Archives for category: Music
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:


David Draiman, lead singer of Disturbed

Rich Cohen is going to have to add this guy to his list of Tough Jews.

No, he’s not a 1930s Jewish gangster, he’s 21st century rock star David Draiman, the gravel-voiced lead singer of popular heavy-metal band Disturbed. And he comes by his musical talent honestly:

The person that they say I get my voice from was my great-grandfather who was the head cantor of the Gerrer Hasidische bes medresh in Jerusalem. I basically spent 17 years studying the Talmud and the Tanach, and Judaism in general, and was probably about, I would say, two or three years away from smicha, from being ordained.”

A piece in The Jerusalem Post last year describes him as, “one of the few high-profile hard rock singers who are defiantly Jewish – imagine a young Ozzy Osbourne as the spokesman for the Jewish Defense League.”

When asked how he deals with the inevitable skinhead fans of Disturbed, he replies,

I’m incredibly defiant against neo-Nazis and skinheads…I’ve always been very proud of my heritage and where I come from, and I’ve defended it to the extent of being bloodied on many occasions. In fact, most of the fights I’ve [had] in my life – and there have been many – have been because I was defending my family or my faith. And I don’t apologize for it.”

All I can say is this guy is one bad-ass Jew. Glad he’s on my side.

Let me leave you with this little gem from his podcast with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

I think I do enough good as an individual in terms of setting tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people free and making them feel stronger than they did when they came in the building, on a relatively nightly basis. So, there you go. That’s God’s work.”


Several months ago I wrote about Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She’s still alive and presumably tickling the ivories, but she’s also another year older. Tomorrow, November 26, she will be 108 years old.


According to this article on, Alice swam daily until age 97, still plays piano daily, and is an eternal optimist (How could she not be? Imagine living that long with a sour disposition? Doesn’t seem possible…). Hope I’m half as spry at half her age.

The video above is one of many that were done in April 2008. There’s a total of 12 clips; here’s a link to all of them.

Leeds College of Music in West Yorkshire, England, is launching a Terezin Music Hub in February 2012. According to a press release from Leeds, “The Hub will aim to provide a focal point in the UK for the study of music and musicians interned at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp during WWII, through creative practice, research and collaboration. It will also encompass related disciplines, including music during the Holocaust in particular and creativity in adversity in general.”

When I first heard about this I was a little disturbed. Something about it sounded off to me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I realized it was the wording of it in the Yorkshire Evening Post:

“The college is aiming to become a world centre for the study and promotion of music during the Holocaust, as well as creativity in adversity in general.”

Seeing the word ‘promotion’ coupled with ‘Holocaust’ was a bit too crass for me. But I wanted to know more so I looked in other places, most importantly straight from the source—Leeds College—and discovered it’s actually a wonderful idea that is going to enhance the future of the study of music. Especially studying the idea of creativity during adversity.

The Hub will kick off at an international conference at Leeds on February 26 and 27, 2012. The Ambassador to the Czech Republic (where Terezin was located) has agreed to be the Hub’s Honorary Patron (whatever that means). The conference will commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Eliska Kleinova, sister of composer and pianist Gideon Klein, who played a seminal role in Terezin’s cultural life. Gideon was murdered in Auschwitz; his sister survived Terezin and Auschwitz and died in 1999. Professor Eliska Kleinova was a highly respected musician based in Prague.

The focus of the conference will be on musical performance and composition in Terezin. Klein’s Piano Sonata, which he wrote and dedicated to his sister, will be performed.

I’ve written before about a woman who survived by playing piano in the orchestra at Terezin. Her name is Alice Herz-Sommer and at 107 she’s the oldest living Holocaust survivor today.