Yad Vashem has done something extraordinary – literally striking a new chord in the name of a Righteous Gentile who had no known musical bent. 

The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as Yad Vashem is officially called, in collaboration with the American Society for Yad Vashem, commissioned acclaimed musician Lera Auerbach to create a large-scale symphonic work for solo cello, choir and orchestra. This was done to honor the Japanese diplomat who, from his post in war-encroaching Lithuania, saved thousands of Jews during World War II. 

Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” as the performance is called, is dedicated to the heroic deeds of Chiune Sugihara, whom Yad Vashem honored with the title of Righteous Gentile Among the Nations in 1984, just before his passing. 

A musical tribute for a Righteous Gentile Among the Nations: Chiune Sugihara

The world debut was fittingly held last November in Kaunas, Lithuania, the city where Sugihara defied government orders in order to issue thousands of hand-stamped visas that gave Eastern European Jewish refugees, fleeing for their lives, a way out through Siberia toward temporary safe havens in Japan and Shanghai. 

The Magazine spoke to virtuoso cellist and project producer Kristina Reiko Cooper about how, from a single commemorative coin, the Tel Aviv resident, who is the granddaughter of one of Japan’s most distinguished classical musicians, realized the potential for a musical tribute in Sugihara’s honor.  “Sugihara is surprisingly not well known in the music world,” she began. Despite being from an elite Japanese musical family on her mother’s side, Cooper spent her childhood in the US and hadn’t heard of Chiune Sugihara until after her Orthodox conversion and marriage to investment banker Leonard Rosen. 

COMMEMORATIVE CHIUNE Sugihara coin. (credit: Kristina Reiko Cooper)

“Once I converted, I wanted to experience what it meant to be in the land of the Jews, in the homeland, which is a very different experience than being a convert or any kind of Jew in the US. Not that one is wrong or one is right. It’s just a very different experience, and this is the one that we wanted to have,” Cooper said.

Israel Mint issues coins for the Righteous Among the Nations, and one issued for Chiune Sugihara was sent to her husband not long after the couple moved to Israel. “My husband proceeded to tell me the story about Sugihara and how his father, Irving Rosen, was the recipient of one of those life-saving visas. Learning about this humble man, who did not do a complicated act, touched me so deeply that I felt this need to bring the story forward. He wasn’t this outsized hero. He was actually following in the tradition of the samurai, the Bushido code. Sugihara was doing what was right.  

Kristina Reiko Cooper at Atterbury House, New York (credit: Lara st. John)

“One of the things about great classical music is that it can be with us for centuries, maybe more. We’re still playing Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. So I wanted to be instrumental in helping to create a work, momentous and substantial enough, with a composer great enough to not only weather the test of time but for his message to reach its audience potentially forever.

“It became such a burning passion that I couldn’t get rid of this thought. It’s kind of natural. I have a cello to tell the story of Chiune Sugihara –  what he did and what it means to the world. Especially at this juncture of world history, with antisemitism on the rise, mass refugees fleeing around the globe, and uprisings in totalitarian governments. Sugihara’s story of just taking the steady course, of doing what was right, is a source of inspiration,” Cooper explained, speaking from the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa, where this interview took place. 

COOPER IS no stranger to playing cello with orchestras around the world. But casting herself in an executive administrative role is like nothing she’d ever done before. “Maybe if I’d have thought it through thoroughly, I wouldn’t have done it!” she laughed.

Cooper is the daughter of two classical musicians – a Japanese mother and a father of Northern European descent. She has been a musician her entire life, has a doctorate from The Juilliard School, and is a professor in the Music Department of Tel Aviv University. 

“I do believe that the cello is the closest instrument to the human voice and is able to communicate emotions in a way that most instruments cannot,” Cooper said. “First of all is the sheer range. How high and how low the cello goes is a very big range. But it’s in the vocal range for the most part. Second of all, the bow works the same way that breath works. If you draw the bow, that’s your breath; and playing a string instrument is much more emotional. You can shape the notes with vibrato, with the bow, with the pressure; whereas, for example, the piano –  and don’t get me wrong, I love the piano, but that’s a percussive instrument. You hit the key, and it doesn’t have the sort of touch that a string instrument does. 

Cooper’s first step in this project was to contact Chiune Sugihara’s only living son, Nobuki, to ask his permission, which he gave and is now a keen supporter. “After that first step, no matter how wonderful my idea may or may not have been, it doesn’t matter – I needed to find someone with the respect, the gravitas, the superstar yichus, to be able to navigate the classical music world and promote this work.”  

Despite being a renowned solo cellist and headliner on the world’s most distinguished stages for more than 20 years and, more recently, growing a robust YouTube following among classical music lovers, Cooper said she couldn’t imagine calling the New York Philharmonic and saying, “Hey, I have this great piece that I’m commissioning. Can you perform it in 2024? It doesn’t work that way!” she said, breaking into the kind of relieved laughter that conveys that her mission was nonetheless accomplished.

