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Lithuanian museum to 'Japanese Schindler' saved by travel agent's crowdfunding campaign

Chiune Sugihara (Photo courtesy of the Yaotsu Municipal Government, Gifu Prefecture)
The Tokyo end of an online ceremony for the presentation of crowdfunded donations to Sugihara House in Kaunas, Lithuania, is seen in the Japanese capital's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 15, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Tanaka)
Sugihara House is seen in Kaunas, Lithuania, in this April 18, 2018 file photo. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Tanaka)

TOKYO -- Sugihara House, the former Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, where World War II-era diplomat Chiune Sugihara issued thousands of "Visas for Life" to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, has been in danger of closing permanently amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, a Tokyo travel agency worker has come to the rescue with an online crowdfunding campaign, and the proceeds were presented to the museum in an online ceremony linking Kaunas and Tokyo on Dec. 15.

    Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) issued 2,140 transit visas to Jewish families in the weeks before the consulate was closed following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in summer 1940. The consulate where he worked was later transformed into a museum and research center, but the lack of visitors during the pandemic -- the museum is currently closed until Jan. 31, 2021 -- put Sugihara House in a tight financial squeeze.

    The museum's existential crisis spurred Eurasia Travel Co. employee Shinpei Miura, 32, and others to launch the crowdfunding effort in partnership with Sugihara House, running from September to October this year.

    "One thing we realized during the unprecedented coronavirus situation was the importance of Mr. Chiune Sugihara's spirit of treating each person with care and respect," commented Miura. "I think that we reached our crowdfunding goal thanks to the actions of many people with Mr. Sugihara and Sugihara House in their hearts."

    The project set a funding goal of 8 million yen (about $77,000), but actually pulled in 10,487,500 yen (approx. $101,300) from 1,164 donors.

    Miura and Lithuanian ambassador to Japan Gediminas Varvuolis were among the Dec. 15 ceremony attendees in Tokyo. In Lithuania, Japan's ambassador Shiro Yamasaki joined Ramunas Garbaravicius, director of the private "Sugihara 'Diplomats for life' foundation" that runs Sugihara House, and who accepted the donation certificate.

    "We thank you for extending the hand of help. Everyone in Japan who gave us support, you are true friends," Garbaravicius stated.

    Sugihara House's collection includes an explanation of the late diplomat's deeds, and usually attracts about 20,000 visitors a year -- about 85% of them Japanese. However, with its doors temporarily closed due to the pandemic, there have been no paying visitors, threatening the museum with permanent closure.

    That's when Miura, whose job includes organizing tours to Lithuania, set about launching the crowdfunding campaign. The collected monies will all go to running Sugihara House.

    Donor comments left on the crowdfunding site included, "Mr. Chiune Sugihara is the pride of all Japanese people," "I want to go (to the museum) someday, so please stay open," and "Together, let's keep protecting the bonds between our two countries forged by those who went before us." Some 70% of the donations were apparently from people who had visited Sugihara House before. There was even one donation from a primary school third-grader.

    The entire donation presentation ceremony can be seen on YouTube at https://youtu.be/EeimHLwseH4.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Cultural News Department)

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