EL PASO – Dr. Yoshiji Hirose of Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, Japan, gazed out curiously from behind his glasses, surveying the diverse crowd gathered before him at the El Paso Holocaust Museum. The audience was eager to learn about a Japanese man who had saved the lives of thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Dr. Mimi Gladstein a professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso connected with Hirose on a trip to Japan when she lectured at several universities.
“We got off the train and I saw three Japanese professors walking towards me and one of them starts speaking Yiddish to me. I was very embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t speak Yiddish,” said Gladstein as she described her first meeting with Hirose. She is also the head of the El Paso Holocaust Museum Content Committee and her connection with both Hirose and the museum brought him to El Paso.
“Going back to Japan and in my classes and my lectures to the citizens of my country, I try to talk about El Paso Holocaust Museum and the people here. I am very satisfied today. I had very good questions and met nice people,” said Hirose about his connection with the Holocaust Museum and how he takes his experiences back to Japan.
“I have been taking part in Jewish studies for about 30 years. It is quite disadvantageous to study foreign languages in Japan. English is okay but Yiddish and Hebrew are quite difficult to study there and you are very limited.” Hirose explained his struggle to engage in Jewish studies in his home country. He has made it part of his mission to educate more people in Japan and other places he visits in the world about the Holocaust and about the value of Jewish studies.
Chiune Sugihara, the man who was the main focus of Hirose’s lecture has a place on the “wall of the righteous” in the El Paso Holocaust Museum. “One decision I made was to have one person represent each country and there has to be testimony from more than one person that this person saved a life,” Gladstein said explaining how she selected who would be represented on this wall, including Sugihara who was Japan’s Vice-Consul in Lithuania during World War II, and saved more than 6,000 Jewish refugees by issuing transit visas so they could travel to Japan.
“People like Schindler and Sugihara were in positions where they were dealing with a lot of people and saved thousands of lives,” said Gladstein.
Some Holocaust survivors with connections to Chiune Sugihara were in the audience. One woman stood up to share that someone in her family had been saved by this man —the “Japanese Schindler”— and that her family was very happy that Hirose was giving this lecture. After giving his lecture, Hirose met with many El Pasoans and took a guided tour of the museum.
The El Paso Holocaust Museum and its affiliates, as well as the people of El Paso who were in attendance witnessed a connection that is rather rare and generally unknown between the local Jewish community, the Jewish studies program of UTEP and Notre Dame Seishin University in Okoyama.