tv Escaping the Holocaust CSPAN July 11, 2021 9:16am-10:00am EDT
that have shaped the american story. find a set c-span history -- find us at c-span history. >> watch book tv now on sundays on c-span 2. it is television for serious readers. >> next, hear a personal remembrance about escaping the holocaust. civil rights attorney fred great will discuss his work with rosa parks. find more information on your program guide or at c-span.org/history. edna: good morning. thank you for joining us for another episode. i am your host, historian edna friedberg. during each program, we explore an aspect of holocaust history and its relevance to our world today.
this month, as we commemorate asian american and pacific islander heritage month, we do so at a time while witnessing a disturbing rise in hate speech and violence against asian americans, individuals and communities. although japan was not see germany -- nazi germany's ally in world war ii, we will highlight a diplomat that defied that alliance. we will also recognize the sacrifice made by many japanese-americans who despite being vilified in the u.s. joined the american military and helped to free juice from -- jews from nazi persecution. i am honored to be joined by leo melamed, who survived the holocaust through actions of chiune sugihara. he is founder of financial futures. he is the initiator of globex
and he recently published a book of memoirs and what she has several chapters devoted to the heroism and gratitude he feels to chiune sugihara. good morning, leo. i am so glad to see you in chicago. leo: i am delighted to participate. edna: in developing today show, we were fortunate to meet chiune sugihara's youngest son and we look forward to sharing with you some of his reflections about his father's motivations, and the impact of his actions during the war. during today show, please send your questions by posting them in the comments section and we will get to as many of them live as we are able. leo, let's begin at the beginning. when you were a young boy living in poland under the 1930's. adorable picture. where were you born? what was like life?
leo: the second largest city in poland and had a very large population of jews, over 100,000. life was very normal outside of the fact that they were occasional that happened throughout poland. my parents were both schoolteachers and my father was a mathematician. he was a civic leader. the only jew that was elected to the city council. that is very important because it served to give him a chance to escape with his life and me and my mother. here we are. this is life normal in poland. it is a big city and winters
were harsh in poland. that is me bundled up with my parents, as normal as can be. that is a very nice picture of my kindergarten class. you can see how the kids were very normal kids and all of us gathered for the picture. edna: how was that life shattered? how did it change after germany invaded poland in september of 1939? leo: it was an extreme, radical change, of course. the essence was that my father being on the city council was called in by the mayor and they
gathered in the great synagogue because the city hall had been bombed out. the mayor said to the councilmembers that it is likely that they would all be hostages because they are prominent in the city and he advised them they had to leave or should leave. he rented a truck to take them not with their families, they could not do that, but they could do the 20 or so councilmembers and give them safety for a while. nobody knew where they were going and that was on purpose so that we could not divulge it because we did not note. -- did not know. it was a harrowing experience. my mother woke me in the middle
of the night and took me to say goodbye to my father during a night when bombs were falling and flashes of light and a constant sound of a machine gun and we ran to the darkness to an empty lot where everyone had gathered with their family to say goodbye. the lonely truck sitting there. i closed my eyes and i remember that entire scene. it was harrowing. it began the escape for my father, which, of course, saved me and my mother eventually. edna: i want to take a moment to greet and welcome our international viewers. thank you for joining us from around the world in nicaragua, brazil, germany, and two viewers watching from poland.
i know that your father escaped to the city in vote -- lithuania and you and your mother soon followed him. the three of you were among 15,000 estimated jews who found safe haven there but it was not long lived. soviet forces invaded. how did this affect your father? in relation to his outspoken political views? leo: my father, who was a brilliant man, was a very strong member of jewish socialists, anti-communist, anti-stalin, and he was on a list for arrest or could have been on a list.
