In the Kansai region of the island of Honshu, Japan, sits the port city of Kobe. The cosmopolitan city has a population of 45,000 foreign residents from more than 100 countries and is home to the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue, officially the Jewish Community of Kansai – the oldest surviving Jewish community in Japan.
The first Jews arrived in Kobe around the turn of the 20th century. Up until WWII, Jews flocked to the port city from Poland, Russia, Germany and the Middle East due to its wealth and trading opportunities. As was often the case in Jewish history, Jews were predominantly involved in mercantile businesses because of limitations imposed upon then by their home countries, and working in trade allowed them to prosper without settling down.
By 1941, there were two separate synagogues in Kobe, one for the Ashkenazim and another for the Sephardim. During WWII, the Sephardic synagogue burnt down as the result of a US air raid, and the Ashkenazim shared their space with the Sephardic community.
According to George Sidline, a former resident of Kobe who now lives in Portland, Oregon, the Germans went to great lengths to infiltrate Japan with anti-Semitic propaganda, yet to their annoyance, Japan was largely tolerant of Jews. He is currently writing a book about his experiences growing up in Japan during the war. There have been numerous other publications on the subject.
Ironically, in the 1930s, the Japanese government, espoused by the fraudulent anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which claimed that Jews had an intrinsic and almost supernatural ability to accumulate money and power, sought out a Jewish population to come to Japan. The government believed that encouraging Jews to settle in their country would be politically and economically advantageous.
Between 1939 and 1940, despite being an ally of Nazi Germany, Japan continued to accept a large influx of Jews from Europe. In a well-known act of bravery and kindness, Japan’s consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, ignored orders from Japan’s Foreign Ministry and gave thousands of Jews transit visas to Japan. Many of whom found refuge in Kobe, and he saved as many as 10,000 Jewish lives.
The Jews in Kobe meanwhile found themselves unable to travel or conduct business during the war, but were treated well by local authorities. It is reported that Rahmo Sassoon, in order to ease the growing anxiety among the Jewish residents, was pressured into painting over the gold-lettered sign that adorned the synagogue so that it would be less conspicuous.
Despite the presence of German officers in Kobe, the Chief of Police of Kobe assured Sassoon of the community’s safety and he was ordered to restore the lettering.