By Zamira Chenn
The first time I heard the name Chiune Sugihara was about a year ago from my Israeli-Bosnian friend, Sasha Toperich. Sasha, a renowned classical pianist and the founder of the World Youth Leadership Network (WYLN) – a non-profit organization that aims to unite the international youth community through good works and cultural exchange – had just arrived from Japan, where he was giving a concert in Yaotsu – Chiune Sugihara`s hometown. When I asked him who this man was, he simply said he is one of the greatest humanitarians that ever lived. A Japanese diplomat during World War II, Sugihara risked his life, his career, and his family’s livelihood to save 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Because of this, Sugihara became known as the “Japanese Schindler”.
Sasha then handed me a book entitled Visas for Life, an autobiography written by Sugihara`s wife Yukiko, and a documentary called Conspiracy of Kindness. “Let me know what you think,” Sasha said, “Because this man is going to be the role model of WYLN.” Sasha continued to explain that Sugihara’s story is a perfect vehicle to instill in younger generations a love for other human beings, the motivation to care for others, and – most of all – to emphasize how can one person make a difference in this world.
I finished reading the book in couple of hours, unable to put it down. This story of such rare courage, self-sacrifice, and kindness filled my heart with great compassion towards this man and his family. I became eager to see the documentary, which was so enormously powerful that it moved me to tears. The film had such an impact on me that, for the next few weeks, all I could think and talk about was Sugihara. I have no doubt that his story will touch your heart as indelibly as it did mine.
Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1, 1900. He graduated from high school with top marks. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but his dream had always been to study literature and live abroad. And so, Sugihara entered Tokyo`s prestigious Waseda University to study English, while working several part-time jobs to pay for his education.
Sugihara was 19 when he found out that the Foreign Ministry was looking for students who wished to study abroad and pursue careers in diplomacy. He applied, passed the difficult entrance exams, and was accepted to Harbin Gakuin University in Manchuria, where he studied Russian and graduated with honors at the age of 24.
After graduation, Sugihara began a career in the Manchurian government, which was then controlled by Japan. After 10 years of dedicated work as a diplomat, he was offered the position of Manchurian Minister of Foreign Affairs, but Sugihara – who could not tolerate the Japanese cruelty towards the Chinese – resigned in protest, and returned to Japan, where he met and married his wife Yukiko.
In 1938, Sugihara was posted as a diplomat in Helsinki, Finland. In March 1939 – as Europe stood on the brink of World War II – he was appointed by the Japanese Government to open a Consulate in Kaunas, Lituania.
Sugihara had barely settled down in his new post when the German army invaded Poland, and a wave of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania, bringing terrifying stories of German atrocities against the Polish Jews. Desperate to flee the approaching Nazis, these refugees escaped from Poland with no possessions or money. Because the Germans were rapidly advancing, the only escape was to go further east. However, the Soviets only allowed Jews to pass through Russia if they had a transit visa – and so, obtaining a Japanese visa became a matter of life and death.
One morning in July 1940, Consul Sugihara and his family were awakened by a crowd of hundreds Jewish refugees standing outside the Consulate, all desperately hoping for visas. Facing these women, children, and elderly people with pleading eyes made Sugihara feel helpless. He wanted to help, but had no authority to issue visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. He wired his government three times requesting to issue these visas, and all three times he was denied.
Time was running out for the refugees, and Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He knew he might be fired and disgraced if he defied government orders, but he also knew that he could not allow these people to die. “I may have to disobey my Government, but if I do not, I will be disobeying God,” Sugihara said to his wife, Yukiko. “I know I should follow my conscience.”
Guided by the strength of his morality, Sugihara began issuing the transit visas. For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, he sat for endless hours composing them. Hour after hour, day after day, he wrote and signed – 300 visas a day all written entirely by hand. He did not even pause for meals – Yukiko would prepare him sandwiches and leave them by his side. At the end of the day, she would massage his aching hands.
Hundreds of applicants became thousands. Day and night, desperate people lined up outside the Consulate begging for visas; when some of them attempted to climb the compound wall, Sugihara came out to calm them, promising not to abandon them. And he did not: when he was forced to close the Consulate and leave Lithuania, Sugihara continued writing visas on his way to the train station, in his car, and in his hotel. After boarding the train, he kept signing visas as fast as he could, handing them down from his window. Even while pulling out of the station, Sugihara was seen throwing visas to refugees running alongside the speeding train. Because many passports had been left unstamped, Sugihara also tossed his visa stamp into the crowd, so that it could be used to save even more Jews. “We will never forget you:” those were the last words he heard from the refugees.
With Sugihara`s visas, as many as 6,000 refugees were able to flee, making their way to Japan, China, and numerous other countries in safety. They had escaped the Holocaust, and would become known as Sugihara Survivors.
