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‘Schindler on steroids’: New novel tells story of Japanese hero

LINDA MARGOLIN ROYAL is the descendant of Holocaust refugees saved by Japanese diplomat Sugihara. Her first novel brings his story to life.
Ruby Kraner-Tucci
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Author Linda Royal with her book, The Star on the Grave

Author Linda Margolin Royal with her debut novel, The Star on the Grave (Image: Supplied).

Published: 26 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

LINDA MARGOLIN ROYAL is the descendant of Holocaust refugees saved by Japanese diplomat Sugihara. Her first novel brings his story to life.

Linda Margolin Royal knows she only exists thanks to Chiune Sugihara. She is of one more than 100,000 Sugihara survivors and descendants who owe their lives to the Japanese diplomat who repeatedly defied orders from his government and issued 2,139 handwritten visas to refugees desperate to flee Nazi-occupied Europe.

The visas allowed the refugees, including 6,000 Jews, to transit through the Soviet Union to Japan, before being granted passage to safer land, including Australia.

So why did he do it? Royal says the answer is simple: “a strong moral compass”.

“He only did this because it was the right thing to do,” Royal told The Jewish Independent. “He’s like Schindler on steroids… I owe my life to him.”

Royal’s father and grandparents were Sugihara visa recipients, who arrived in Sydney in 1941. Growing up, Royal knew her family lived in Japan for some of the war, but never questioned or was told about the circumstances that led them there. It was only when her dad turned 80 that she decided to interview him about his life and discover the truth.

"Three times he had asked for permission to issue visas, and three times they said under no circumstances – [sugihara] disobeyed them."

Linda Margolin Royal

The result is her debut novel, The Star on the Grave, which interweaves a fictional storyline with a parallel narrative that tells the true story of Sugihara’s life.

Several other characters are also drawn from reality, including the protagonist who is a version of Royal, and her “charismatic, domineering” grandmother who is drawn from Royal’s grandmother Felka.

Royal closely consulted Sugihara’s son, Nobuki, as well as interviewing other survivors and descendants of the Sugihara visas, who are dispersed across the world including in Sydney, Melbourne, Israel, America and the UK.

Nobuki Sugihara, the only surviving son of Chiune Sugihara, with Royal’s book The Star on the Grave (Image: Supplied).
Nobuki Sugihara, the only surviving son of Chiune Sugihara, with Royal’s book The Star on the Grave (Image: Supplied).

Fighting for justice

While his actions are now considered heroic, Sugihara suffered for his moral stand.

“He led a rather reclusive life. He was not very popular. In fact, he was dismissed after the war and couldn’t find meaningful work,” Royal continued.

“[Japan] had a bad history of war crimes and Sugihara had defied them. Three times he had asked for permission to issue visas, and three times they said under no circumstances – he disobeyed them.

“It was only when a Holocaust survivor found him, and others got wind of it, that they all petitioned Yad Vashem to make him a Righteous Among the Nations. Slowly through the nineties, Japan realised [Sugihara] was a poster boy for doing good, and they started honouring him.”

Today, there is a museum and foundation devoted to Sugihara’s bravery. The Lithuanian government declared 2020 to be “the year of Chiune Sugihara”, complete with stamps and statues commemorating the diplomat. But Royal says this recognition does not go far enough.

In Australia Sugihara is lesser-known, particularly when compared to Oskar Schindler, whose efforts were the subject of the Keneally book and Spielberg film, or Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who has been championed in Australia for many years.

Royal hopes her book will help spread the story and give Sugihara the recognition he deserves.

She also plans to launch an education campaign in the future to promote the power of one person to effect change, a message she sees as particularly poignant with growing antisemitism and hate amidst the Israel-Hamas war.

“I started writing [The Star on the Grave] two years ago and only finished it six months ago, which was long before October 7, but it really deals with the latent antisemitism that is present, and the fear of persecution based on that and generational trauma as a result.”

Fighting for ownership

Royal’s fierce battle for recognition also extends to the National Archives of Australia.

The Sugihara visa currently being held at the National Archives of Australia (Image: Supplied).
The Sugihara visa currently being held at the National Archives of Australia (Image: Supplied).

Initially believing that her family’s visa had been lost or stolen, Royal’s interest was piqued by other descendants who all said they had their visas in their possession. She turned to the archives in search of photos of her family, and in the process, found them “sitting there”.

“I’m in a discussion to try and get them on permanent or long-term loan to the Sydney Jewish Museum.”

While the fight continues, physically locating the visas revealed another fascinating truth to Royal: the end destination of her family was not supposed to be Australia.

“When I looked at the visa, it was a transit visa. They only had six months temporary entry into Australia, and the end destination was a Dutch colony,” Royal concluded.

“It was 1941 – the Final Solution was only just being implemented – it was really early stages of the war, and nobody knew what was going to happen. Once they were here, I guess the Australian government gave them leniency and allowed them to extend.

“Nobody ended up in the Dutch colony.”

About the author

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Ruby Kraner-Tucci is a journalist and Assistant Editor of TJI. She previously reported on the charity sector as a journalist for Pro Bono News and undertook a cadetship at The Australian Jewish News. Her writing has appeared in diverse publications including Time Out, Broadsheet, Law Society Journal and Dumbo Feather Magazine.

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The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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