It was November, 1938, and Nazi thugs in Germany were smashing and burning Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues to the ground, in what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
In the town of Brand, a Catholic priest, seeing the synagogue ablaze, fought through the flames to rescue the Torah, a sacred scroll inscribed with the first five books of the Hebrew bible, and vowed to hand it to the first Jew he saw. It took until the arrival of American forces in 1945 for him to be able to keep his word.
A young U.S. army chaplain called Gunther Plaut, serving on the front lines with the 104th “Timberwolf” Division, transported the scroll across Europe and to the United States in a bazooka case. And when Rabbi Plaut moved to Toronto in 1961 to take the pulpit at Holy Blossom Temple, he brought the Kristallnacht Torah with him. It is among the exhibits that will go on display this week at the new Toronto Holocaust Museum.
The museum, funded with around $3-million of federal money, opens its doors on Friday. It features newly acquired artifacts and exhibits previously stored at Toronto’s far smaller Holocaust education centre. Among the new exhibits are reports from The Globe and Mail during the Second World War about the murder of millions of Jews in Germany; the newspaper was one of the few national media outlets to report on the Holocaust in Allied countries.
Also on display is a rare surviving visa of a Jewish man fleeing persecution. It was issued by Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania who saved more than 6,000 Jewish people’s lives.
As acting consul at the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 transit visas allowing Jewish refugees, including entire families, to escape through Japan to a third country, in spite of the fact that Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany.
Daniel Zultek, who fled to Lithuania after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, was among those saved by Mr. Sugihara in 1940. His certificate, on display in the museum, enabled him to escape war-torn Europe and eventually make it to British Columbia.
Rachel Libman, chief curator of the museum, says Mr. Sugihara is one of the unsung heroes of the war who paid a price for his heroism. He was imprisoned in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Romania until 1947. On his return to Japan, Mr. Sugihara was summoned by his superior at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked to submit his resignation. The former diplomat received a small pension but no recommendation letter.
In 1968, he received a call from the Israeli embassy in Tokyo. The commercial attaché, one of the people he had saved, had been searching for him, and arranged a scholarship for Mr. Sugihara’s son Nobuki to study in Israel.
Nobuki Sugihara told The Globe on Wednesday that his father came to visit him while he was at university, and met two more people he had saved. One was Zorach Warhaftig, who later became one of the signatories of the Israel’s independence declaration and that country’s minister of religion.
“During this visit, I asked my father why he saved those people and he answered me, ‘Because I felt pity for them,’” he said. “Those are the only three of the survivors he got to meet in person.”
In 2020, Japan’s embassy in Ottawa honoured Mr. Sugihara, who has been called the Japanese Oskar Schindler. Michael Levitt, president and chief executive officer of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said his courage and compassion is little known.
“Amid all the darkness of the Holocaust, Chiune Sugihara provided a too-rare source of light,” Mr. Levitt said. “Today, Sugihara’s story serves as a powerful example of the positive difference one individual can make in the lives of others, and how we all have the ability to take action for those in need in the face of evil.”
Also on display at the museum is a Schutzpass – or Swedish protective pass – one of many issued by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to Hungarian Jews to protect them from deportation to concentration camps. Judith Kopstein, who was 14 at the time, survived the Holocaust with her family after being issued the document. She came to Canada in 1956, and became the first accredited female engineer in Manitoba.
Ms. Libman said one of the most moving exhibits is a letter and charms shaped from bread rations sent by Marketa Brady to her children from Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1942. Two of the charms, coloured with toothpaste, are heart shaped and have the initials of her children, Hana and George. A third is a horseshoe for good luck.
Ms. Brady was later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was killed. George, who in the 1950s emigrated to Canada, was the family’s only survivor. Thirteen-year-old Hana was killed at Auschwitz in October, 1944. The discovery of her luggage there by a Japanese researcher who investigated her story inspired the non-fiction children’s book and CBC documentary Hana’s Suitcase.