Hebrew-speaking Japanese pastor intrigues Brandeis kids

Japanese pastor Makoto Otsuka would be an odds-on favorite to stump any "What's My Line?" panel.

You'd never, ever guess his occupation. Until, perhaps, the 53-year-old Hiroshima-area resident opens his mouth and starts speaking fluent Hebrew.

That's exactly what he did last week during a visit to Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, where Otsuka explained his decidedly unlikely career path to 40 quizzical, but riveted, eighth-grade students.

Otsuka is head of a Holocaust Education Center that teaches thousands of Japanese youngsters each year about the genocide of millions of Jews that occurred half a world away. His museum is based not far from the Japanese city that is best known for being destroyed by an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

"You think 'Hiroshima,' you think many things," Chaim Heller, Brandeis' head of campus, said in introducing the visitor to his youngsters. "You don't think Holocaust education." Heller served as translator, after telling students that Otsuka's "Japanese is perfect, his Hebrew is excellent and English is his third language."

Impeccably dressed in a gray suit, blue dress shirt and floral power tie, Otsuka launched into a spirited Hebrew rendition of the Chassidic song "The Whole Wide World Is a Very Narrow Bridge."

He then gave the students a brief explanation of how he came to start the Holocaust museum eight years ago.

The pastor's inspiration for the center, he told students, came in 1971. At the time, he was studying Hebrew in Jerusalem and met Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank, in a restaurant.

Frank asked Otsuka if he'd read his daughter's diary and then told him he was the only Holocaust survivor in his family.

"That was my first contact with an actual Holocaust survivor," Otsuka told the youngsters seated in the school's second-floor library.

Otsuka is an adherent of a Presbyterian sect called Japan Christian Friends of Israel. The 3,000-member group is led by Takeji Otsuki, a 97-year-old pastor who in 1938 received divine inspiration instructing him to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem," Otsuka explained in an earlier interview.

Otsuka said his subsequent encounter with Frank led him on a quest to understand why 6 million Jews were killed. "I visited over 30 concentration camps throughout Europe," he told the students. "I went from community to community to understand what happened in the Holocaust."

Eventually, Otsuka got the idea for the museum and sent out 200 letters to Jewish individuals and organizations worldwide, describing his mission and soliciting personal artifacts and photographs.

The resulting collection includes a single shoe from a small child who perished in the gas chamber, a uniform from Auschwitz, yellow Stars of David, artwork of survivors and thousands of photographs.

He said his small, church-supported center has hosted some 56,000 visitors, including youngsters from 400 schools throughout Japan. "Children who have no other connection leave us and are in tears learning things they've never known.

"My dream is that every child, every single child in Japan, will have at one point visited my museum and be touched by it," he told the group.

Brandeis Hillel students peppered Otsuka with questions in a session following his presentation.

Student Emma Dinkelspiel wondered, "Is Hiroshima still dangerous today?" The reply, in Hebrew, was not reassuring.

Otsuka responded that while the city has been completely rebuilt and the visible evidence of the atomic blast is gone, Hiroshima's children suffer from a high rate of cancer and other diseases.

"What made you want to teach the Holocaust?" asked Dylan Hamilton.

Mentioning Anne Frank, Otsuka replied, "It's not enough to say, 'it's terrible,' but you have to do something about it."

Otsuka cited the example set by the late Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who is believed to have saved some 6,000 Jews in 1940 by issuing them transit visas to leave Lithuania."If you help even a single person, you can save the world," he said.

Winding up his visit, Otsuka extended an open invitation to students. "If you ever have the opportunity to visit Japan, he'd love to have you visit the museum," translated Heller.

After posing for photographs with Otsuka and his 22-year-old daughter, Masami, the eighth-grade class filed out of the library.

And Heller was beaming. "To me, what's so exciting is he strengthens my kids' Jewish identity from a whole new perspective," he said.

Visits like this — with a Hebrew-speaking Japanese pastor who runs a Holocaust center — are "worth at least three weeks of studying."