On Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending a concert put on by the Embassy of Israel in Japan. It was titled “Visas for Life” and dedicated to the work and the memory of Chiune Sugihara, who wrote transit visas in Lithuania during WWII to save thousands of Jews. The embassy organized the concert as part of its year of celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel.
In case you don’t know, Chiune Sugihara is a Jewish hero. A gifted linguist, he was the Japanese consul to Lithuania during the war. The Japanese government has expressly forbid him to write visas to help Jews and he did it anyway to save the thousands and thousands of Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s wrath in Eastern Europe. He wrote transit visas so the Jews could get on the trans-Siberian railway across Russia, then take a ship to Japan, where they could then get to an island called Curacao, which did not require entry visas. Some made it all the way, and some ended up staying in the port city of Kobe, Japan. Sugihara was moved by the crowds of hungry, dirty Jews who congregated outside of his door at the consul’s residence to beg for help. In the end, he had to retire from the Japanese foreign service in disgrace because he had defied his government, but he always maintained that he did the right thing and refused to be seen as a hero. He would tell people that anyone would do the same. Most people beg to differ; there were a lot of people who turned a blind eye to the suffering, but not Sugihara. He is the only Japanese person with a tree planted in his honor at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Israel.
The first half of this concert was a re-telling of the Sugihara story set to music. There was a seven-piece orchestra playing music specifically designed by the writer of the story. It was touching and beautiful, moving many to tears. Even in the English translations, the words put together a scenario of both despair and hope that lifted the spirit in the end.
The audience got to hear a real treat for the second half of the concert: pieces played by pianist Sasha Toperich from Sarajevo and Japanese violinist Eijin Nimura. Both men, in addition to being exquisite musicians, are Unesco Ambassadors for Peace, which means they are using their talents to further diplomacy between nations, a worthy goal. (Please click on their links to see their websites and hear some of their music)
Toperich played two solo pieces, one a vibrant wonderment by A.I. Khachaturian where the pianist’s fingers moved across and back on the keyboard at the speed of light, followed only by his head and flop of rich, black hair. The second was a lilting and familiar Chopin Nocturne.
Nimura’s solo piece was a few minutes of artistic magic and majesty. He played a Paganini opus, and I truly didn’t know a violin could be played or sound like that. The pizzicato with the left hand while bowing with the right left the listener bewildered and mesmerized. It was a force to be be reckoned with.
When the two men played together, the concert hall was electrified. They played, in a nod to the Israeli contingent, Bloch’s “Nigun No. 2 from Ba’al Shem Tov” and then a Brahms piece. The two masters, together, created an atmosphere of rich excitement and there wasn’t a person in the hall who wasn’t rapt with attention. It was an unbelievable pairing of talent, and afterward, they each bowed to the other.
After the Israeli Ambassador, a wonderful man named Nissim Ben Shitrit, who is talented in oratory and diplomatic arts, gave Nimura a certificate of Cultural Ambassadorship from Israel, the two artists played a beautiful encore.
All of the artists from the evening greeted guests in the lobby after the concert, and asked for donations for Tohoku, the perfect ending to a delightful evening. Everyone clearly gave generously, uplifted by the heights of the evening.
Such, as they say, is the power of music. I was privileged to be a part of it.