By now, there would likely be a thousand trees in the forest planted near Jerusalem to honor Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat credited with saving 6,000 Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust — a mix of olive and palm trees, cypress and sycamore and Jerusalem pine.
Sugihara’s sole surviving son, Nobuki, had been to the dedication of the forest, established by the Jewish National Fund in Israel in 1985. He planted seedlings with his own hands. (His father, who died six months later at 86, was too ill to attend the ceremony.) And he had returned five years later with his mother, marveling at the growth of the grove.
“The forest was planned for 1,000 trees — it was a huge area,” he told NJJN by phone from his home in Belgium. “When we did the  ceremony, we planted 30 or 40 trees. When I took my mother to show her the forest in 1990, it was too big. We couldn’t even find the [dedicatory] monument. … There must have been 400 trees, and they were very big.”
So Sugihara, 71, a retired diamond dealer, was puzzled when he heard from Japanese friends who had flown to Israel in recent years to visit the forest that they were unable to find it. When an Israeli whose family had been saved by his father also reported to Sugihara that he too was unable to find the forest on a recent visit, the son flew to Israel from his home in Belgium last January to look for himself.
“I found a garbage place,” he said. “There was no monument. There was an apartment building for Orthodox Jewish people. People had thrown garbage in the area. It was a mess.”
And the trees planted to honor a Righteous Gentile who put his life on the line in defiance of his government to save Jews? Gone — bulldozed.
Now, a year after the razing of the forest was first reported, Nobuki Sugihara finds himself angry and still at odds with JNF in Israel (a separate entity from JNF-USA). He is in the unlikely position of having to advocate for a new, separate grove of trees befitting his father’s legacy — not at all what the group is offering.
“I think everyone is upset [with what happened],” he said, adding that JNF in Israel (known as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-JNF, or KKL-JNF) “didn’t say anything. They didn’t explain anything about it. They kept silent.”
The story of the bulldozing of the Sugihara Righteous Forest in Beit Shemesh is a complicated one. The city, a 25-minute drive west of Jerusalem, is the fastest-growing city in Israel, its population having soared 62 percent since 2008 to nearly 119,000. As the increasingly charedi city grew, the land the forest sat on was rezoned, paving the way for the construction of the apartment building Sugihara saw on his visit last year.
A year ago, just after Sugihara’s visit, KKL-JNF said in a statement that “a new residential neighborhood was built in the Beit Shemesh area, which affected the area’s terrain and visibility. The establishment of the neighborhood led to significant changes, among them a barrier that was built around the neighborhood, paved roads, and more. In light of these changes there is not a convenient point of access to the site and the area is not suitable as a memorial site.”
The statement said KKL-JNF was “examining the circumstances” of the bulldozing and that an “additional grove would be dedicated to the memory and commemoration of Chiune Sugihara.”
But Nobuki Sugihara said that when JNF wrote him after he complained about the bulldozing, it did not suggest establishing another grove in his father’s memory. Instead, the group offered to “rededicate a proper grove” in Israel’s Forest of Martyrs, between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
“They are recommending dedicating the corner of an existing forest,” Sugihara told NJJN. “I would like to see another grove dedicated. A grove is to plant trees. They cannot replace a grove with an existing corner of a forest. It’s not the same thing.”
And Sugihara said he is upset that the trees that were planted in the forest dedicated to his father were paid for by hundreds of his family’s Japanese friends, politicians, and businesspeople.
A spokesman for KKL-JNF in Israel, Alon Brandt, insisted in an email to NJJN that the razing of the forest was “an unfortunate incident that involved local authorities and was not coordinated with JNF.” He has not said whether the money sent to KKL-JNF for the forest would be returned to their donors.
KKL-JNF was just one of many organizations that sought to recognize and honor Sugihara — who became known as the “Japanese Schindler” after German industrialist Otto Schindler, who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust and whose story is told in the movie “Schindler’s List” — after his actions were first reported in 1968. While serving as Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara hand-wrote thousands of visas to allow Jews fleeing Europe to travel through Japanese territory. In 1984, Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations. The following year, KKL-JNF in Israel honored him by dedicating the Sugihara Righteous Forest near Beit Shemesh.
In a statement to NJJN, KKL-JNF in Israel said commemorating Sugihara’s “memory and the courageous and selfless acts … is of the utmost importance to KKL-JNF and the state of Israel.” It said it offered to dedicate a grove in the Forest of Martyrs because it is a memorial both to the victims of the Holocaust and the Righteous Among the Nations, including Anne Frank and Raoul Wallenberg. And it said the forest is used for “educational programs for youth and future generations coming from Israel and abroad.”
