After an entire night of frequent, unscheduled stops, the train finally reached its destination: Wilno, near the Lithuanian border. Seven-year-old Leo Melamed was astounded that it had taken so long to arrive. The trip from his hometown in Bialystok, Poland, to Wilno normally took only two hours.
But for the people of Eastern Europe, September 1939 was not a normal time.
Along with tens of thousands of other Polish Jews, Leo was running for his life. A few weeks earlier, the Nazi army had invaded Bialystok. His father had been forced into hiding, so Leo fled to Lithuania with only his mother.
“The train would stop in the middle of its journey, and the whistles blew, and that was the notice that the tracks were being bombed, and so everybody ran out of the train,” Leo Melamed told the Trumpet on June 1. “Then later there was a relief whistle, and we’d all get back on the train. And all this took a whole night.”
When that fraught night finally ended, and the train arrived in Wilno, Leo and his mother were reunited with his father, Isaac. The family had arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, but they had escaped the Nazis, so far.
(Listen to the episode of The Sun Also Rises about this astounding story.)
For several months, they were safe within the borders of Lithuania. But on June 15, 1940, the Soviets invaded the country and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. The Soviet regime was repressive, and the situation for Jews like the Melameds drastically changed.
Desperate for Escape
By this time, the Nazis had conquered much of Western Europe. The rest of the free world, with few exceptions, had stopped accepting Jewish refugees from Lithuania or from regions controlled by Nazis. Options for the Melameds and other Jews were becoming fewer each week. As repressive as the Soviet regime in Lithuania was, the greater threat to Jews in the country was from the German armies. These were advancing toward Lithuania, eager to pry it away from the Soviets.
By July 1940, for many Jews, there was just one option for escape: Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul general in Lithuania.
“Rumor had it that … Sugihara was thinking about giving out transit visas to Japan,” Melamed said. Without a transit visa, no one could leave Soviet territory. The Jews knew that the slip of paper could mean the difference between living and dying. “My father, along with what turned out to be 2,000 others, would appear in Sugihara’s premises, or near the premises, and wait for Sugihara to appear and talk to them,” Melamed said.
But Sugihara had his orders.
The telex from Tokyo read: “Concerning transit visas requested previously STOP Advise absolutely not to be issued to any traveler not holding firm end visa with guaranteed departure ex Japan STOP No exceptions STOP No further inquiries expected STOP [signed] K. Tanaka Foreign Ministry Tokyo.”
Sugihara had known this would be the reply before he even sent his request to authorize transit visas. Even though the Jews were fleeing certain torture and death, Japan was negotiating an official alliance with Nazi Germany. The Japanese Foreign Ministry wanted its consuls to take no actions that might displease the Germans.
Despite the order in the telex not to pose “further inquiries,” Sugihara asked his government for permission two more times over the next few days. The response always came back the same: Absolutely not. No exceptions.
Sugihara was trapped between his duty and his principles. He had to choose between obeying his government and obeying his conscience. He knew this was the biggest decision he had ever had to make, so the 40-year-old consul called a meeting.
It was not a summit of senior diplomats and foreign affairs experts. It wasn’t even a meeting of lower-level consultants and advisers. This Japanese consulate was too small for a staff of that kind. But the meeting did include Sugihara’s most important advisers: his wife, Yukiko, who was in fact the consulate’s only other staff member, and their three small children, the oldest of whom was 5-year-old Hiroki.
Melamed recounted the details of this family meeting, based on conversations he had in the mid-1990s with Hiroki: “[Hiroki] told me that at the point in time when the [Japanese] foreign office had given Sugihara the third time ‘no,’ he went in and called his family together.” Sugihara told his family the details of the situation and explained the risks of deliberately disobeying clear orders from Tokyo. He explained that to write the visas would be jeopardizing his career and possibly even the safety of the family.
“He told them,” Melamed said, “that if he listens to the dictates of his government he would be violating the dictates of his God.” After laying out the details, Sugihara asked for their counsel: Should he disobey the orders of his government and write the transit visas?
Sugihara was encouraged by the support of little Hiroki and the rest of his family. On July 31, 1940, against the wishes of Imperial Japan and the Axis powers, he started writing visas for the Jewish people in Lithuania.
Writing With Fervor
Once Sugihara resolved to write the visas, he committed wholeheartedly. On most days, he and his wife wrote over 300 visas, normally a month’s work for a consulate of that size.
After they had been writing visas for about a week, Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassies to immediately leave Lithuania. Most complied right away. But Sugihara put in a special request for a 20-day extension. To his surprise and relief, the Soviets granted it.
And the Sugiharas made good use of those 20 days.
