Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda. Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda.
Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

I just read about an amazing woman, but only after her death. Her name was Anne Heyman and she had a vision to save Rwandan orphans by creating youth villages akin to the ones in Israel that took in all the Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust.

When the village for orphans opened in 2008, a long line of teenagers, alone and shattered, stood in the blazing sun holding paper bags containing all their possessions. Entire families of some had been wiped out, and they had no photographs. Some did not know their birthdays, or even what their real names were.

She built the village of 32 houses high up on a hill “because children need to see far to go far,” said Heyman.

What impresses me about her work is that she embraced more than just the children, and spread the love and philanthropy in a pay-it-forward way. The youth that first arrived were those orphaned by the genocide  in 1994, but later children of parents who had died of AIDS began to  arrive. Soon, other vulnerable children were also taken in.

Ethiopian Jews who had grown up at a youth camp in Israel were the first counselors. Housemothers were hired locally to make the houses into homes, often the first the youths had known. Many of the women had lost their husbands and children to genocide.

In a nod to her inspiration, she named the camp, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. “Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried” and Shalom is Hebrew for peace.

Although she died a premature death (age 52), her work will outlive her. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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Yascha Mounk, courtesy of his website

I just read an opinion piece entitled, “German, Jewish and Neither,” by a young German man named Yascha Mounk. And it left me reeling.

He and his mother were the only Jews in Laupheim, the small town in southern Germany where he grew up [he was born in 1982]. In his essay, which appeared in the New York Times this weekend, he included two short anecdotes that left me gasping. That both of them occurred in the past two decades is what made me feel like the recipient of a sucker punch. The first one took place in 1992 when Mr. Mounk had just started the fifth grade. His teacher, Herr Weiss, was going down the class list asking students if they were Protestant or Catholic, so he would know which religion class to send them to. Here’s how he describes it in the article:

“Mounk, Yascha. Protestant or Catholic?”

“Well, I guess I’m sort of Jewish.”

The class laughed. Uproariously.

“Stop making things up,” Johannes Emmerle, a Protestant, shouted as the hilarity ebbed. “Everybody knows that the Jews don’t exist anymore!”

Herr Weiss reprimanded Johannes. “Don’t talk unless I call on you. We must have order. O.K., Yascha. You’ll have a free period when the others take religion. There’s a Turk in another class, I think. You two can keep each other company.”

Then he added, as an afterthought: “And, Johannes, you are wrong, as a matter of fact. There are a few Jews. Again.”

Herr Weiss’s afterthought was like a knife in the back. And the “Again” at the end was the final twist to make sure the knife was in good and tight. Then there was the second anecdote, which was more outwardly offensive, but no less insidious.

This incident occurred when Mr. Mounk was a young adult. Although I’m not sure exactly how recently, it seems to have been in the past decade or so. Here it is:

Once again, Germany’s changed understanding of its past manifested itself in ordinary interactions. One Saturday morning, for example, I went to Munich’s Oktoberfest with a group of acquaintances. A jolly brass band in lederhosen was playing. We clinked our mugs in a traditional Bavarian toast.

Stephanie, a petite woman in her late 30s, was trying to make a joke. “How do you fit 200 Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?” she asked.

“Knock it off,” said Hans, a big-boned, folksy friend of mine. “This is not appropriate.”

“Why should I?” Stephanie shot back. “Because you tell me to shut up? Because they tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke!”

“I doubt it’ll be funny,” Hans said.

“Not funny? Have a sense of humor! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

“Look,” Hans said, “you know as well as I do that Germans have a special responsibility to be sensi — ”

“A special responsibility? I’m not even 40! No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer. Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”

There was that word “again” again. Read the third paragraph from the bottom of the anecdote and you’ll see it. The line reads, “We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

What the f*ck!?!?! It will always be too soon to tell jokes about the Jews. Especially Holocaust jokes. Who in their right mind could think a Holocaust joke is in any way humorous? Just cut it out you ignorant joke-telling people. Those jokes are far from funny. They reveal your inability to be a member of the civilized world.  Those jokes should never see a reprisal. They are most definitely never “again” and always too soon.

