The Gift of Life
“To save one life is to save humanity.”
My life began on March 24, 1989, but my story begins 50 years earlier in war-torn Poland with the border closed and encircled by Nazi storm troopers. Passed down from generation to generation, my ancestors’ life stories become part of my own. The main characters are my grandfather, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor named Bernard Salomon, and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat with absolutely no connection to my family. While my grandfather’s journey was a modern-day odyssey, it was the actions of Mr. Sugihara that would influence me in unimaginable ways. At a time when so many turned their backs on the atrocities surrounding them, the Japanese Consul General to Lithuania did the unthinkable simply by listening to his conscience.
After unsuccessfully attempting to transport his parents to safety after the Nazi invasion, my grandfather was forced to travel alone by foot over barbed-wire terrain on a 170-mile journey from Mlava, Poland to Kaunas, Lithuania. Bernard did not have much of a chance to share his story, as he passed away in 1955 when my father was less than two years old.
As the situation for the refugees became more desperate, Sugihara met with a delegation, including my grandfather’s brother, at the embassy in Kaunas. Looking into the gathering sea of faces, Sugihara took a morally courageous stand. Acting contrary to his government’s orders and at great risk to his family and himself, he provided the 299th exit visa to my grandfather on July 30, 1940 (Sugihara, 160) to permit safe passage by train through Siberia and by boat to Kobe, Japan. My grandfather later went by ship to Shanghai and on to Calcutta, India. In all, Sugihara issued 2,193 visas for Jews to escape the Holocaust. But for the actions of this man, my grandfather would have died in a concentration camp and my Dad, my sister and I would not be here either. With later generations, Sugihara is said to have saved over 300,000 lives. As a result of his actions, Sugihara’s diplomatic career was ruined and, at one point, he was penniless on the streets of Tokyo.
How did Sugihara’s actions affect me? He taught me that unjust laws must sometimes be broken and discriminatory public policies must be actively fought, for justice to prevail. He demonstrated that one person truly can make a difference. No act of racial or ethnic hatred can be countenanced; indeed, no act is too small or insignificant to be ignored. Whether it is on the playground where a bully taunts another student, in the classroom where disrespect or insensitivity is directed to a learning-disabled child, or on the sports field where an epithet is hurled against the member of a racial minority, each of us must fight on a daily basis the urge to be a bystander. We must take a stand, ever harkening back to the universal lessons of the Holocaust, to fight hatred in all its forms, to teach the insidious consequences of prejudice, and to nurture an understanding that differences among peoples, far from being feared, should be fostered.
With the hourglass of time waning, the number of firsthand survivors to the Holocaust of World War II continues to dwindle. Eyewitness testimony to the atrocities will sadly die out in the next several decades, with the mantle falling to succeeding generations, including my own, to ensure that the compelling cry of “never again” takes root. At the same time, we continually see and hear the venom of Holocaust deniers in our midst. One might suspect that statements describing the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals as “an outright myth” (NY Times) only to be found in tattered newspaper clippings. In fact, this inciteful statement was uttered two months ago by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a gathering of Holocaust slanderers and white supremacists in Tehran. Further, the internet is awash with fresh evidence of racial and ethnic attacks, with the press reporting that anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom last month reached an “all-time high” (Manchester News). If you type the word “hate” into Google, you will receive some 200 million hits (Chicago Tribune).
We have an overriding obligation not to turn a blind eye to genocide today in Darfur, as well as in recent times in Cambodia, Rwanda and other venues. Although the stories and statistics may be buried in many newspapers, the horrific violence continues. We appear hypocritical if we permit the “never agains” to keep recurring. This is why I have become involved with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Teen Committee to Save Darfur and in the building of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL, including the amassing of their artifact campaign. Iconic images, such as a German cattle car used to transport victims to their extermination, must be seen and touched for visitors to comprehend the enormity of the atrocities. The truth can only prevail through continual education of children at formative ages and broad exposure to man’s inhumanity whenever and wherever it arises. As I personally seek to “pay forward” Sugihara’s righteous deeds on behalf of my grandfather and countless others, I commit that his actions and its implicit message about the sanctity of human life and the need to combat bigotry will not be lost on my generation and those which follow.
The courage to act, even when the world remains silent, is a powerful lesson that needs to be taught to the young. Sugihara was not alone; others acted to save lives, often at great personal risk or suffering the ultimate penalty of death. Who were these points of light, in what was otherwise a vast sea of darkness? The list of righteous among nations from World War II includes Raoul Wallenberg, King Christian X of Denmark, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the entire village of Le Chambon, France. (Gilbert, 246-47, 257, 271-74) When interviewed years later, those still alive seemed genuinely surprised by the fuss, as they were merely following their moral compass and upbringing in daring to do what was right.
Winston Churchill once wrote:
“We make a living by what we get;
By this standard Sugihara and the other saviors represent heroes for the ages, whose stories must be told. They gave the ultimate gift, the gift of life.
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