Samurai warriors live by the moral code bushido, or “way of the warrior.”
World-renowned cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, a half-Japanese convert to Judaism living in Tel Aviv, comes from a samurai background. So did Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served as vice consul for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas, Lithuania, and helped thousands of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II.
Cooper said Sugihara followed one of the foundational bushido codes when he issued transit visas to Jews so they could travel through Japanese territory. He did so at risk to his job, his life and the lives of his family.
“You do what’s right,” Cooper told JNS. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what kind of pressure you’re getting. You just do the right thing, and that’s what he did.”
‘I needed to bring the story forward’
Cooper came to find that Sugihara helped save her father-in-law during the Holocaust. Moved by the story, she helped create a moving, large-scale symphonic work honoring Sugihara’s heroism, securing Yad Vashem in a commissioning role and bringing on a legendary composer and manager.
She had a vague grasp of her in-laws’ family story, but when someone sent a commemorative medal with Sugihara’s image on it—celebrating the latter’s status as “Righteous Among the Nations”—to her husband Len Rosen, Cooper was intrigued. She knew her father-in-law had survived the Holocaust in Japan and Shanghai, and she was aware that he spoke both Japanese and Shanghainese.
“I saw that there are different kinds of Asian things around his apartment,” said Cooper. “But his parents weren’t alive by the time we met.”
The medal and the questions it raised for her placed her on a path to discovering Rosen’s roots and Sugihara’s valor.
“The story really touched me and struck a chord—not only because I’m half-Japanese, but partly because I understand the culture. I know what it means to go against authority in that society, which is just something that doesn’t happen,” said Cooper. “It’s not something that Sugihara ever talked about. He never wanted to bring glory to himself.”
Sugihara suffered immensely due to his bravery in issuing visas to Jews, who otherwise would not have qualified under Japanese immigration regulations.
When Soviet troops entered Romania, they incarcerated him and his family in a prisoner-of-war camp for 18 months. Later released to Japan, Sugihara was reportedly dismissed from the foreign ministry due to his work against guidelines in Lithuania. He remained largely unknown in his country until Yad Vashem came calling.
Sugihara found a series of menial jobs and spent years living an inconspicuous life in the Soviet Union.
“I became obsessed with this idea that I needed to bring the story forward, and it has to be something pretty grand that really makes a statement,” said Cooper. “I’m not a writer. I’m not an actress. I play music. It’s what I’ve always done.”
She contacted Sugihara’s only living son, Nobuki, to secure his blessing and assure him that she was not exploiting his father’s story for personal gain.
‘Global lead commissioners of the piece’
Cooper conceived the project as a solo cello piece with an orchestra. But how to sell that to venues and concert promoters? She found an agent with pull and a large reputation in Edna Landau, who also understood Cooper’s religious restrictions.
“She’s the superstar manager,” Cooper said of Landau, a former IMG Artists director and the subject of a CNN documentary. “She also happens to be Jewish. She loved this project, and thankfully, she accepted it.”
But there was a potential hitch. At the end of their initial conversation, Cooper felt it important to divulge to Landau that she observes Shabbat—meaning she can’t perform Friday nights or Saturdays. That is a deal killer for many managers, she said.
But Landau just laughed. “She said, ‘I’m Shomer Shabbat,’ ” said Cooper. “She may be the only person in the classical music world that actually understood my problem.”
The next challenge was to find a partner organization through which to build an audience beyond the traditional classical music crowd.
“For audiences that go to hear the New York Philharmonic, I’d say the majority of them are much happier to go hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 again, rather than hearing some new piece that’s written,” said Cooper. “It scares them.”
It turned out synagogue attendance came with added professional and aesthetic bonuses.
Landau attends synagogue with Stanley Stone, executive director of the American Society for Yad Vashem. The rabbi of Cooper’s synagogue in Tel Aviv is Yisrael Meir Lau, who has formerly served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and chairman of Yad Vashem.
“We were able, unbelievably, to get them to become the global lead commissioners of the piece,” Cooper said of Yad Vashem.
‘We all have an inner Sugihara’
The two sought a composer, ideally with a personal connection to the story, who had enough gravitas that Berlin and New York philharmonics would perform the work. Cooper knew many talented young composers, but they weren’t looking for something in ragtime or jazz.
They settled on Lera Auerbach, a Soviet-born Austrian-American classical composer, conductor and concert pianist. Born to a Jewish family in Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, she has won multiple prestigious awards and her compositions have been commissioned and performed by a wide array of artists, orchestras, choirs and ballet companies.
The pandemic hit the classical music business particularly hard, and the new work had to wait. Auerbach also decided on a choral piece with a cello and full orchestra. The Concert for Sugihara, featuring Auerbach’s original work Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” finally debuted last November in Kaunas, the city where Sugihara reportedly produced life-saving visas for some 18 to 20 hours a day.
Future performances are set for Los Angeles and Napa, Calif., before the show returns to Europe for performances in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden in Germany; and Prague and Warsaw, among others. The concert will be performed at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 19, the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
Cooper’s husband, whose family story inspired the entire project, is pleased with how it turned out, she said. Irving Rosen, Cooper’s father-in-law, was one of six siblings in Warsaw. Irving, and his brothers Henry and Pinchas, decided to leave when the Nazis invaded Poland; the other three stayed and did not survive.
The three who left Warsaw agreed to meet in Israel. Pinchas made it there but perished in the War of Independence. Irving and Henry escaped Poland and made their way to Lithuania, as the Soviet Union and Nazis closed in from opposite sides.
Irving heard someone was issuing transit visas and was able to obtain travel documents from Sugihara. Irving and Henry ended up in Kobe, Japan, via the Trans-Siberian Railway. They remained in Japan until the country allied with Germany. Almost all of the Jewish visa holders were sent to Shanghai, China, including the brothers.
As many as 100,000 people are estimated to be alive today due to ancestors who received Sugihara visas. Israel honored the Japanese diplomat as a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1985, the only Japanese national to have been so honored. Lithuania designated 2020 “The Year Chiune Sugihara.”
“These days with the rampant antisemitism and all the violence, authoritarian governments, suffering over the wars, the refugee crisis around the world, it’s a story that I think really needs to be out there,” said Cooper.
“There are a lot of projects about the Holocaust, but I think there’s something about a story about one person that’s easier for people to relate to,” she added. “Six million is just so overwhelming.”
And Cooper is drawn to what she takes to be the simplicity of Sugihara’s story—the samurai notion of bushido.
“In a sense, what he did was very simple. He tuned out the noise. He tuned out the chaos, and just listened to his simple soul and did what was right,” she said. “We all have an inner Sugihara. You have to listen. You have to do what’s right. It’s not difficult, really. The circumstances might be difficult, but it’s not difficult to know what’s right. We all know what is right.”