I’m thinking about writing to Mr. Mounk (who wrote, “Stranger In My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” which comes out on Tuesday, January 7, 2014) and finding out how he handled the aftermath of the joke. I couldn’t tell from the article whether or not he responded to her. I know that I would have railed into her. Oh, would I have let her have it. Wonder what calm, cool and collected response I could use in a situation like that. Something just witty and smart enough to make the person feel stupid and confused at the same time. Any suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

BTH cover

I met Deb Levy because we had something in common. We were both writing books based on someone else’s Holocaust story. Deb’s book, Bury the Hot, is now published. She sent me a copy and I read it in one big gulp. I had so many questions for her afterward but limited it to nine, which are answered by her below. You can purchase your own copy of Bury the Hot at amazon, which I encourage you to do. It’s a page-turner.

1. What was it like telling someone else’s story?

One of the very first things Sal [Wainberg] said to me after asking me to write his story was this, “Do not make a Hollywood version of my account. Do not embellish for the sake of storytelling. Do not make me out to be a hero. I just want the truth.” So, I felt a tremendous responsibility to hold to the truth. I also felt a tremendous responsibility for earning his trust, and that of his wife, Sandy. They were both sharing their memories and their marriage in such an honest and open way, and I held their trust in me in very high regard.

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot (courtesy of Deb Levy)

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot

2. How much and what kind of research did you do?

Sal sent me the VHS tape and transcript of a video testimony that he had given in 1995. I pored through it and filled a spiral-bound notebook with hundreds of questions. We don’t live near each other, so we spoke on the phone for several hours at a time – Sandy sitting silently on the line listening in. We called into a conference call center that recorded our conversations so that I could listen and respond without worrying about writing things down. We spoke once or twice a week, for hours on end, for several months. I also (like you!) used Google quite a bit and found amazing resources – from a Hebrew/Gregorian calendar conversion tool, to the Yizkor (memorial) book of his shtetl. And I went to Yeshiva University and the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] and looked through their archives to get more information about historical events that he was part of.

3. Who else did you interview beside Sal? How did you handle any inconsistencies in his story?

I interviewed his wife Sandy quite a bit, privately, because a good part of the book focuses on their marriage, and how the repression of his childhood experiences impacted their relationship. (She was learning some details of his past along with me, believe it or not.) I also spoke with his daughter, who is my age, to get a different perspective. But Bury the Hot is mainly Sal’s story, as he remembers his experiences and as he perceived them. Any historical inconsistencies, I checked with him and we compared notes on things like dates. For instance, he recalled the war breaking out on Erev Rosh Hashanah (he was three years old.) But every history book notes Germany invading Poland on September 1, which was about two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1939. When I pressed him on this, he said that he remembered wearing his new Rosh Hashanah clothes and going outside as planes darkened the sky above his home. And so he assumed it was Rosh Hashanah. But he realized that he must have just gotten his new outfit a few weeks before the New Year, tried it on, and then gone outside to show off his new clothes. To be honest, I was really amazed at how accurate and vivid his memories were.

4. Tell me about your decision to include Yiddish words, especially how you deftly handled their definitions, i.e., weaving them into the narrative rather than footnotes or parenthetically.

I love any book that weaves a foreign language into its prose – it brings a culture to life in a way that mere descriptions cannot. And Yiddish is such an amazing language, full of flavor and feistiness and a “hamisheh” quality. It’s the language of my family and our history, and the language that Sal spoke for the first 15 years of his life. It’s also a dying language and one that I wanted to revive in some way.

5. Has writing this changed the way you think about WWII and the Holocaust? What about your faith? I can’t imagine going through the process of interviewing, researching, writing and publishing and not coming out the other side unfazed.

To be honest, when Sal first asked me to write his story and his wife said, “His story is unbelievable,” my first thought (which I kept to myself!) was, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before.” I cringe now thinking about that. We may think that by reading Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t. We haven’t even come close. There are millions of stories that need to be told – each one unique and heartbreaking and filled with truths and teachings. I don’t know that writing this changed the way that I practice or believe, but it changed me as a mother. I have three young boys, and raising them while writing about another young boy in peril was fraught with challenges. I struggled between wanting to do everything I could (as we all want to do as mothers) to give them a good life and protect them from harm. But at the same time, I started to resent their good life and innocence. I wondered often if they would have survived the things that Sal endured, and it terrified me, because I didn’t think they would. And so there was a part of me that wanted to “toughen them up” so that they could survive if their world, God forbid, turned upside down. But that is impossible, and probably not the best way to raise children!

6. How do you feel about the book, the people involved, the fact that the last survivors will soon be no more? 

I’m incredibly proud of the book, and incredibly, incredibly grateful to Sandy and Sal both for trusting me with their memories and laying themselves bare. Seeing it in print, seeing it go so public, I realize the incredible courage they exhibited in opening themselves up so completely. They were incredibly honest, and honesty is not always so attractive. Also, I think I was so close to it that it’s only been through the response I’m getting from readers that I realize I did something very important for history and humanity. Every day that goes by, there are less and less of those who can provide a first-hand account, or who can tell it cogently. And so there is this race against the clock to make sure we capture as much as we can and then share it with generations to come.

