Sacrificing everything to save a few Jews
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
How does it feel to come to the realisation that without a certain individual you would not be alive?
I had this singular experience recently in Philadelphia. It was my very emotional meeting with a Japanese gentleman named Nobuki Sugihara. Nobuki is the sole surviving son of Chiune Sugihara, the legendary Japanese diplomat who courageously distributed thousands of Transit Visas to Polish Jews trapped in Lithuania which enabled them to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe at the beginning of World War 2. My late father obm was one of those fortunate recipients.
Chiune Sugihara is a valiant hero. Yad Vashem has recognised him among the Righteous of the Nations. He issued thousands of Transit Visas against the instructions of his superiors in Tokyo. He lost his position, his career, and his livelihood as a result of what he did for those desperate Jews knocking on the doors of the Japanese Consulate in Kovno (today Kaunus), Lithuania.
It was a most memorable and meaningful experience as the son of the rescued met the son of the rescuer. Nobuki lives in Antwerp and he and his charming Belgian-Turkish wife, Esin, travelled to the USA, as did my wife, Rochel, and I for this historic, emotional, and inspirational event. Our son, Rabbi Yochonon in Philadelphia, invited Nobuki to join me in conversation at his Historic Congregation Bnai Abraham Chabad’s Tribute Dinner. The evening was called “From Kovno to Kobe”.
When we first met, we embraced and held each other tightly. Although we had never met before, it felt as we were soul brothers and that somehow our fates and destinies were twinned. Nobuki and I even exchanged a few words in Hebrew, as, having studied at Hebrew University and spending several years in Israel, he is completely fluent. He joked to the media that it’s our ‘secret language’.
Of course, I thanked him on behalf of my father who never got the opportunity to thank his father personally. I also thanked him on behalf of my children and grandchildren and the more than 100 blood descendants of my father who are alive today. It is estimated that from the 2 139 Visas the senior Sugihara signed, some 6 000 Jews survived as many were family visas. My father was No. 2 029. So he ‘just made it’. It would take extensive research to calculate the number of Jews alive today thanks to this Japanese Tzaddik. Estimates range from 30 000 to 60 000 but I believe it may be significantly higher as many survivors, like my father, were religious people who went on to raise large families. I know at least one who left over 400 descendants!
Indeed, in his later years, every time my father would hold any of his newly-born great grandchildren, he would clutch them tightly to his heart. To us, it was palpable that he was so grateful to have merited to rebuild his family, all of whom, except for him, had perished in the Holocaust. It was also his personal validation and vindication that, at the end of the day, Hitler did not win. In this terrible war, though we lost fully one third of our people, we the people survived. And we rebuilt. So, ultimately, after all the horrors and tragedies, we are the victors.
My brother and sister and other family members came to Philadelphia for the event from New York. When we took a family photo with the Sugiharas you could feel the reality of the Talmudic statement, “Kol hamekayem nefesh achas… He who saves even a single soul is as if he has saved an entire world.” Just looking at the generations that have emanated from every single survivor, we saw that idea so clearly before our very eyes.
We all use the phrase “eternally grateful” on many occasions. We probably use it in circumstances that don’t necessarily merit ‘eternal gratitude’. But for Chiune Sugihara’s acts of heroic righteousness, tens and tens of thousands of our people are indeed “eternally grateful” – literally!
At the end of the evening in Philadelphia, we were all in for a surprise. Mrs Sue Eisenberg, who is 86-years-old, came up spontaneously to the stage. She was waving a piece of paper. It was an original Sugihara Visa which had a photo of her, her mother, and her sister. She was a small child back then, but she survived and raised her own family in Philadelphia. She was accompanied by her two sons. Nobuki inspected the Visa with his father’s signature at length and was clearly very moved by this unexpected revelation. Esin didn’t stop snapping photos of that Visa. I don’t know how to say Nachas in Japanese, but he was surely having lots of it!
Oskar Schindler saved 1 200 Jews. Chiune Sugihara saved 6 000! I would say he deserves a proper Hollywood movie. More importantly, I really do believe there is a special place in heaven for Chiune Sugihara. After all, he sacrificed his position, his profession, and his livelihood to grant those life-saving Visas to groups of strangers from a culture completely foreign to his. Every other European Consulate and Embassy refused those Jews’ requests out of hand. He was a true humanitarian who defied his own government’s instructions because to save a life was more important to him than bureaucracy. He was a modest, humble man, who never claimed any glory for himself. He was always dismissive of the notion that he was a hero at all. He insisted that he simply did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. G-d bless his holy soul!
From Chiune Sugihara I learned the Power of One. How one single individual could save so many thousands of souls. I also learned the power of one from my dear father, olov hasholom. He was but one sole survivor from a large family in Poland. Yet, when he passed away in 2016, he left over 80 great grandchildren.
And I learned from my saintly mentor, the Rebbe, that every is Jew is a survivor. Even one born today, long after the war. Because it was Hitler’s plan that not one Jew should be left alive. The Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race was already being prepared in Prague. It would hold Kiddush Cups, Menorahs, and other Jewish artefacts. But we are here, and we have a sacred and moral obligation to rebuild the Jewish world. Physically – by raising up new families – and spiritually, by ensuring our children and grandchildren are proud and practicing Jews. And, by reaching out to any who may feel estranged or disengaged for whatever reason.
May the Sugihara story inspire us all to do just that.