The statement said KKL-JNF had made “multiple attempts” to contact the family and its representatives “to reach a mutually agreed arrangement,” and that KKL-JNF wanted to dedicate the grove to Sugihara on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
But Brandt, the KKL-JNF spokesman, said in an email that “the family did not reply with a confirmation to our offer, therefore the ceremony did not take place.”
In a phone interview, Brandt said the offer “is still in play. We were enthusiastic about doing this on the 27th and thought it was a very honorable thing to do. We were so very hopeful they would say yes. It’s very generous and we would love to renew the relationship with the family and bridge those gaps.”
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Brandt recalled, French President Emmanuel Macron was present at a “huge memorial for the French deportees [to Auschwitz] that was located next to Beit Shemesh. We had survivors there and testimonials from second-generation survivors. That is what we had wanted to do with the [Sugihara] family. … We understand the family wishes to plant new trees. What we have offered is a pretty solid substitute. It is the best we can do, and if the family wishes to plant a bunch of trees themselves, I will check and see if it is possible.”
Brandt reiterated that the Sugihara Forest had been razed without the knowledge of JNF.
“We have researched this backward and forward,” he insisted. “I don’t think [the land] was sold to anyone. What happened was a major discoordination with authorities. This was done by local authorities and not a private contractor. This was an unfortunate incident that involved local authorities and was not coordinated with JNF.”
Brandt stressed that his organization is “still looking into resolving this in the most respectful manner possible,” and added that the offer it made regarding the Martyrs’ Forest is “a well-thought-out and dignified solution.”
But Zvi Wolicki, a Beit Shemesh councilman, told NJJN in an email that KKL-JNF’s claim that it was not aware the forest had been bulldozed and that this was all a “city issue … defies reality.”
“In Israel, all land is owned by the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which is responsible for zoning and the national master plan,” he wrote. “The ILA and KKL have mutual agreements built for compensation when municipal expansion warrants the removal of a forested area. … This process would have taken place 10-15 years ago when the neighborhood was initially planned. With regard to compensation from the city to KKL — there is no such thing nor does the city pay the ILA. We are not even involved in the sale of properties to developers (we receive 10 percent of the proceeds to be used towards infrastructure).”
“It is not possible that KKL did not know about this as it was only them and the ILA that work this process,” Wolicki added. “Furthermore, since the city never had ownership of the property, we could not nor do we have any mechanism for the sale of the lumber” after the forest was bulldozed.
Brandt at KKL-JNF said he too is unaware of the disposition of the trees after they were felled or who profited from the sale of the lumber. But he stressed that “KKL-JNF did not produce any profit or earnings from this incident.”
He did not reply when asked how many trees were felled and how many people donated money for the forest. But he did say “a special unit was established in KKL-JNF to make sure that this sort of incident will not repeat itself, and much work has been put into improving our system.”
Wolicki said that what occurred with the Sugihara Forest predates the current city administration. He said not all of the Sugihara Forest had been used for the apartment building and that “the remainder appears to have been neglected. We became aware of this story when his family was on a visit to Israel and asked to see the location of the forest.”
“They were shocked to see the construction and lack of maintenance,” Wolicki wrote. “The city upon being apprised of the situation immediately cleaned up the remaining park and offered to find an alternative worthy dedication in memory of Mr. Sugihara. We were informed by JNF that they were taking care of it.”
Wolicki added that the municipality remains “willing to compensate the family with a suitable dedication despite this being outside of our jurisdiction.”
In the meantime, the honors for Sugihara continue. The year 2020 has been designated “The Year of Chiune Sugihara” in Lithuania. And a few months ago, a high school in Beit Shemesh learned about the razed forest and “planted a tree at the school for my father,” Sugihara said, noting that he had been invited but had already committed to attend another ceremony in Minsk.
He added that he plans to write to KKL-JNF suggesting that it “pick land where people can plant trees again.” That would be in keeping with the passage in Leviticus JNF uses in its promotional material: “When you shall come to the land you shall plant trees.”
Summing up what has been a long, frustrating ordeal, Nobuki Sugihara looked to the future. “Children and grandchildren could plant trees and we would start again,” he said of a hoped-for new grove. “It’s never too late. We can plant for the next generation.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.