nkdb was the precursor to the kgb. once the russians came back to capture, he did not return. he was not happy with the russians. he called my mother and -- on a telephone that our neighbor had, we did not have a telephone, and told her to grab me and some stuff and take the last train before the borders closed. she did that and we said our goodbyes. we did not know whether that would be for a week, two weeks, or whatever. it turned out to be forever. we did know it -- did not know it at the time. my mother and i spent a
difficult pre-ride and it would stop off and everybody would run out for fear of bombings and there would be a whistle that would blow and we would all come back on the train. anyway, we made it and lived under lithuanian rule for a bit until the nonaggression treaty between hitler's and stalin was broken and at that point, poland was divided partly to the nazis and partly to the russians, and in the process, russia overtook lithuanian. we found ourselves in russian rule, which was not good for my father. he often hid in the forests
nearby. he would visit us from time to time. it was a very difficult life. i, of course, was in school because that is what schoolteachers do, they put their children in school. my parents were concerned that my education was lacking. i could not go to class. they did enroll me and i was beginning to learn lithuanian at first and when the russians came in, that change to russian. i started to learn russian. that lasted for almost a full year with a very difficult time for both parents and myself. edna: let's take a moment to welcome our viewers watching from across the u.s.. good morning to you from chicago, santa fe, lexington, phoenix, and happy to see our friends from the georgia
commission on the holocaust. when did your father encounter japanese diplomats chiune sugihara? leo: my father never wanted to get back anyway because he held the communists in such a horrible -- the idea of leaving the russian rule was one of the main forces for him. of course, everyone understood that the nazis were only months away from perhaps capturing. a rumor had it that the japanese counsel general in lithuania, the capital of lithuania, would
possibly give transit visa to the jews that wanted to leave russian rule and the fear of nazi occupation. and so, he along with thousands of others, -- these are the very few that manage to get out of the horror that was to follow in the holocaust. it was sugihara's bravery as a diplomat to deny the orders of his government because they did not want him to issue these transit visas. if anyone understands what a transit visa is, they have seen the movie casablanca and if they have not, i urge you to see it. it is the only hope you have of
escaping from where you are an uncertain death. sugihara gave out over 2000 visas and those 2000 represented a lot more because the visa represented the family, so to speak. my mother and father had one visa and we ended up getting out. much harder and more difficult was the fact that you needed permission from the russian foreign office to leave and when you apply for permission to leave russia, it was considered dangerous because then you are saying that you did not want to stay in the paradise that russia represented. it was dangerous for us to
apply. fate would have it, we did receive permission to leave and eventually took a train to moscow and from moscow, the very famous siberian express to the port on the far eastern russian port, and that train ride through siberia's when i will never, never forget -- is one i will never forget because it was over two weeks. edna: some viewers may be surprised to know that representative from japan, that he would be willing to help people who were being targeted by an ally of his government. we had an opportunity to speak with chiune sugihara's youngest son. let's hear him explain why his father acted to help so many
comment, a woman from pamela writes to say my dad and uncle also received visas from sugihara and traveled the same route to freedom and safety. over 2700 polish jews were admitted to japan between july 1940 and june 1941 thanks to the actions of sugihara. after this journey on the trans-siberian train and a difficult three days on the sea of japan, could you describe your arrival to japan for us? leo: compared to the horror of going through siberian winter for over two weeks and ending up on a little boat, it was an unbelievable experience because the people welcomed us and were extremely friendly, offering
flowers and fruit. my mother whispered to me that it was the first time in the last two years that she could breathe freely and let go of my hand, which she claims she held onto for two years. it was a moment that, of course, you never forget. you don't forget the friendship, the japanese evidenced -- people evidenced to all of us, who were desperate and escaping the horrors going on in europe. it is something that you never forget. the heroism of sugihara to defy his government's an issue visas as his son -- i met the brother
many years later in tokyo. he told me many stories about his father and he devoted his life to the memory of sugihara. i joined that effort and promised him i would do everything i could to memorialize the memory of this great hero. edna: you ended up in the japanese city. leo: it was the cheapest place to live and we did not have any money. if not for the joint effort of the committee, it would have been impossible. what you are viewing is a crayon box because my parents, again, made me interschool because we did not know how long -- made me
