacob Gotleib, Gabi Josue, and others began raising the funds required to transcribe our dream onto Kobe’s landscape. 

        When Victor Kelly arrived at our house, Ezra only needed to listen for a few seconds before he wrote out a check for two million yen—a large amount of money for us at the time.  He explained to me that Victor needed something to show the community.  He, along with other donors, needed to stimulate everyone’s imaginations, and wallets, to propel this project to completion.  If we gave a small amount, it would encourage others to give small amounts, and the dream would die before it had any life to begin with.

        When ten million yen had been collected, Victor bravely “instructed Edmond Sassoon to draw up a contract for the sale of his land.”[cix]  Victor knew that many were beginning to doubt the project’s feasibility and a bold move was required. 

        Jacob Gotleib, whose signature needed to be on the contract, was more practical and communicated his reservations to Victor.  “Where will we find the money?” Jacob persisted apprehensively.

        “With G-d,” Victor answered, raising “his hands to heaven.”[cx]  The contract was signed, and the community needed to somehow come up with the remaining funds.

        It took a few years of everyone donating, re-donating, and donating again to raise the synagogue’s financial reserves to a respectable level.  There were fundraising events for the building, chairs, lights, tables, books, and anything else required.  The community was small, but everyone did their utmost to create a home for the study of Torah.  However, even with everyone’s remarkable effort, there was still a substantial shortage of money.  Fortunately, Isaac Djemal, in an incredibly selfless act, more than covered the shortage when he donated the entire portion of his land to the synagogue. 

        Despite the significance of a few large donations, the intrinsic beauty of the future synagogue would be firmly based on the community that contributed in order to build it.  The fact that it took contributions from everyone to mold the dream into a reality was infinitely more powerful than reaching our goal with a donation from one or two members.  In effect, we created a congregation of synagogue owners who could pray at the synagogue they had all built together.  The financial investment they had made in their own personal spirituality was an unbreakable bond bringing them to prayer, over and over again, at a Torah home that was truly theirs.

        Once enough money had been raised, David Sassoon, Albert Hamway, Victor Moshe, and others in the community collaborated to create the synagogue architectural plans.  One of the problems with the design was the placement of the bimah (the table where the Torah scrolls are read) and the aron kodesh (the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are stored).  We wanted them to face towards Israel, but the shape of the land did not allow for it.  The New York rabbis consulted communicated that ideally the bimah and aron kodesh should face towards Israel.  However, since the usable area of the plot of land faced another direction, it was better to maximize the use of community money than to build the entire structure at an odd angle.

        One omission in the synagogue’s design was a mikveh, or ritual bath.  Individuals that needed a mikveh would use Ben David’s or the ocean as a substitute.  Ben David was by far the most religious member of our community, and he would only eat foods that his wife prepared from scratch.  His wife spent so much time in the kitchen that she eventually issued him an ultimatum: “If we are going to be so strictly kosher,” she said, “we need to move to Israel.”  Ben David agreed, the house was sold, and the community lost its only available mikveh.

        Joe Djemal, who was also a religious man, came to Japan to help his uncle in business.  When he was single, he didn’t have a problem using the ocean for his ritual bathing.  Once he married, though, he understood that a permanent ritual bath was needed.  Instead of building a mikveh in his house, he used the money to build one in the synagogue.  He donated a large part of the money for the project and solved both his and the community’s problem at the same time.  He and his brother Max served as the congregation’s religious leaders in the eighties and early nineties.  

        The challenges we faced in the process of creating our synagogue were not only present in raising the money for a building, but more so in filling the building with prayer, Torah study, mitzvot (good deeds, or more precisely, positive commandments), and charity.  Thank God, in addition to the financial resources, we were given the intellectual resources to fill the synagogue with what it required. 

        Victor Moshe, from Baghdad, Iraq, arrived in Kobe around the same time as we did.  His knowledge of prayer, Torah, customs, and traditions made him the natural religious leader of our community.  At the time, the congregation was not rich enough to support a rabbi.  Victor would work as a buyer during the week and officiate over the religious proceedings on the weekend.  Beginning in 1936, he held services every Friday night and Saturday for Shabbat, whereas before, the religious gatherings took place chiefly on the High Holidays.  Victor later explained that he did not have a lot of success at first due to a small congregation.[cxi]  Over time, however, “Jews who fled Russia… and US businessmen… installed for temporary periods in Japan… joined us.”[cxii]  Jews from Shanghai also often came to Kobe for the summer and added to the congregation.[cxiii]  During and after the war, Victor was able to lead a stable minyan composed of a mix of permanent and temporary residents.  Jewish American soldiers stationed in the Far East often visited Kobe for R and R, and many would come to pray regularly.  In addition, Israelis working for shipping companies, such as ZIM Lines, would join our congregation for years at a time.  When our permanent synagogue was completed, Victor continued to lead the prayers and represented the Iraqi Jews in any religious or political discussion.