7. Any interesting or surprising responses to your book? Would love to hear what kind of feedback you’re getting from readers, whether they be from survivors, kin of survivors, Jews, non-Jews, etc.

The response has been incredible. Certainly, it is a Jewish-interest story. But some of my most fervent fans and supporters are non-Jews. And why not? It is a human story and one does not have to be Nigerian to appreciate Chinua Achebe, or Indian to read Salman Rushdie. But perhaps the greatest response was from Sal’s daughter, who hadn’t read a page of the book until it was published. The whole time I was writing his story, I worried about how she and her brother would feel reading about their father’s suffering, or their parent’s marriage. But she said, “I feel like we are now somehow related. Over 40 years, I have managed to absorb some of this history. But in 1/10th the time, you got it. And now you are my sister. This is why he chose you.”

8. Anything you wish you had done differently?

Yes! Like I said, I found the Yizkor book of Zelechow (his shtetl) online and used it as a resource for corroborating his memory of historical events. It also listed the names of people from his village, which I incorporated into the book. But it wasn’t until I went back to the Yizkor book, while I was working on the approximately 8th or 9th revision of Bury the Hot, that I realized there were pictures at the end of this online document. And I found pictures of his family, people he hid with. I had chills seeing the faces of the characters I had been writing about. Unfortunately, Sal had passed away by this time, and so I couldn’t share those photographs with him, or seek his help in identifying some of the people in group photos.

9. Name one thing you learned about the Holocaust that you didn’t know before starting this project.

I learned a lot about the difference between Polish and German society at that time, and the many years leading up to the war. I learned that the war’s end in 1945 did not bring an end to the suffering of Jews in Poland – at all. Anti-Semitism was centuries old, and persisted long after the Holocaust.

P.S. Click here if you’re curious about the book’s title.

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As a Brooklyn-dwelling former spelling bee champ (4th and 5th grades, thank you very much), I was delighted to learn that the winning word at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee was knaidel and it was spelled by a New York City kid who’d never eaten a matzoh ball in his life. He is the child of immigrants from southern India.

But as many who have cared to follow have since seen, the Yiddish-intelligentsia are up in arms over what they deem an incorrect spelling.

Oy vey!

At first I thought they were overreacting. But then I read this cogent essay in today’s New York Times and now see this is a much deeper issue that has its roots in anti-Semitism. According to Jewish scholar and professor Dara Horn (bold text mine),

 The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which created the standard Yiddish transliteration now used in libraries around the world, holds that the correct spelling is ‘kneydl.’

Yiddish is a thousand years old, but YIVO, founded in 1925 in what is now Vilnius in Lithuania, finished standardizing the spelling of Yiddish words in the Hebrew alphabet only in 1937. YIVO (an acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute) was created by scholars who saw Judaism as a nationality based on language, not religion — and who insisted, amid rising anti-Semitism, that the Yiddish language was as rich as any other. For Yiddish to matter, spelling had to count — which is why this orthographic debate is far more fraught than it appears.

…In 19th-century Europe, religious writers spelled Yiddish words by imitating Hebrew, using vowel markings where none were necessary so their new writing would resemble ancient Hebrew texts. Meanwhile, Jews who wanted to assimilate into European life wrote in a Yiddish spelling that openly imitated German.

…[In the early Soviet Union] government control over Yiddish schools and presses led to the invention and enforcement of a literally anti-Semitic Yiddish orthography by spelling the language’s many Semitic-origin words phonetically instead of in Hebrew. (Imagine spelling “naïve” as “nigh-eve” in order to look less French.) It was an attempt to erase Jewish culture’s biblical roots, letter by letter.

These psychologically destructive spellings — implying, as they all did in various ways, that Jewish culture didn’t belong in Europe — were what YIVO was fighting against.

…By 1945 the Nazis had killed the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers. YIVO itself survived only through the efforts of Jewish prisoners, including celebrated poets who were forced by the Germans to loot YIVO’s archives for a Nazi-created “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Members of this “paper brigade” risked their lives to smuggle out cultural treasures, including documents that scholars had painstakingly collected to record and standardize Yiddish spelling.”