The Jewish Virtual Library says Sugihara slept very little during this time, and that he did not even stop for meals: “From July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, they wrote and signed visas. … Yukiko also helped him register these visas. At the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches. Sugihara chose not to lose a minute because people were standing in line in front of his consulate day and night for these visas.”
Sugihara lost weight and became profoundly exhausted, but he knew the Jews in the line were entirely at his mercy. So he kept on writing.
Making Use of Every Second
When the extension period came to an end, the Sugiharas had to board the train and leave Lithuania. As the train sat in the station before departing, Sugihara kept writing the documents and handing them out the window to Jews on the platform below.
As the train began rolling away, Sugihara extended himself halfway out of the window, and said to the crowd: “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I will pray for your safety.” With tears streaming down his face, Sugihara bowed to the Jews on the platform, in a typical Japanese gesture of submissiveness. Reports say that the Jews called out, saying they would never forget him.
As a parting gift, Sugihara threw his consul visa stamp to one of the Jews below. The man apparently used it to good effect, saving even more people before the darkness closed in on Jews in Lithuania.
How many lives did Chiune Sugihara save from persecution, confiscation, kidnapping, imprisonment and murder? A visa could be used for an entire family, so each slip of paper might represent two, three or more people. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and most other organizations estimate the total number of individuals Sugihara saved was 6,000.
And three of those 6,000 were the Melamed family: Mr. and Mrs. Melamed, and little Leo.
“That visa gave us hope,” Melamed said.
The slip of paper allowed them to take a three-week train journey across Russia. Once they reached Russia’s east coast, they boarded a small boat and spent three days crossing the Sea of Japan. They lived in Kobe, Japan, for several months until they were granted permission to move to the United States.
The Melamed family soon made their way to Chicago, where the young Leo grew up to become head of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In this position, he became one of the most important innovators in modern history. Nobel laureates Milton Freedman, Merton Miller and Myron Scholes all called Melamed the most important financial innovator in the second half of the 20th century. The majority of people today are beneficiaries of the free and open markets his innovations expanded.
If Sugihara had not helped the Melameds and 6,000 other Jews escape, they almost certainly would have been killed: By the end of 1941, Poland and Lithuania fell to the Nazis. The Jewish populations were herded into ghettos. By the end of the war, 90 percent of the Jews of both nations had been murdered.
The government of Imperial Japan was displeased with Sugihara’s decision to write unauthorized visas for the Jews at a time that it was negotiating an alliance with Nazi Germany. In the Japanese Foreign Ministry, it became known as “the incident in Lithuania.” Yet Sugihara was not imprisoned for his brave act of principle. For a few years, he was allowed to continue on as a Japanese diplomat. After the war, in 1947, he was fired from diplomatic office, apparently because of what he did in Lithuania.
His rare courage was not recognized until many years after the war. In 1984, Yad Vashem named him one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” who saved Jews from Nazi extermination. Soon after, he was honored by the American Holocaust museum, which placed his name alongside those of such individuals as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler. Sugihara died in 1986, and was the only Japanese person ever to receive these prestigious honors.
Today, more than 75 years after that month of frenzied visa writing back in 1940, approximately 45,000 people are alive who descended from the 6,000 saved by Chiune Sugihara and his family.
“It is a lesson to the world,” Melamed said, “that one man can change the world.”
Would You Be a Sugihara?
If I’d been there, I would have done my part to stop the Holocaust, you and I might think. I would never have participated in the attempted genocide.
But Adolf Hitler did not murder 6 million Jews by himself. Nor did he do it with just a handful of other powerful Nazis.
According to Hedi Enghelberg’s The Trains of the Holocaust, there were more than 250,000 people just operating Europe’s train networks. There were legions of office workers drawing up and managing the logistics. There were thousands of city police officers guarding the streets of Europe, making sure Jews stayed in the ghettos. There were hundreds of thousands of “ordinary people” who felt quite civilized as they made the Holocaust possible.
While it is easier for people to be pressured into helping to slaughter traditional enemies, Browning said, they can also be made to help slaughter new ones. “If there are historical circumstances where a traditional dehumanizing stereotype already exists, then it’s so much easier to implant fear and dress up what’s being done in terms of self-defense against some alleged ominous enemy,” he wrote. “However, we do know from past situations that it doesn’t require centuries of hatred or long-term animosity. In fact, mobilization for mass killing has been accomplished very quickly.”
Sugihara faced the same pressure that millions of people caved in to in Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. But he resisted this pressure. He refused to become one of the hundreds of thousands who participated in mass murder. Against enormous pressure, he obeyed his principles and his God.
And in so doing, Chiune Sugihara gave an example to those who worship the true God: Even when the entire civilization around you demands that you comply, as the Apostle Peter said in Acts 5:29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”