        Albert Hamway was one of the most learned men in Kobe’s Syrian Jewish community.  Therefore, it was his responsibility to represent us in any religious or political discussion.  He also was more than qualified to preside over the services and made certain they were mostly conducted in the Aleppo prayer style, which pleased the Syrian majority of the congregation.  Albert was often the first community member to welcome Jewish foreigners on their arrival to Japan.  He hung a sign at the Port of Kobe that invited any Jew who arrived in the country for a meal.[cxiv]  “Businessmen who came in for the weekend,” Lisa Sopher writes, “would end up spontaneously at his house.”[cxv]

        Jacob Gotleib was another invaluable member of the synagogue and represented the Ashkenazi (European) Jews in all matters.  He was also in charge of the Sunday school program for children.  Under his direction, the younger children would put on shows for Hanukkah and Purim.  As they grew older, he would teach Talmud (ancient rabbinic writings) to every child who wanted to learn.[cxvi]  By 1950, Jacob and his family were the only Ashkenazim (European Jews) in the community.[cxvii]  Jacob and Victor Moshe worked together to lead everyone in the weekly prayers.  Although Jacob mostly spoke Russian and Yiddish at home, and Victor mainly spoke Arabic and Hebrew at home,[cxviii] in the synagogue, everyone spoke English to bind the community together.[cxix]

        The most lavishly, intricately designed synagogue is largely incomplete without a Torah.

The first Torah we had in Kobe was transferred from the disintegrating Nagasaki community in 1905.[cxx]  In the late 1930s, it was placed in Kobe’s new Sephardic synagogue,[cxxi] and after the American air raids began, it was transported to Bunkamura in early 1945.[cxxii]  The Shabbat minyan also relocated to the countryside[cxxiii] for the remainder of the war.  Another Torah, used by the Ashekenazi synagogue, may have been brought by Edward Sherbanee and Ezra Mattuck.[cxxiv]  A third Torah, brought from New York, also reportedly arrived in the 1930s.[cxxv]

        Against large odds, the community was blessed to receive another antique Torah.  The Moshe family and their Torah had resided in Iraq for many generations.  After the Farhud pogroms of 1941, during which Jews were murdered and their possessions vandalized, the Moshe family had smuggled themselves, and their Torah, out of the country.  The Moshes had fled to different places around the globe, and the Torah, after a series of stops, had been deposited in London for safekeeping during that tumultuous time in history.  While Victor had been stuck in Japan during World War Two, Shaoul Moshi, his brother, had been residing in Thailand.  Shaoul moved to Japan after the war and brought his family’s Torah for our community to use.  Before personally transporting the Torah from London to Kobe, he had brought the scroll to Jerusalem—where every Hebrew letter had been checked by experts.  Shaoul and his wife, Doris, continued contributing in many ways until they moved to the United States.

        In the 1960s, Ezra ordered a new Torah from Israel and commissioned a large decorative silver case to house the long scroll.  It was my responsibility to transport it to Japan.  Upon my return to Osaka, the airport customs officer stopped me right away, intensely caressing the silver case with his eyes.

        He approached the Torah and inquired with respect and interest, “What is this, madam, and what is it worth?  Please open it.”

        “No,” I replied shaking my head emphatically.


        I answered loudly with fear in my voice before he could say more, worried that he would disassemble it.  “Do not touch it!  Bachi ga ataru,” I warned.  “This is a religious object of great spiritual power!  If we touch this the wrong way, we will be cursed!”

        He took a quick step back from the silver case and studied my face for a sign of dishonesty.  I looked straight through his perfect facial features, appealing to his soul as seriously and genuinely as I could. 

        “Quickly!” he ordered with an extreme flinch, before jumping to attention.  “Get this out of here and never bring it back!”

        I thanked him profusely, hired a car, and took it directly to the synagogue.