As Ms. Horn tweeted, “My piece on #yiddish spelling [w]as a matter of life and death,” and although perhaps a bit overstated, I somewhat agree. What do you think?

Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother

Graduation 1979, Dr. Rotbart with his parents and brother. Photo courtesy of NYT.

Read a really powerful essay this morning in the New York Times and thought I’d share it with you.

Poised to attend his daughter’s graduation from NYU this month, a man named Harley Rotbart, M.D. was reminded of his medical school graduation in May 1979. His father, a survivor of Auschwitz who was orphaned in the war, was never able to get a proper education past middle school. When he came to the states he made his living as a fruit peddler:

He was the most brilliant fruit peddler in the history of fruit peddling, the smartest man I ever knew,” writes Dr. Rotbart.

Yet, he had a crushing inferiority complex and felt he stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly his lack of education and thick Polish accent. He was intimidated by all the accomplishments of those around him. But at his son’s graduation a curious thing happened. Dr. Rotbart describes the emotional scene that occurred immediately after the ceremony:

After hugs from my brother and Mom, I moved on to Dad. What happened at that moment I will never forget. Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.

Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.

I am so touched by this man’s capacity for love and understanding for his father.  The bittersweet release that his father felt, which took more than 34 years to occur, was certainly a long-time coming. It’s sad but it’s also happy. Many, perhaps most, survivors never get (or got) a sense of closure and freedom in their lifetime. But his father did, and it happened twice. Must’ve been a beautiful scene to happen upon. And I love Dr. Rotbart’s ability to tell it in such a sweet and loving way.

Oh, Dr. Rotbart is a pediatrician and author of several books about parenting, one of which is called, No Regrets Parenting. Sounds like he learned a lot from his dad. If you click through to the essay in the Times, you’ll see several photos of his dad. Take a close look at his smile in the two fruit-related pictures. It’s genuine and gorgeous. The best kind of smile.

Hitler's food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Hitler’s food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Margot Woelk, the sole survivor of Hitler’s 15 food tasters, has recently come forward about her wartime experience. She is 95 years old and never told a soul until recently.

The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” she recalled. “But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.”

What a paradox. Indulging in gourmet fare at every meal when the rest of the world is scrounging for scraps, yet knowing any forkful could be the last. And yet, it was all to protect a megalomaniacal mass murderer. At first it seems difficult to reconcile, but after reading this important part of the story that was left out (!!!) by nearly every news outlet that reported on this in the last couple of days, I realized she too was a victim. According to an article in Spiegel, April 2, 2013,

…[the] young woman who had refused to join the League of German Girls (BDM), the girl’s version of Hitler Youth, and whose father had been hauled off for refusing to join the Nazi party, became Hitler’s helper. Each day, her life was on the line for a man she deeply despised.”

Why did she come forward now, 68 years after the war ended? “For decades, I tried to shake off those memories,” she said. “But they always came back to haunt me at night.” Well into her twilight years, frail and home-bound (there’s no elevator in her Berlin apartment building), she feels compelled to share her story and try to make peace with what she did. According to Spiegel,

It wasn’t until this winter, when a local journalist paid her a visit for her 95th birthday and began asking questions, that she spoke about what she calls the worst years of her life. At that moment, she suddenly decided to break her silence. ‘I just wanted to say what happened there,’ she says. ‘That Hitler was a really repugnant man. And a pig.’

The other 14 tasters—all young women in their early 20s like Ms. Woelk—were shot by the Russians. Only Ms. Woelk survived because she heeded the advice of an SS friend, and fled Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in the nick of time and took a train to Berlin. But her deeds did not go unpunished.

“The Russians then came to Berlin and got me, too,” Woelk said. “They took me to a doctor’s apartment and raped me for 14 consecutive days. That’s why I could never have children. They destroyed everything.”

It’s a very sad story and something I never really thought about, even though I vaguely knew there were food tasters for Hitler. It’s amazing that she kept the story to herself; she never even told her  husband. What a burden to carry for an entire life, especially one that’s lasted as long as hers. I know some people won’t feel compassion for her, and I agree on some level it’s not easy, but she suffered too at the hands of the Russians. Read more of her story here and let me know what you think.

 

TimeSpaceCreate

Hello to my loyal readers (all nine of you!). I was just accepted into the Byrdcliffe Writer’s Residency summer program to work exclusively on my book, Googling the Holocaust. I applied to the program several months ago and just found out today. You better believe I’m excited. Ecstatic. Yippee!!!

Thanks for your continuous support by reading my posts, commenting when something resonates (or riles), and basically for believing in me. I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as the story continues to unfold.

