Who is a hero? – Happy Passover Message From Jaffe Strategies

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A personal message from Sarah

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My grandfather David Lew and my daughter Leah

Dear all,

I just wanted to share some thoughts as we enter the exciting holiday of Passover when the nation of Israel underwent national redemption from slavery & tyranny in ancient Egypt. Its a compilation of thoughts based on an incredible personal experience that I was privileged to enjoy last week.

Who is a hero? Someone with superpowers? A valiant bystander who takes action? A standout soldier? According to Webster’s dictionary, a hero is “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities”. To me, a hero is someone who at a specific moment in time, acts above and beyond what is expected of him or her in order to help someone else. His action may be short lived; it may be a lone bright light in a sea of darkness. But the impact a hero makes in a fleeting moment, may last for generations.

My grandfather, David Lew was 14 years old when his father, Rabbi Shmuel Lew, sent him over the border to the Russian side of Vilna, Lithuania. This was the day before the border crossing was sealed. My great-grandfather recognized the impending evil closing in on their small town of Krynki, Poland, as the Nazis invaded and he realized what needed to be done. His action, heroic in its own right since he knew it would likely be the last time he would ever see his only son, saved my grandfather’s life. Two years later, Rabbi Shmuel Lew took his last act of heroism. Defying Nazi orders, he was committed to fulfilling the commandment to eat unleavened bread for Passover and on the holiday’s eve, he baked Matzah for his community. He was shot and murdered because of his Jewish faith. This article is written in his memory and the rest of the Lew family that was killed in the Holocaust, including my great-grandmother Miriam and my grandfather’s siblings Aidel, Devora and Sarah HY”D (for whom I am named).

Fast forward to 2018 – I am living with my family in Israel, having made Aliyah 13 years ago. I work as a licensed tour guide for the Ministry of Tourism. I am often asked to help out friends and family with travel related questions when they are in Israel. It is always a pleasure to assist people who are visiting this beautiful and amazing country. This time a close neighbor, David Leichner requested help to find an English-speaking van driver for business colleagues coming from Japan. Thanks to our Anglo-Israeli tour guiding group I was able to send David some names of recommended drivers.

When he came over to thank me later in the week, David mentioned that one of his guests is a pseudo-celebrity in Israel. His name is Nobuki Sugihara. All of a sudden I felt my entire family’s history swirl before my eyes as I heard the name: Sugihara. Could it be the same family? Could this person be related to Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul who provided 6,000 visas to desperate Jews in 1940 as they crossed the border into Russian controlled Lithuania, escaping the Nazi terror behind them? The only way for them to save themselves was by receiving exit visas to somewhere, anywhere in the world. Defying orders from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Chiune Sugihara spent a month an half, from mid- July to September 4th, 1940, when the consulate was permanently closed, issuing exit visas for desperate refugees. The endpoint of the visa was China which was under Japanese jurisdiction at that time. Sugihara spent his final days in office with his wife, stamping anything resembling a visa. For 72 consecutive hours, he did all he could to assure safe exit for as many Jews as possible, even signing empty notes as forgeries. Many of the refugees traveled from Vladivostok across the Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan and ultimately China. He is the only Japanese national to receive the highest level of recognition from Yad Vashem: a Righteous among the Nations.

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Nobuki Sugihara, my daughter Leah and I

When he returned home to Japan in 1947, he was “politely” removed from his foreign ministry position and had to live for years working in menial jobs. He finally ended up in Russia as a salesman aiming to send back money to his family in Japan.

Chiune Sugihara is the definition of a true hero. He acted when and where so many others failed to. He acted with principle, following basic human morals and ultimately, he saved thousands of lives. He was a beacon in the great abyss of the Holocaust and then somehow disappeared into obscurity until a Sugihara survivor located Chiune and his family in 1968, and brought his story to light.