        Outside of the synagogue, there were many religious obligations, customs, and tasks crucial to the community’s operation, such as kashrut, circumcisions, marriages, funerals, fundraising, event coordination, and the reconciliation of secular issues.  The dietary laws, or kashrut, were very difficult to keep in Japan.  Most religious members of the community only ate dairy, vegetables, and occasionally fish before the war.  In the 1930s, an Ashkenazi man named Mr. Wiezel supervised the slaughtering of chickens.  However, he wasn’t exacting enough in his standards for some who still excluded chicken from their diet.[cxxvi]  During the war, a few of the refugees were professional shochets, and the whole community added more meat to their diets while the animals were available.  After the war, Victor Moshe went to Jerusalem and became certified to kill a chicken in the kosher manner.  Victor and Fadila, his wife, would supervise the butcher and prepare fifty kosher chickens at a time for the community.  Kelly Hilali knew how to shochet chickens as well and would perform the service whenever necessary.  Beef or mutton was a much bigger luxury.  To kill a cow in the kosher style requires a lot more training and experience.  No long-term member of the community was qualified.  During and after the American occupation of Japan, we were able to import kosher beef from the United States.  When the American option was not available, some people would eat non-kosher beef, and some would abstain altogether, depending on the individual.          

        There weren’t many Jewish weddings in Kobe, since most Jewish bachelors would temporarily return home to marry.  Edward and Eliza Sherbanee married in the Oriental Hotel in 1937, bringing a rabbi from Shanghai for the occasion.[cxxvii]  In the late thirties, Nissim Tawil began officiating at marriages, which complemented his duties as rabbi and chazzan.[cxxviii]  In the 1950s, Jacob Gotleib and Victor Moshe were both willing and able to perform the service.  Luckily, the most difficult of community gatherings, the funeral, hardly ever took place.  The simple reason was that one had to be young, tough, and dynamic to survive as a trader in the country.  If someone couldn’t make a living, he would return to his home country.

        Today, Jewish visitors to Kobe can coordinate their religious needs with the good people who organize the prayers and holiday activities.  Their contact information can be found on the synagogue’s website:



[i]Sakamoto, Pamela Rotner.  Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: A World War 2 Dilemma.  Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998, p. 43.

[ii]Kranzler, David.  Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938-1945.   Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1988, p. 86.

[iii]Levine, Hillel.  In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust.. New York: The Free Press, 1996, p. 139.

[iv] Levine, p. 120.

[v]Levine, p. 139.

[vi]Levine  p. 139.

[vii]Levine, p. 143.

[viii]Levine, p. 153.

[ix]Sakamoto, p. 43.

[x]Kranzler, p. 312.

[xi]Sugihara, Yukiko.  Visas for Life.  Trans. Hiroki Sugihara. San Francisco: Edu-Comm., 1995, p. 10.

[xii]Sugihara, p. 10.

[xiii]Sugihara,  p. 27.

[xiv]Kranzler, p. 312.

[xv]Kranzler, p. 89.

[xvi]Kranzler, p. 89.

[xvii]Kranzler, p. 312.

[xviii]Sugihara, p. 139.

[xix]Sugihara, p. 139.

[xx]Sakamoto, p. 93.

[xxi] Sakamoto, p. 93.

[xxii]Sopher, Lisa, “Introduction and Summary of Lisa Sopher’s Notes from Interviews Conducted together with S. David Moche About the History of Jewish Life in Kobe, Japan 1936 – 2000.”  History of Jewish Kobe, Japan, 2009,, 2009, p. 3.

[xxiii]Sopher, p. 3.

[xxiv]Tokayer, Marvin and Mary Swartz.The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War 2.  New York & London: Paddington Press, 1979, p. 124.

[xxv]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 124.

[xxvi]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 124.

[xxvii]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 124.

[xxviii] Sakamoto, p. 142.

[xxix]Sakamoto, p. 142.

[xxx]Sakamoto, p. 142.

[xxxi]Sakamoto, p. 142.

[xxxii]Kranzler, p. 319.

[xxxiii]Kranzler, p. 319.

[xxxiv]Sopher, p. 11.

[xxxv] Sakamoto, p. 93.

[xxxvi] Sakamoto, p. 93.

[xxxvii]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 124.

[xxxviii]Kranzler, p. 310.

[xxxix]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 165.

[xl] Sakamoto, p. 140.

[xli] Sakamoto, p. 140.

