Sugihara's visa story is surprisingly relevant amid Ukraine war – artists in Lithuania - BNS SPECIAL

  • 2023-06-12
  • BNS/TBT Staff

KAUNAS - The story of the visas that were issued by interwar Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania and saved Jews from the Nazis remains surprisingly relevant in today's context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Jenny Kagan, an artist of Litvak descent, says.

Having undertaken the task of updating the Kaunas-based house-museum of Sugihara, who issued "visas for life" to thousands of Jews, the artist says it's particularly important for her to "connect the story of Sugihara to the wider stories".

"I want to absolutely hone in on the story of Sugihara but then to also look at the ripples around it, Kagan told BNS after coming to Kaunas. "Sugihara stays central, more so, you absolutely have to enter into – and I think it's even more specific than Sugihara – you have to enter into the moment of the decision to sign the visas. That's where everything hinges. And it's by looking at details of stories that we understand the global. It's about using that tiny moment and exploding, and entering at somehow, and seeing how it fits into the rest of the world."

In her words, the moment when you have to make a difficult decision, weighing in on what is convenient and what is right, is a common human moment that is familiar to everyone, and, therefore, it helps to bring us closer to the seemingly distant story of a Japanese man who lived in Kaunas during the interwar period.

Sugihara worked in Kaunas when he and Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk issued "visas for life" 1939-1940 and the lives of at least 6,000 Jews.

One key decision

Before the pandemic, the diplomat's house in the Zaliakalnis area that overlooks central Kaunas was a center of attraction for visitors from Japan. As the inflow of Japanese tourists died down due to COVID-19 restrictions, the museum which tells of Sugihara's activities in the house he lived in, is looking for new ways to make itself relevant.

Having been involved in various cultural projects in Kaunas since 2017, Kagan will create a new concept for the museum by September through immersive, experience and exploration-based exhibitions and installations. The development of this concept is partly funded by Lithuania's Foreign Ministry.

The artists wants to transform Sugihara's story into an emotional journey, revealing the complex choices and the dramatic contexts of interwar Kaunas, refugees, the Holocaust, and World War II. And they are surprisingly relevant today too, Kagan points out.

The artist admits that she has only an abstract idea of what could be done at Sugihara's house, but she is sure of one thing: the exhibits should be taken off the walls and become objects of study.

Kagan would also like to present Sugihara's house in the Kaunas context and show how Sugihara's house fits into the city's fabric. She proposes putting on ones headphones and go on a from the city center, Laisves Avenue, to Sugihara's house, listening to "some sounds and some snippets of history and being located in the city".

"And then another journey when you leave would have some of the stories of what happened to those that didn't escape," the artist said.

The project is valued at around 100,000 euros.

Kagan was raised in the UK, but her parents, Juozapas Kaganas ir Margarita Stromaite, were originally from Kaunas.

When the Nazis occupied Lithuania, more than 50 Lithuanian Jews were publicly and brutally tortured and killed on June 27, 1941 within the garage territory of the Lithuanian Agricultural Cooperative Union, Lietukis. The Kaunas Steponas Darius and Stasys Girenas Gymnasium stands here now and the massacre place is marked by a memorial stone.