At the end of the war, the Soviets imprisoned Sugihara, Yukiko, and their son in an internment camp in Rumania for 18 months. When he returned to Japan in 1947, the Japanese Foreign Ministry dismissed him from the diplomatic service. With his career as diplomat shattered, Sugihara became depressed and withdrawn. Not only had he suffered the indignity of losing his career, but approaching the age of 50 made it hard for him to get a job. Sugihara and his family therefore entered into a life of extreme poverty and hunger.
To survive, Sugihara was forced to take a job selling light bulbs door-to-door. Eventually, he worked as a part-time translator and interpreter, before returning to Moscow to accept a managerial position with a Japanese trading company. Sugihara worked there for over 15 years in complete obscurity, visiting his family in Japan only once or twice a year. After the war, many of Sugihara`s survivors tried to trace him, seeking information at the Japanese Foreign Ministry – but to no avail. The Japanese Government refused to cooperate; no one seemed to remember or recognize the name Sugihara.
Being a humble and a modest man, Sugihara never mentioned his wartime deeds to anyone, and the world knew little of him until almost 30 years later, in 1968, when he was located by Joshua Nishri, the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of his survivors. The reunion with Nishri was most significant for Sugihara, since – for all those years – he had not known whether the visas he had signed had actually aided any refugees in fleeing Lithuania.
The knowledge that so many people made it to safety brought tears of joy to Sugihara’s eyes; he felt overwhelming satisfaction and happiness, with no regrets. Even if only one life had been saved, he felt that all of his hardship would have been worth it.
The next year, Sugihara visited Israel and was greeted by the Israeli Government, which included another one of his survivors: Zerach Warheftig, the Israeli Minister of Religion. In 1985, after gathering testimonials from all over the world, Sugihara was granted Israel`s highest honor. He was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel`s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. The ceremony was held at the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, but Sugihara was too sick to attend, so his wife Yukiko and his son Hiroki accepted the honor on his behalf. Later that year, a monument was erected on a hill in Jerusalem, a cedar grove was planted in Sugihara’s name at Yad Vashem, and a park in Jerusalem was named in his honor. Sugihara and his descendants were given an everlasting Israeli citizenship. His son Nobuki graduated from the Hebrew University, speaking Hebrew fluently.
Chiune Sugihara died the following year, on July 31, 1986. In spite of all the publicity given to him in Israel and other nations, he remained virtually unknown in his home country. It was only when a large international Jewish delegation attended his funeral that his own people discovered his great altruistic deeds. In 1991, during the celebration of Lithuanian Independence, a monument was erected and a street was named after Sugiahara in Kaunas. In 1992, the residents of Yaotsu built a memorial monument to honor Sugihara in the town where he was born and raised.
Sugihara`s story became better known in the United States after 1994, when the film adaptation of Schindler`s List heightened the world’s awareness and interest in those who helped Jews escape the horror of World War II.
As of today it is estimated that more than 80.000 descendants owe their existance to Sugihara.
By the beginning of 2007, Sasha decided to organize a special concert in Carnegie Hall to benefit WYLN`s youth development programs in Africa. “It will be a perfect opportunity to integrate a tribute to Chiune Sugihara as the role model of WYLN,” he told me with excitement in his voice. I could not have been more thrilled, especially when he asked me to be part of this event.
I felt so privileged to participate in the tribute that I wanted to do something special. I had my heart set on locating a couple of Sugihara`s survivors, but I quickly found that this was not an easy task. Most of the survivors I tried to reach had passed away, or were so old that they were unable to attend. But I did not lose hope, and eventually I was fortunate enough to locate one of Sugihara`s survivors: Solly Ganor.
Solly Ganor is an 80-year-old man who lives with his family in Israel. He is a writer and an author of several books on the Holocaust, and travels the globe to discuss his story. A dear friend of mine, who knew Solly very well, put me in contact with him. My friend had told Solly about my involvement with Sugihara`s tribute, and that WYLN was going to give a concert in his honor at Carnegie Hall. Within a few minutes, we were speaking on the phone.
We talked about all kind of things before I felt comfortable enough to ask him about Sugihara`s story. Solly was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts, before he said: “There is so much to tell, it will take forever, where shall I start?” “Why don`t you start with how you first met Sugihara?” I suggested.
Trying to revive his memory, Solly responded: “I remember that day very clearly.”
Solly was 11 years old when he met Sugihara for the first time. It was in his aunt’s gourmet shop in Kaunas, a few days before Hanukkah. “As you know,” he said, “it is a Jewish custom to give children money – small change – (Hanukkah Gelt) as a gift during Hanukkah, and that year all the money I was given I had donated to the Polish Jewish refugees.” When Solly realized that a “Laurel and Hardy” movie was playing in town, and that he had no money left to go see it, he went to his kindhearted aunt, Hanushka, to ask for it.