[xlii]Kranzler, p. 319.

[xliii]Kranzler, p. 323.

[xliv]Kranzler, p. 323.

[xlv]Kranzler, p. 324.

[xlvi] Sakamoto, p. 143.

[xlvii]Kranzler, p. 316.

[xlviii]Kranzler, p. 316.

[xlix]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 188.

[l] Sugihara, p. 139.

[li]Sugihara, p. 139.

[lii]Kranzler, p. 314.

[liii]Kranzler, p. 314.

[liv]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 200.

[lv] Sakamoto, p. 2.

[lvi]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 188.

[lvii] Sakamoto, p. 141.

[lviii]Kranzler, p. 175.

[lix]Iwry, Samuel and L. J. H. Kelley.  To Wear the Dust of War: From Bialystok to Shanghai to the Promised Land: An Oral History.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 82. 

[lx] Wyman, David S. and Charles H. Rosenzveig.  The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, p. 555.

[lxi] Wyman and Rosenzveig, p. 555.

[lxii] Wyman and Rosenzveig, p. 555.

[lxiii] Wyman and Rosenzveig, p. 555.

[lxiv] Levine, p. 100.

[lxv]Levine, p. 100.

[lxvi]Kranzler, p. 170.

[lxvii]Kranzler, p. 170.

[lxviii]Sakamoto, p. 71.

[lxix]Sakamoto, p. 71.

[lxx]Sakamoto, p. 32.

[lxxi]Kranzler, p. 225.

[lxxii]Kranzler, p. 225.

[lxxiii]Kranzler, p. 225.

[lxxiv]Tokayer and Swartz. p. 56.

[lxxv]Tokayer and Swartz. p. 56.

[lxxvi]Kranzler, p. 218.

[lxxvii]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 58.

[lxxviii]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 9.

[lxxix]Tokayer and Swartz, p. 9.

[lxxx]Kranzler, p. 232.

[lxxxi]Levine, p. 294.

[lxxxii]Kranzler, p. 233.

[lxxxiii]Kranzler, p. 233.

[lxxxiv]Kranzler, p. 233.

[lxxxv]Kranzler, p. 233.

[lxxxvi]Kranzler, p. 232.

[lxxxvii]Sakamoto, p. 148.

[lxxxviii]Sakamoto, p. 148.

[lxxxix]Sakamoto, p. 152.

[xc] Sakamoto, p. 152.

[xci]Sopher, p. 1.

[xcii]Sopher, p. 1.

[xciii]Sopher, p. 1.

[xciv]Sopher, p. 2.

[xcv]Sopher, p. 2.

[xcvi]Sopher, p. 2.

[xcvii]Sopher, p. 2.

[xcviii]Sopher, p. 2.

[xcix] Sussman, Ronald S.  “A Jew in Japan: An Interview with Victor Moshe.”

[c]Sopher, p. 3.

[ci]Sopher, p. 3.

[cii] Haberman, Shana.  “An Oriental Rosh Hashanah.”

[ciii]Sopher.  Interview with Isaac Goldman, p. 5

[civ]Sopher, p. 18.

[cv]Sopher, p. 18.

[cvi]Sopher, p. 18.

[cvii]Sopher, p. 18.

[cviii] Sussman.

[cix] Haberman, Shana.  “An Oriental Rosh Hashana.”Jewish World Review.  24 September 1998. <>.

[cx] Haberman.

[cxi] Sussman.

[cxii] Sussman.

[cxiii] Sussman.

[cxiv]Sopher.  An Interview with Judy Hamway, p. 22.

[cxv]Sopher.  An Interview with Judy Hamway, p. 22.

[cxvi] Sussman.

[cxvii]Sopher.  An Interview with Irwin Gotleib, p. 19.

[cxviii]Sopher.  An Interview with Irwin Gotleib, p. 19.

[cxix]Sopher.  An Interview with Irwin Gotleib, p. 19.

[cxx]Sopher, p. 1.

[cxxi]Sopher, p. 5.

[cxxii]Sopher, p. 14. per Isaac Goldman

[cxxiii]Sopher, p. 14. per Isaac Goldman

[cxxiv]Sopher, p. 5. per Isaac Goldman

[cxxv] Sussman, p. 2.

[cxxvi]Sopher, p. 2.

[cxxvii]Sopher, p. 2.

[cxxviii]Sopher, p. 2.

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