July 20, 2019
Already we have seen so many difficult places. Memorials, museums in former synagogues, monuments, mass graves…As important as each of these places are, it does not make it easier to digest what happened there. We all know what we signed up for and we are all overjoyed to have this experience, as emotional as it is. We cannot un-see the things we have seen and we cannot not listen to the stories we are being told. We don’t want to un-see or cover our ears. Each one of us realizes the importance of these incredible stories; each of them unique, tragic and heartbreaking. If anything, we appreciate this history more. We appreciate kindness more. We appreciate our survivors, their families and their experiences more.
With all of this tragedy, I always want students to know that there were people who helped Jews and targeted people. It was dangerous and it risked many lives, but there were people who helped. Not only that, but I want students to know that they have the power to stand up and help someone in need, even if society tells them they cannot. The heroes of the Holocaust often did so in complete secrecy with no recognition of what they did or who they helped for many decades. Even today there are stories coming to the surface for the first time of people who resisted and helped others.
We were fortunate enough to visit a place known to have helped thousands of Jews. In Kaunas, Chiune Sugihara, a vice consul of the Japanese Consulate, was denied permission to issue large amounts of transit visas which would allow the holders safe transit to Japan. Knowing how many Jews were in need of escape, Sugihara issued them anyway throughout the summer of 1940. Working with a Dutch diplomat to secure entry into Curaçao and making deals with the Soviets to arrange for Jews to leave the region via the Trans-Siberian Railway, Sugihara issued about 1600 transit visas. These were issued to heads of families, allowing for an entire family to travel on one visa. While total numbers are not exact, it is estimated that about 6000 Jews arrived safely in Japan in 1940. (*Note: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states that Sugihara “issued visas to 2,140 persons” by the time he was transferred from him post in Lithuania, though not everyone who had a visa in hand was able to leave the country. As I mentioned, numbers change depending on the source and they are not always known exactly. Perhaps the 1600 we were given is in regards to the number of people with visas who were able to leave Lithuania…)
Regardless of the exactness of numbers, Chuine Sugihara disregarded his orders and issued visas to people in need. Some stories seem to have been romanticized and his family has come forward to set the record straight of what he did and did not do. However, it seems that he continued handwriting visas on his way to the train station as he was leaving his post in Kaunas. It was wonderful to visit the former Japanese Consulate and to see where refugees lined up outside the building looking for help. The circumstances of course remind us of how dire the situation was in Lithuania at the time. But knowing the risk he took to save lives brings our faith in humanity back to the forefront.
In Bialystok we visited a horrible site. The great Synagogue, the site of yet another massacre. But also a site where one person risked their life to save others. A similar story from that of Jedwabne: Jews rounded up from their homes, businesses and off the street, locked in the synagogue, set aflame. A Polish caretaker, Józef Bartoszko, opened a back window (some say it was the coal shoot), shouted into the burning synagogue for people to follow him out, and left to get his family out of the city. About a dozen people escaped the burning structure. It is estimated that, altogether, 2000-3000 Jews were killed in Bialystok that day.
There are countless stories of people who attempted to save others. Many survivors admit they were saved by someone, sometimes never knowing who the person was or why they took the risk to help them. Many of these people will never be recognized for their courage. The world as I see it now, we need more selfless, courageous people willing to help others in need. I wish I could be that person and I hope, if I am ever faced with that choice, that I can find that strength to help someone. Resistance does not always mean taking up arms or violence. It can be perfectly silent. It can be where no one can see it. Resistance can go undetected for decades but it can save lives. Thank you to those who took those risks. They inspire me, they inspire our students and we draw strength from their example.