Chiune Sugihara was standing in Hanushka’s store and overheard their conversation. He offered to give Solly the money for the movie. Solly, who had never seen an Asian person before, simply stared at this well-dressed, distinguished stranger. Not knowing what to say, he just mumbled: “Sorry but I cannot take money from strangers.” Sugihara smiled at him and answered, “Well consider me your uncle for the holiday …then you are safe to take the money.”
“He had such a kind look in his eyes, his whole face showed friendliness, and the way he was speaking made me feel so comfortable with him,” Solly told me. “So, I took the money, smiled back, and very impulsively said, ‘Ok, but if you are my uncle, why don’t you come to our Hanukkah party on Saturday?’” Solly’s aunt, who was surprised and a little embarrassed, nevertheless turned to Sugihara and said, “Well if you are interested, please do come.” Sugihara gratefully accepted the offer, and arrived at the Ganor household with his wife and children that Saturday, much to the surprise of all the guests.
“So how did the evening turn out?” I asked Solly.
“Well,” he answered, “the evening turned out to be a night to remember. It was a festive night. Everyone was warm and friendly. We lit the candles, my uncle played the harmonica, and we sang Hanukkah songs. Between the eating and the drinking, everybody was telling stories, and at one point Mr. Rosenblatt (a Polish refugee who was staying with my family) started talking about what was happening in Poland under the German occupation…how the Nazis were slaughtering Jews.” Solly continued to describe how Mr. Rosenblatt had begun crying as he spoke of the bombing of his house had killed his wife and two children.
“I was just a young boy then, but I will never forget what an impact this story had on everybody, especially on Sugihara and his wife,” said Solly. The next day, Solly and his father visited Consul Sugihara in his office, and witnessed him calling the Russian officials to get permission to issue visas across the Russian borders.
As I listened intently to Solly’s tale of the close friendship that developed between these two families, I could not stop thinking how it was merely one simple act of kindness from an 11-year-old boy that forged this fateful link between the heroic Sugihara and the thousands Jewish people he would save. It was indeed a Hanukkah miracle.
Solly and I spent many hours on the phone, and while discussing his past was somewhat emotional for him, our conversations were mostly positive, full of faith and hope. As a matter of fact, Solly was supposed to attend WYLN’s Carnegie Hall event and tell this amazing story himself. Unfortunately, because of health problems, he could not make it.
Solly Ganor became the inspiration for the song I wrote and dedicated to Chiune Sugihara that evening – a thank you to him on behalf of all the Sugihara Survivors. The song, “The Heart Remembers Still,” is my contribution to Sugihara’s memory, and my way of assuring him that his actions will never be forgotten.
The theme of our Carnegie Hall performance was “Saving the World – One Life at a Time.” The Talmud teaches that saving one life is tantamount to saving the world entire. Chiune Sugihara is the embodiment of this lesson. His heroic story shows that no matter who you are, there is always something you can do to help if your heart is in the right place.
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“The Heart Remembers Still”
by Zamira Chenn
All the tears my eyes cried out
Have turned to a blessed rain
All the joy I cherish in life
Arose from yesterdays pain
All the fears that haunted my mind
Have crumbled to dust in the air
I am standing tall full of faith and dreams
With arms open wide to share.
It is all because of you my friend
A stranger whose soul found the way
To save my life and give me hope
You are in heart night and day
You are in heart to stay.
Thanks for the sounds of laughter and fun
That washed away all my gloom
Thanks for the sunlight that brightens my days
For the scent of flowers in bloom
For each little moment that binds me to you
In a world often less then humane
For the peace of mind and the freedom to breathe
For the chance to live again.
It is all because of you my friend…
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A native Israeli and a long-time New Yorker, Zamira began her professional career in the Israeli theater with leading roles in productions such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Hay Fever and Richard the III.
With a repertoire that includes popular works from many nations and cultures, Zamira has established herself as a concert performer in Israel, Europe, South America, the Far East, Canada and the United States.
In 2004 she performed for His Holinessthe Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in a peace concert.
Zamira is also recognized as a prolific songwriter and recording artist.
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Dr. Sasa Toperic, President; Ernesto Houehanou, Benin; Phaldip Singh Khela, UK; Shinichiro Okuyama, Japan; Jacqueline Mtchaki, France; Okullu Ayor, Uganda; Ahmed Karim, Senegal; Kalu Ulu, Nigeria.
Phone: 212-977-1397; Fax: 212-977-7769; email@example.com; http://www.wyln.org.
A charitable tax-exempt organization under Internal Revenue Code 501c(3)