When Rabbi Yeshayahu Greenfeld interrupted a fourth grade class at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, N.Y., with a hearty greeting in Hebrew, the students responded without much enthusiasm. It was, after all, a Monday morning.
But then the 15 boys and girls stopped and stared at the man who had accompanied Greenfeld, the lower school’s dean, into the classroom. Aside from his dark suit and yarmulke, the visitor looked nothing like the teachers at their yeshiva.
“Our guest is from Japan,” Greenfeld explained. “He is not Jewish, but he loves the Jewish people.”
The students looked from Greenfeld to the Reverend Makoto Otsuka, who had begun writing a Hebrew phrase on the blackboard in neat, deliberate script: “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand fail,” he later translated into English. Then, turning toward the class and flashing his infectious smile, Otsuka began to sing “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. As his voice soared, Greenfeld joined in, plucking an Israeli flag off the wall and handing it to Otsuka. Soon the students were giggling. They stood, placed their hands above their hearts and sang, both mesmerized and puzzled by this conundrum of Judaism before them.
Otsuka is the founder of the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama, Japan. In a country once ravaged by the world’s first atomic bomb, the HEC is the first institution devoted to educating Japanese children about another catastrophe entirely: the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime. Located 45 minutes from Hiroshima City and an hour from Osaka, the center is dedicated to the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust — and its location enables Japanese students traveling to Hiroshima to learn about their own history to discover a different dark part of the past. With an impressive collection of artifacts, photographs, books and videos that Otsuka collected from 60 countries, the HEC tells the story of the Holocaust in a distinctly Japanese style (the center won an Italian architecture prize). Since opening in 1995, it has welcomed over 110,000 visitors.
“We are lucky that a gentile took an interest and is perpetuating the notion of am Yisrael chai [the people of Israel live] to a part of the world that would never get a chance to hear about it,” Rabbi Greenfeld told the Forward.
Otsuka has devoted his life to educating the Japanese people about the Holocaust, and his recent stay in New York furthered this mission. He visited classes and spoke with students at North Shore, the Ramaz School in Manhattan, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway and Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, N.Y.
“I wanted to know how children study and how their teachers are waking up Jewishness and Jewish thought and Jewish tradition,” Otsuka told the Forward, choosing his English words with care. Hebrew is easier for him — he’s essentially fluent — and he practices the language for 15 minutes each day. “We have to [teach] the younger generation,” he said, citing the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. “We have to run!”
Otsuka has been sprinting for nearly four decades, ever since a chance meeting set him on the path toward creating the HEC. In many ways, it’s a tale of the right person in the right place at the right time. Otsuka was born in Kyoto in 1949 and grew up in the pro-Israel Christian church Beit Shalom Japan. In 1971, he traveled to Israel with the organization’s renowned Shinonome Chorus. Following a performance at an old age home in Netanya, a stranger approached the chorus members and asked if they’d sing a song for him in Japanese. It wasn’t until the next day — after the choir sang for him a second time — that the man asked his fateful question: “Have you read my daughter’s diary? I am [the] father of Anne Frank.”
Otsuka was touched by Otto Frank’s poignant story, and the two men forged a strong friendship. “It’s not enough to sympathize with 1.5 million Jewish children like my daughter,” Otsuka remembered Frank telling him, “you have to do something for establishing real peace.”
Frank’s generosity and passion for children inspired Otsuka to create the HEC.
Undaunted by the task of collecting artifacts from scratch for a center that did not yet exist, he wrote 200 letters in Hebrew, appealing for help from Jewish organizations, museums and Holocaust survivors. “I said, ‘I don’t have money, but I have a will.’” He has also visited over 40 concentration camps, spoken with survivors from around the world and discussed the center in more than 300 interviews with Japanese media. With financial backing from Beit Shalom Japan, the center began to take shape — and the artifacts poured in. There is the typewriter that Frank used to edit his daughter’s diary; clothes from Auschwitz and coins from Lodz; an exact replica of the room where Anne Frank hid and, overlooking a bronze statue of Anne Frank, a stained glass window with floating butterflies. The latter was inspired by a poem by Pavel Friedman, a young Jewish boy who was deported to Terezin and wrote that he never saw another butterfly.
In contrast with the mountains of shoes and eyeglasses found in some Holocaust museums, the HEC educates with a subtlety and restraint that is organic to Japanese culture. In the Room of Remembrance, there is a single shoe that belonged to a child who perished in the gas chambers. It sits atop a brick monument filled with ashes from Auschwitz, and a soft light beats down upon its black, dirty, broken hide. A few feet away, chairs wait for visitors to sit and observe.
“I’ve visited many, many Holocaust museums,” said Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, the provost of North Shore and lifetime honorary rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan. “This was the only place that brought me to tears,” said Tokayer, who lost his family in the Holocaust. “Every Holocaust museum does something. What is the secret to getting to your soul — more signs, more photos? The center is a very Japanese style. It’s very touching and overwhelming just being there.”
Still, as Otsuka noted, “teaching the Holocaust is very, very delicate, and very difficult to teach in Japan.” According to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, only 2,000 Jews live there, most of them foreign born. But Otsuka observed that many Japanese children read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” making her a natural entry point for teaching a predominantly non-Jewish society about Judaism and the Holocaust.
“It’s not enough only thinking, only reading — you have to do something. Action is most important,” he said.
Abigail Jones is a writer in New York City.