Japanese Schindler immortalized in opera

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

During World War II, Japan was an ally of Hitler’s Germany. But one Japanese diplomat had a conscience and the will to act on it.

In the early months of the war, Japan’s consul general in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, issued thousands of visas to Jews fleeing the Nazi onslaught. Even though his government expressly forbade him to do so, Sugihara went on writing visas, day and night, until his hands cramped up.

His place in Holocaust history has gone largely unnoticed. But Lani Silver has been singing Sugihara’s praises for years. Literally.

Silver has co-written an opera that recounts the life of Chiune Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko. Titled “Incident in Lithuania,” the opera, or at least 10 minutes of it, will have its world premiere at the NOW Festival in San Francisco on May 28.

“I’ve been a songwriting student for 25 years,” says Silver, who is best known in the Jewish community for launching the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project. “I said to [writing partner Bill Spooner] three years ago, ‘Let’s not work on little songs anymore; let’s do something lasting.'” Spooner was a founding member of the notorious ’70s band the Tubes.

Though the upcoming performance includes only one scene and three songs, the full opera features 20 songs, and spans the Sugiharas’ life from their 1939 arrival in Lithuania to the couple’s ultimate disgrace and self-exile.

Silver first heard of the Sugiharas in the mid-’90s while working on an exhibit for the Oral History Project. The project focused on a Japanese-American unit of the U.S. Army that helped liberate Dachau. A member of that unit had known Sugihara and told Silver his story.

What she heard would change her life forever.

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Kaunas, Lithuania, to serve as consul general. The following July, with the war in its early stages, 200 Polish Jews gathered in front of the consulate begging for visas to cross Russia and enter Japan. Sugihara met with them and decided to issue the visas against the express orders of his government. Meanwhile, Russian forces had overtaken Lithuania and began closing down the consulates. Yet even as his family boarded a train bound for Germany, Sugihara kept issuing visas, throwing them out the train window. In all, he personally handwrote 2,193 transit visas for Jewish families.

Today he is known as the Japanese Schindler.

The subsequent years proved largely unkind to the brave diplomat. The Sugiharas spent 18 months in a Russian prison camp before returning to Japan in 1946. Shortly thereafter, the couple lost their youngest son to malnutrition while Chiune Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign ministry because of the “incident in Lithuania.”

Sugihara lost his livelihood, struggling for years afterwards. He went into self-imposed exile in Russia, and lived out his life largely forgotten.

But the Jews he saved never forgot. Most of them eventually made their way to China where they rode out the war years as Shanghailanders. Finally, several years after Chiune Sugihara’s death in 1985, the Japanese government honored him for the work he did. Yukiko Sugihara is still living in Japan at the age of 92, though she is not in good health.

In the years since Silver first learned of the Sugiharas, she has co-written an illustrated biography of the couple, lectured on them and traveled frequently with Yukiko. PBS has aired a documentary about the incident in Lithuania, and major publications like Newsweek have run stories about the Sugiharas.

But Silver’s opera may be the first artistic take on the family. The San Francisco native has a long history of activism in social justice issues, culminating in her founding of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project. She conducted interviews with hundreds of survivors, and served as a model for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project.

That work remains a source of great satisfaction for her, but she says she won’t rest until the whole world knows about the Sugiharas. Perhaps her opera will be the vehicle to pull it off.

“I’ve heard the worst possible stories of human treatment,” she says, “and through this story I’ve known the best of people. I feel inspired and uplifted when I think of what they did.”

The NOW Festival presents “Incident in Lithuania” by Lani Silver and Bill Spooner, 5 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at Thick House, 1695 18th St., S.F. Tickets: $15-$25. Information: (415) 401-8081.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.