The difference between the human race and the animal kingdom is memory. In the animal kingdom, knowledge cannot be passed on. Every newborn must start from the beginning. Humans can use memory to pass on what they have learned from generation to generation. Sometimes we forget to do so.
As everyone knows, on September 1, 1939, Germany declared war on Poland and the world became engulfed in the deadliest military conflict in human history, a conflagration that would last over six years, involve the vast majority of the world’s nations, effect more than 100 million people from more than thirty different countries, and mark the mass murder of six million Jews along with the massacre of one and a half million children, and millions of other nationalities. Poland fell within 27 days, and the citizens of Bialystok, the city where I was born and lived, were among the earliest victims to be captured by the Nazi onslaught.
Before the bombing began, my father moved us to his family brick building near the outskirts of the city where he said it would be safer. He used black paint to cover the windows not to show light. I secretly took a key and scratched out a little peep hole for myself. It was through this peep hole that I saw the first German tanks as they entered Bialystok. To a seven-year-old, they were huge monsters from an alien world.
But before the tanks came, in the middle of one night, my mother woke me. We were going to say farewell to my father. I remember how tightly she held my hand as we rushed though the darkness---interrupted only by flashes of light from the falling bombs and the constant sound coming, from what I learned, were machine guns.
That night was the beginning of our escape from Bialystok and the scourge that would befall those unfortunate souls who remained. When the Gestapo came to get my father, as a political prisoner to be a hostage, he was not there. We truthfully had no idea where he was. All they could do is rough up my mother and cause tears to well up in her eyes---but she did not cry.
What possessed my father to take flight? What possessed him several weeks later to call my mother and direct her to take me and get the last train out of Bialystok to Wilno (Vilnius) which would become Lithuania? Giving Wilno to Lithuania was part of the non-aggression treaty between Ribbentrop and Molotov.
In 1939, just before the Germans invaded Poland, there were 110,000 Jews living in Bialystok, representing over 60 percent of the city’s population. When I returned with my family in 2000, the Mayor advised us that there were no Jews living inn Bialystok. It was the sad truth, an little wonder. Nearby is Treblinka; to the southwest is Gross-Rosen; to the southeast is Majdanek; and further south, behind Warsaw, is Auschwitz.
In Elie Wiesel’s words, “All the outcries of mankind, lead to this accursed place. Here is the kingdom of night, where God’s face is hidden and a flaming sky becomes a graveyard for a vanished people. ”
What possessed my parents to leave house and household, their jobs as schoolteachers, all our relatives, friends, all their possessions? And to go where? There was no destination. And this was before anyone in the world knew that Hitler would turn Poland into a factory of death---in gas chambers or by starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. Barbaric atrocities impossible to describe.
As President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked, “How is it possible to do justice to demonic acts that beggar[ed] description?
Alas, the world closed its eyes and shut its ears while an act of monstrous proportion—one that left an indelible blot on human history---was inflicted on the Jewish people.
On June 27, 1941, in Bialystok, some 2000 Jewish souls, including my two grandmothers and my father’s only sister, were marched under gun-point by Nazi troops into the Bialystoker Grosse Shul, (the great synagogue). All the doors and windows were locked and the entire structure was hosed down with gasoline---and set on fire.
All that remains today is a memorial with the steel skeleton of its famous Byzantine dome.
Fate chose that I should survive. Our miraculous escape made possible by Chiune Sugihara spanned two years, three contents, six languages, the Trans-Siberian Railroad across all of Siberia to Vladivostok, then to Tsuruga Japan, and finally the US. In this circuitous fashion, I was among the fortunate few who escaped the unspeakable horrors in Europe.
But I also cannot forget that it was here, in this land of the free and home of the brave, that this refugee from Bialystok, without American roots, without wealth, without proper credentials, without clout or influence, was given the opportunity to enter the world of futures markets and climb to the top of its complex structure.
In what other country in the world could this have been possible?
Later in life, when I asked my father that question---“What made you do it? He shrugged his shoulders and said it was an instinctive reaction. “Something you feel certain is the right thing to do.”
An instinctive reaction that you feel is the right thing to do, describes perfectly what Chiune Sugihara did in August of 1940, as the Counsel General of Japan in Kahunas Lithuania. Here were several thousand Jews who had somehow managed to escape their fate but now found themselves trapped by history. Their only crime was being Jewish. In a couple of months Operation Barbarossa would be launched and Hitler would invade the Soviet Union. Not much later, the Nazis entered Wilno and quickly murdered nearly half of the Jewish population. That fate was awaiting all of us.
An escape plan was devised by Sugihara and Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk. The plan was for the Jews to be issued Transit Visas so they could escape through Japan. It was the only way out.
Three times Sugihara requested the head Foreign Office in Tokyo for permission. Three times he was ordered not to do so. “It is none of our business.” But Sugihara’s instincts told him differently.
Fifty years later I became friends with Hiroki Sugihara, the oldest of the Sugihara sons. Hiroki was five years old when his father called the family together and explained that if he obeyed the orders of his government, he would be violating the edicts of his God. Sugihara had by then converted to Christianity. “All my instincts,” he told his family,” tell me the right thing to do is give them a chance to survive.”
Upon leaving Kahunas, Sugihara and his wife Yukiko still kept writing visas from their open window on their train. Sugihara’s instinctive reaction contrary to the orders from his Foreign Office, saved the lives of over 4,000 Jews from certain death. I was one of those lives. So was my dear friend Masha Leon, who recently passed away. We were children together in Wilno. Decedents of those saved now number in the hundreds of thousands--- since it is said, “If you save the life of one person, it is as if you saved the entire world.”
But, alas, humans do not always remember to do the right thing.
In 1944, in the midst of World War II, the World Jewish Congress appealed to the US War Department to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau and even to bomb Auschwitz itself. These requests were denied. The Allies, said, they were committed to bombing exclusively military targets.
Seventy years later, in 2013, we forgot again. Even when the Syrians crossed the Red Line set by President Obama and used Sarin gas to kill their own citizens, the US did not bomb the chemical facilities to stop the atrocities.
Four years later, in 2017, it was different. When the Syrians used Sarin gas again, President Donald Trump instinctively knew the right thing to do. I applaud his decision.
Chiune Sugihara’s heroism was left unnoticed for more than twenty years. Once his deeds became known he received overwhelming world recognition. In 1969 he was honored by the government of Israel and named “Righteous Among the Nations,” by the Yad Vashem. He received a similar recognition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Among many awards, in 1993, he was awarded the Life Saving Cross of Lithuania, as well as the naming of the Sugihara street in Kaunas and Wilno, and recently in Tel Aviv. In 1996, he was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland by the President of Poland.
Chiune Sugihara is today among the most lauded humanitarians in world history. I am committed to perpetuate his memory and his singular message: Every individual has within him the power to make a difference!