 

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Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

It won’t be long before people besides Joel Haley Osment start saying, “I see dead people.”

You know how one of the main laments of Holocaust studies for future (and current) generations is that the survivor population is dying out? How books and movies aren’t the same as face-to-face encounters with in-the-flesh survivors? Well, the University of Southern California is trying to do something about it.

According to a recent CNET article, “As the aging Holocaust survivor population dwindles, USC scientists scurry to create life-size 3D holograms that can answer viewer questions through Siri-like voice-recognition technology.”

The hologram initiative is a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and design firm Conscience Display. According to CNET, they are developing “installations that let students and others converse with the hyper-photorealistic life-size digital versions of the survivors. Viewers ask questions, and the holograms respond, thanks to Siri-style natural-language technology, also developed at USC, that allows observers to ask questions that trigger relevant, spoken answers.”

Quick aside: I knew USC was home to Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, but I didn’t know it was responsible for Apple’s Siri technology. Nice. Great way to use what you’ve got and keep things in-house, USC!

The initiative is called New Dimensions in Testimony and USC says it will “display testimony in a way that will continue the dialogue between Holocaust survivors and learners far into the future.”

If you can get past the creepy aspect, (can’t help but see this played out in a Scooby-Doo episode), it sounds like a potentially viable solution to stem the despair of those who feel the memory of the Holocaust will die with its survivors. With the amount of Holocaust literature, art and film already in existence, plus those in the works (like mine) or that will be made in the future, I highly doubt that, but still, it will definitely have a less dire effect when there are no survivors on the ground.

This is the part I like best (aside from the cool hologram element, of course): “New Dimensions in Testimony will yield insights into the experiences of survivors through a new set of interview questions, some that survivors are asked on a regular basis, plus many of which have not been asked before.” (italics mine)

Hopefully they can get this project done quickly while the remaining survivors are still lucid enough to answer these new questions with some degree of clarity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. But I must say, I trust these guys at USC. They seem to know what they’re doing.

I’m more interested in the “holy-hologram-wow” factor, but for those of you interested in the techie stuff, the aforementioned CNET article goes into greater detail and includes relevant links.

What do you think about Holocaust holograms? Creepy? Brilliant? Not sure? Do you foresee potential problems or glitches? Do you think kids will be freaked out by this or intrigued? Please, do tell.

Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.’”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

Beate Sirota Gordon; via The Forward

Beate Sirota Gordon (photo via The Forward)

I love learning about unsung heroes. Especially when they’re women. And Jewish.

Meet Beate Sirota Gordon (pronounced bay-AH-tay). Born in 1923 to Russian Jews who had settled in Vienna, Ms. Gordon lived in Japan from ages 5 to 15; her father, a world-renowned concert pianist, had been courted by the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. In 1939, just before her 16th birthday, she moved to California to study at Mills College; her parents remained in Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she was unable to reach them and had no idea if they were even alive.

Using her skills (fluent in English, German, Japanese, French, Spanish and Russian) and smarts (convinced her professors to let her take her exams without attending classes and secured a job at a U.S. government listening post monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo), she slowly but surely figured out how to discover their fate.  As reported by New York Times obituary writer extraordinaire Margalit Fox (now that’s a job I truly envy), Ms. Gordon “later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.”

Beate Sirota Gordon in 2011; photo: Stephan Babuljak

Beate Sirota Gordon at 2011 Commencement;   Credit: Stephan Babuljak

By the war’s end, she’d graduated from college and had become a U.S. citizen, but she still had no word of her parents. At this time American civilians were not welcome in Japan. By securing a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff in Washington, D.C., Ms. Gordon eventually made her way to Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, where she promptly discovered the depth of the city’s devastation. She went straight to her parents’ house and found a mere charred pillar.

She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were severely malnourished. She nursed them back to health in Tokyo while working for General MacArthur.

The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was to draft a post-war constitution for Japan, a top-secret assignment that had to be completed in one-week’s time. As the lone woman on the committee, Ms. Gordon was assigned the section on women’s rights. She was 22 years old.

“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’ Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

Among the rights granted as penned by Ms. Gordon were “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” The constitution went into effect in 1947.

She didn’t mention her role in Japan’s constitution until the mid-1980s. Her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, which came out in 1995, made her a celebrity in Japan. There is also a documentary about her life, “The Gift From Beate.”

Although there must be other stories out there of Jews in Japan during and after WWII, this is the first I’ve read about. If you know of others please send them my way.

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