This is not my story. This is the story of the intersection of two people who never met and yet who saved each other. One who helped the other flee from their home into a new world, where they would develop a new home and a new family, and one who saved the other’s story. From this crossing one received life, and the other had their tale retold for generations to come. This is not my story and yet it is, because once one hears a survivor’s tale, it becomes their story to pass on to whomever will listen.
My great-grandfather and his family lived in a small town named Lida, in what is now northwestern Belarus but was then Poland. They fled to Lithuania in 1939 when their town was invaded, and lived off of fake papers and identities, until even that wasn’t enough. Their best option was to make the voyage to America, a feat that proved difficult with the war on the horizon. Those with the power to grant travel visas could not, under orders that stressed bureaucracy over humanity. Although there were foreign consuls in place for the purpose of issuing these travel visas, it was nearly impossible to obtain one, as was the case for my family. The ones who dispatched these orders were government officials living overseas, ones who could not see with their own eyes the ominous signs of a horrific future approaching. This led to those stationed in war-torn Europe to make a decision that would risk the lives of themselves and everyone around them: would they obey these orders and watch people before them be shipped off to die, or would they reject these orders and risk their careers, their families, even their own lives to save people they had never met and who had nothing to give back? One of these men made the right choice. His name was Chiune Sugihara, and he is the reason my family survived the Holocaust.
Sugihara understood the necessity of getting the Jews out of Europe, and realized that the best way to do that was for them to take a train through the Soviet Union, board a ship to Japan, and then go from there to anywhere that would take them. He was a Japanese consul stationed in Lithuania due to his proficiency in Russian, and his job was to relay information to Japan on German and Soviet movements, as well as issuing visas to allow transit through Japan. In July 1940, all foreign consuls were told to leave Lithuania by the Soviet officials, but Sugihara requested an extension. So while everyone else complied and left, Sugihara remained with only 20 days to save as many people as possible, before he would be kicked out of the country. He and his wife worked all day, barely sleeping, eating only when necessary, and handwrote 300 visas per day without pay, which was normally a months work. They knew that when they were found out they would be fired, disgraced, and possibly even killed. Yet when they looked out their window they saw thousands of refuges lined up and with no other hope in the world, and they knew that a minute equaled a life, and that they could not waste a single one.
Sugihara’s family, as predicted, was disgraced and he was unceremoniously dismissed from the Japanese diplomatic service. It took him years to find more than just a part-time job as a translator or interpreter. It seemed like his story would be forgotten, just as most of the Holocaust saviors’ have been. Sugihara received no recognition during his lifetime for his benevolent actions, but I like to think that he didn’t regret it. I only wish that he could see how many people remember him, and the tens of thousands of descendents of those he originally saved. One of those personally rescued was my grandfather’s cousin, or my cousin twice removed, Samuil Manski, and although I never met him, I am astounded by the amount of work he did to preserve Sugihara’s legacy. Not only did he raise the funds and design the monument to him in Temple Emeth in Boston and write a memoir detailing his experience, but he took the time to speak at schools to make sure first-hand the new generation was aware of Sugihara’s deeds. In 2010, Japan’s consul general awarded him a certificate of appreciation for his efforts to pass on the Sugihara story. He was living proof that the saved will not let the savior be forgotten.
Sugihara’s story is personally important to me, but it is also valuable for what it can teach us today. It is easy, when studying the Holocaust, to believe that it was committed only by evil people, demons outside of the realm of everyday life. Yet the world is not that simple. We can not divide the human race into good and evil. If this were true, one would be able to say they are “good”, simply because they are not “evil”. Those who did not participate in massacres in the Holocaust, those who sat back and watched, are not evil people, and therefore are good people. I do not believe this is true. Using this logic, modern people shrug off the atrocities that were committed, because they know that they are not bad people, and therefore feel confident that they would have been the ones to help the Jews. They choose to ignore the horrific stories because they fail to see the relevance to their current lives. Genocides have happened, and will continue to, unless people can understand what it means to be “good” in these situations. The “good” people were the ones who housed an orphan in their attic, the ones who hid and fed an entire family in their basement, the ones who risked everything they had to rescue a few precious souls. They must be shown examples of inspirational people like Sugihara who willingly put their lives at stake to save strangers, with no foreseeable reward. Courage like that does not come naturally to most people, and when faced with a true crisis like this, I don’t think that the majority of people would be able to bring themselves to help others. More likely than not, they would follow orders, save their own lives, and turn a blind eye to the horrors around them. Students need to be shown how normal, everyday people can become either a slave to barbarity through propaganda and brainwashing, or how they can rise up, identify orders as unjust, and take a chance on doing what is right and what is truly good. Only then will we be able to realize just what it takes to prevent genocide, and how we must take these accounts and use them to push forward into a better tomorrow.