My Hero, Chiune Sugihara

There are times when we should speak not only of our enemies who wish to destroy us, but also of those who risked their lives and careers to save our people. I wrote an article about my true hero, Auschwitz survivor, Mrs. Ramon, the mother of the Israeli Astronaut and IAF colonel Ilan Ramon. I have yet another hero, the hero of my

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There are times when we should speak not only of our enemies who wish to destroy us, but also of those who risked their lives and careers to save our people.

I wrote an article about my true hero, Auschwitz survivor, Mrs. Ramon, the mother of the Israeli Astronaut and IAF colonel Ilan Ramon. I have yet another hero, the hero of my childhood; he was the Japanese consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara.

In the summer of 1940, he issued visas to thousands of Jewish refugees, against the express orders of his government. He is not only my hero, but the hero of forty thousand Jewish souls who are alive today because of his selfless act, which saved them from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. I was a living witness to that rescue event.

Three years ago I was invited to celebrate the reunion of thousands of Jewish survivors with their rescuer's wife, Yokiko Sugihara. The reunion took place in New York's City Hall. That day the biggest storm of the year hit New York and the rain came down in buckets, but the Hall was packed full of ?Sugihara survivors?. The storm was not going to keep them away from meeting Yokiko Sugihara, who came all the way from Japan to meet us. There were many emotional speeches that evening, including one by Yokiko herself. But the one that really touched us all was the short speech of a thirteen year old boy. He came to the stage with a bunch of flowers in his hand, kissed Yokiko on both cheeks and said: "Mrs. Sugihara, your husband saved my grandfather and grandmother, and because of that I am here today, and so are forty thousand descendants of the people to whom your husband issued visas. Thank you, Mrs. Yokiko Sugihara, for granting us all our lives."

The fifteen hundred people who attended the event stood up and gave the boy a standing ovation.

I recently received an invitation to come to Hawaii, where I would be reunited with Mrs. Yokiko Sugihara. I can safely say that her husband was my hero ever since I was as an eleven year old boy, when I first met him and he declared himself to be my 'uncle'. Chiune Sempo Sugihara was among the first to be recognised by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as a Righteous Gentile (Ish Hassid HaUmot) for saving thousands of Jewish people from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

It was Chiune Sugihara who was among the few who risked his career to save Jewish refugees, who were lining up at his door. The greatness of this man was the fact that, against the orders of his superiors, he granted visas and didn't turn away a single person who came to him for help. During World War II, thousands of Jewish people besieged foreign embassies every day trying to obtain visas. They went to the Americans, the British, the Canadians, the Australians and more, but the overwhelming majority were turned away empty handed. No one wanted to save the Jews from Hitler. Irony would have it that an ally of the Nazis would risk his career to save Jews; whereas, the West refused to help them.

In July 1939, the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara with his family arrived in my home town of Kaunas, Lithuania. They took up residence in a house not far from where we lived. It became known as the Japanese consulate, an event which received hardly any attention. One of my uncles actually expressed concern, as it was well known that the Japanese were allies of the Nazis.

"Nothing good can be expected from the Japanese," he said to my father.

How wrong he was.

To go back in time and visit the world I knew as a child is easy. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see it clearly. Kovne. I know and love every nook and cranny of this town. Slowly, its familiar
details emerge in my mind. The golden cupola of the Chor Shoul, our loveliest synagogue, takes shape in the distance. Then Niemuno and Vilnius Streets, and Rotushes Square, lined with its massive stone houses, which had probably seen Napoleon on his march to Moscow. The world I knew as a child now only lives in the memory of the few survivors still alive.

December, 1939. It is Hanukkah again, the Festival of Lights. I am eleven years old. I collected quite a sum of money from my family as Hanukkah gelt. We have some refugees in our house, Mr. Rosenblat and his daughter Lea. I had to give up my room for them , and sleep with my brother Hermann, an idea I wasn't crazy about. My mother saw my resentment and made me feel guilty. That was my undoing, because the same day several ladies showed up asking for donations to help the refugees. On impulse I gave them all my gelt. The next day, a new Laurel and Hardy movie was playing and I was dying to see it, but my pockets were empty.

I had only one hope left, my aunt Anushka. She ran an elegant shop of imported gourmet foods for her rich clientele and she also catered to foreign embassies.

It was cold when I set out that afternoon, but I was dressed warmly. The snow felt crisp under my boots and shimmered white in the afternoon sun. It was Hanukkah, and all along the streets menorahs shimmered in the windows of the Jewish houses, and Christmas trees glowed in the homes of the Christians. Aunt Anushka's shop window was decorated with a string of colored bulbs, and a contraption attached to the door played a merry tune when you opened it. It was a gift from some inventor friend of hers. Somewhere in Poland, World War II had started, but in Lithuania life continued as if nothing had happened.

When I walked in she was serving an elegantly dressed gentleman. "Ah, my dear nephew is here for his Hanukkah money, I bet," she said in Russian, smiling at me. "Come here and meet his excellency, the consul of Japan, Mr. Sugihara," she added.

I suppose I was staring at him. He had the most interesting slanted eyes. I approached him slowly and extended my hand.

"How do you do, sir," I said politely.

He solemnly shook my hand, returning my open scrutiny, and then smiled. There was humor and kindness in those strange eyes, and I immediately warmed to him. As my aunt Anushka went to the cash register, Mr. Sugihara took a shiny coin from his pocket.

"Since this is Hanukkah, consider me your uncle," he said, extending the coin.

I hesitated for a minute. "You should come to our Hanukkah party on Saturday," I blurted out as I plucked the coin from his hand, "The whole family will be there. Seeing as you are my uncle," I added.

That Saturday, Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yokiko came to our home to attend our party. It was at the party that Mr. Rosenblat, the refugee who lived at our house, approached Mr. Sugihara out of desperation and asked him whether he would grant him a visa. Mr. Sugihara was puzzled by this request. Why would a Jewish person wish to go Japan, knowing that the Japanese were allied with the Nazis? At this party, the Sugiharas met many of my uncles and aunts and, through them, other Jewish families.

When Mr. Sugihara heard that I was collecting stamps, he invited me to come to the consulate. I would go there quite often, to collect stamps and get some tea and Japanese cookies from Yokiko. I would play with their older son, Hiroki, even though he was much younger than I.

It was only six months later that we found out what a true humanitarian we had for a friend, when he began giving out visas to anyone who came to his consulate. We were among the first to receive the visas, but, unfortunately, we couldn't use them, because we were Lithuanian citizens, and when the Soviets occupied Lithuania, our passports became invalid. Thus, we were caught in Hitler's killing machine and most of my family perished.

But I always remembered my 'uncle', Chiune Sugihara. He was like a lighthouse in the sea of darkness that surrounded us during those days in Lithuania.

Of one thing I take extra pride. In her book Visas For Life, on page 162, next to my photo, Yokiko writes the following: "The decision to issue the visas to the Jewish refugees may have been influenced by an eleven year old boy by the name of Solly Ganor."

Even if only a small part of it were true, I would feel that there was some purpose to my life.
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Solly Ganor, an Israeli author, is a Holocaust survivor who has lectured throughout Germany. He can be reached at solganor@netvision.net.il.




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