COOPER WAS able to get in touch with Edna Landau, renowned in the classical music world and Itzhak Perlman’s personal manager for 22 years. “Another manager that I knew introduced me to her. I knew that she was very particular about what she takes on. At the end of the conversation, she seemed quite positive. And I said, ‘I have to divulge something to you – I’m observant. That means that I can’t perform on Shabbat. I can’t perform on any Friday nights, and a lot of Saturday nights I also don’t work, not to speak of all the chagim.’

“For many managers, that makes it a non-starter, but Edna just started laughing a big belly laugh and said, ‘I’m shomer Shabbat as well!’ 

“She’s the only person in the classical music world that’s shomer Shabbat!” Cooper declared.

“So we were thinking and thinking, what would be the perfect organization to help with it? Oh, Yad Vashem! Could there be any more perfect?” 

“Edna happened to go to the same shul as someone on the board of the American Society for Yad Vashem, and eventually she pitched this project to him. It was quite extraordinary. Coincidentally, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. a Holocaust survivor and author of Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home At Last, is the rabbi of our shul in Tel Aviv. And as chairman of Yad Vashem, he also was very supportive of the idea for this project.” 

Yad Vashem promised the funds for the commission itself.

“Edna, of course, became absolutely key – nothing would get done without her. We needed to have something or someone or some organization behind us to elevate the project beyond the classical music world,” she said.

Big, monumental and Yiddish 

Cooper reached out to another famous alumna of Juilliard, a pianist and composer she’s always admired. “Lera Auerbach is of Soviet Jewish heritage. Her parents had to escape persecution between various different factions. This story is something that she understood in her heart. Lera is deeply emotional, fiercely intellectual, incredibly skilled, and just a really great composer,” Cooper said.

Auerbach also had a connection to the Sugihara story. She was born in Chelyabinsk, a city in the Urals bordering Siberia in the former Soviet Union. It was a town that the Trans-Siberian railway ran through, the same train line that took refugees with Sugihara-issued transit visas to freedom. 

Auerbach came up with the idea that the Yiddish-speaking voices of the Jews murdered, as well as  those saved during the Holocaust, would be woven into the symphony. Famed piano virtuoso Yvgeny Kissin helped choose the poems together with Lera Auerbach and translated some of the Yiddish text into the symphony: “One libretto in Symphony No. 6 ‘Vessels of Light’ is inspired by seven Yiddish poets’ writings during the Holocaust. One poet, Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, died in the war, perishing in the camps of typhus.  You hear at the very beginning of the piece a percussion noise in the back, and you can’t quite tell what the sound is. Placed throughout the audience are people whispering loud enough in Yiddish for everyone to hear.”

“I don’t think that there is any other big monumental classical work written in Yiddish,” Cooper observed. “Lera is able to write these grand scale pieces with a very big message behind it. One of the things that I was so attached to in the story is that there’s a hopeful quality to it because my children exist, my husband exists. My beautiful life exists. Or I should say my ‘blessed’ life. But no matter what, it is under the pall of all the other ones that didn’t survive.”

COOPER VISITED Auerbach at her home in Florida and while rehearsing another project in Germany. In a documentary being produced by Unrealistic Ideas, the film company of Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg, the working relationship between Auerbach and Cooper comes across as relaxed and convivial around Auerbach’s dining room table, where the two Jewish women behind “Symphony No. 6: “Vessels of Light” nod and complete each other’s sentences. 

“I just love the idea that these same sounds,” began Cooper, “can represent and mean very different things,” Auerbach added, without missing a beat. “I actually feel that the work itself becomes this being, and it dictates what it wanted,” and Cooper nodded in agreement.

“It’s different working with another woman, specifically another Jewish woman. Maybe an unspoken understanding,” Cooper observed. 

Cooper and Auerbach met at Juilliard when they were students. While they both came from musical families, their shared Jewish identity would only reveal itself years later. Cooper reflected: “If anyone had ever told me ‘You’re going to become Jewish and Orthodox’ back at Juilliard, I would have told them they were out of their mind!”

AUERBACH’S MOTHER was a distinguished piano teacher in Russia and came from a long line of musicians. Cooper’s father, American pianist Rex Cooper, was a University of the Pacific music professor from 1973 until his retirement a decade ago. Cooper’s mother, Mutsuko Tatman, is a concert violinist in Arizona and daughter of Tomojiro Okenouchi, the first Japanese musician of the 20th century to attend the Paris Conservatory and influence generations of Japanese musicians.

While Cooper is used to practicing the cello between two and eight hours a day and, as a visiting professor, prepares lectures for her students at the Buchmann Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University, this project takes the mother of three young schoolchildren into an entirely new orbit. 

“It’s taken an enormous amount of work. Enormous! I never knew I would spend so many hours writing emails, organizing schedules, looking at contracts. 

“It never occurred to me that it was something I would do, but how do I balance it? I’m not sure I balance it so well,” Cooper smiled as she credited her worldwide team, particularly Edna Landau in New York; and Sonya Simmenauer, who is in charge of booking this project in Europe. 

For more information on the concert, visit www.thesymphonyforsugihara.com            The writer is the author of The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan. 

Her complete video interview with Kristina Reiko Cooper at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art can be found at www.goshenbooks.com.