From those 6000 visas there are over 50,000 descendants today. One of those families with 58 members in it is my grandfather’s. My grandfather was able to obtain a Sugihara visa with the help of his sister and made it to China where he remained for the rest of the War. We grew up on the stories of miracles that occurred to him along the way, obtaining the visa was just the first of many. In Shanghai he survived- a self described “Aladdin” or “street rat” for 4 years. He later met my grandmother over a Shabbat dinner in Shanghai. My mother was born while they were waiting for a legal visa to the US that eventually arrived in 1948.

Therefore, when my neighbor mentioned the name Sugihara- I felt compelled to send a message of thanks. I explained my personal connection to his family and requested of David to please convey our deepest appreciation to Mr. Sugihara for his father’s brave actions.

The next day, as I was beginning my own Passover preparations, 76 years after my great- grandfather was murdered while performing his, I received a phone call from my neighbor: “Would I like to say Hi?” He put Mr. Sugihara on the phone and to my surprise, I was speechless. I tried to stammer out a “Thank you” but how does that suffice? How do you thank the son of the man who made your life possible? After a minute the line went dead and the connection was lost. I thought that was my one opportunity and I blew it. But then David introduced us by email and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I sent a longer mail detailing the family history and asked if there was any chance we could meet while Mr. Sugihara was in Israel. Later that evening, I received a reply email that he would be pleased to meet at 9 am at Yad Vashem. How apropo that we would meet at the place commemorating the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust and where the handful Righteous among the Nations are celebrated.

But I couldn’t fall asleep though it was quite late at night. It was too unbelievable, too special of an opportunity. I sent out a family Whatsapp message explaining the chance meeting and asked for pictures. And they came pouring in. Each member of my family: parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins sent in photos of themselves and with my grandfather. For the next 4 hours I put together a scrapbook of my grandfather’s life and legacy – his family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even 1 great-great-grandchild. From his marriage to my grandmother, my mother’s wedding, each of his children’s families and pictures of my grandfather in action with his kids and grandkids. My beloved grandfather was a man with a love for life. He lived each minute to the fullest. He had only the deepest appreciation for all the good that was done to him and never was sad or depressed about all that he had lost. “Look forward, not back”, “Never be a Monday morning quarterback” he would always say (soccer was his favorite game but US football came in a close second). And most importantly, he said to always vote. My grandfather always appreciated the freedom he had in America and felt it was his duty to use his voice by voting. He even formed his own pro-Israel PAC and remained active to exercise all the freedoms he was fortunate to enjoy.

But I digress.

I set out early in the morning to Jerusalem with my 12th grader Leah, who visited the concentration camps in Poland this past summer. (What a privilege to be able to go to Jerusalem at any time that I want!) The Start-Up Nation is in full swing in Jerusalem as the entrance is being expanded to accommodate the bullet train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Traffic is a nightmare. We pulled in at 8:45 and came to the entrance of Yad Vashem, exactly as a group of Japanese visitors were arriving. I hesitantly introduced ourselves to Mr. Sugihara, not wanting to intrude more than a few minutes before their 9 AM scheduled visit to Yad Vashem. Mr. Sugihara immediately welcomed us in his quiet, unassuming and dignified way. He introduced us to his colleagues and his wife. I quickly explained who I was and why I was there. Then I showed Mr. and Mrs.Sugihara my grandfather’s lifebook. I explained that the Jewish sages teach, “Saving one life is like saving the entire world”. His father saved my grandfather’s life and the whole world of my family was thus created. I enthusiastically invited him to visit his “extended family”- us, anytime he visited Israel and again thanked him profusely.

In five minutes, they were on their way to the forest of the Righteous among the Nations and I was on my way, fighting Jerusalem traffic again, driving Leah to school. But the immense feelings of gratitude to the Sugihara family and to G-d have remained with me to this day.

Later that evening, I received this message from the Sugiharas:

Thank you very much for the meeting this morning.

The beautiful album you gave us must have made my father so happy, with 58 descendants from one person.

We thank you that you kept growing your precious family.

Best wishes,

Esin and Nobuki Sugihara

May we all be privileged to appreciate our freedoms and may we cherish our place in the world. I pray that examples of true heroism continue to shine their light upon the nations.

With best wishes during this Passover holiday,
from Sarah

and Ruthie & the team at Jaffe Strategies

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