enter school because we did not know how long we would be there. it is the only evidence i have of going to the japanese school. i have forgotten the language sense. s --ince. it was a different experience than the one in russia because we were at least free for the moment and not in danger of death and whatever can happen. to the jews in europe. edna: we are grateful to you for donating your wooden crayon box to us. we feel very honored to be the safe keepers of that artifact and what it represents. the organization that you mentioned that provided financial support to your family, the american jewish joint distribution committee, an organization that still exists today. we do not have images of you and your parents in japan at the
time, we do have some photographs of some of the other jewish refugees who were able to survive thanks to the transit visas issued by chiune sugihara. including these photos from kobe. students at higher learning institutions of jewish study. we mentioned transit visas. in transit, you are supposed to be passing through. sugihara issued these. they were supposed to be for a 10 day stay in japan. people found themselves there for a long period of time. how long were you and your parents in japan? leo: we were there for over four months. my parents applied to many countries. everybody wanted to go to the u.s. as the first choice, of course. they applied everywhere you
could because you knew you would have to leave japan. many ended up in australia or canada. the bulk of them ended up in shanghai and had to live through the war that was coming in a difficult period of time for them. very few, just a couple of hundred got permission to come into the united states. we were on that list and the reason for that is because the afl, the american labor unions all gave a list of endangered people to the state department in the u.s. and that list contained 100 names of people that were in the labor movement.
our name was on the list. it is because of that that the state department advised the ambassador in japan in tokyo to give us passage and let us leave and go to the united states. enormously lucky. my father was just unbelievably brilliant in getting us to safety. edna: once again, good fortune found you and your parents. i want to give a special greeting to our mutual friend dan brumberg watching in washington, d.c., whose father and grandparents, also jewish socialists, were some of your travel companions. we have a question from the audience. a woman named carrie asked, did your mom tell you what was going on in the world and the severity of the situation? did you have any awareness?
leo: we did. of course, they understood. nobody really understood the holocaust except those people that were unfortunate enough to be trapped. you could not imagine that the same society would go about actually killing an entire nation. it is not something that is easily understood. my parents knew the horror but we could never understand the fullness of that atrocity. as far as my family is concerned, when the germans returned, they took 2000 jews from our neighborhood and under gunpoint, put them into the
great big synagogue. they locked the doors and windows, host down the walls with gasoline, and set the entire building on fire. that is what it looked like before it was ruined. today, there is some iron from the building left. 2000 jews burned to death, including my entire family when the nazis returned. edna: horrific crime that included both of your grandmother's, aunts, cousins. leo: everyone we had perished that day. edna: to give people a sense of proportion and how lucky you were to encounter sugihara, 2700
polish jews found safe haven in japan. there were 3 million jews living in poland at the outbreak of the war. only 532 were able to sail to the u.s. i understand that rafael lim can who coined the term genocide was on the ship with you and your parents. leo: i was a child. i was eight years old and did not get to know rafael. he knew my parents because we were on the ship for over 10 days. it took us from japan to seattle, washington. he became a lawyer for the u.n. he was a lawyer in europe, too. he coined the phrase genocide to describe what happened to the
jews in europe and that word is in the lexicon of the world today. it was limken who put that together. edna: we did a program about him a few weeks ago. we will post a link to that in the comments. soon after you and your parents arrive to america, several months later on december 7, 1941, the japanese attacked the u.s. naval base in pearl harbor, hawaii, setting off for in the pacific. you were still a young boy. what awareness did you have of the impact on japanese americans at the time? leo: it was very difficult to understand. i was nine years old. i knew quite a bit, having experienced what i did. i could not understand how the people who seemed so civil and
friendly to us could attack the united states. i realized there was a big difference between population and the government seemingly. i never understood that. i grew up as an american patriot . it was a difficult to understand why the japanese did this and why our government did what it did. life is full of mysteries, and that was one of them. edna: when you mention when they interned them, an executive order that roosevelt signed in 1942 that led to the forcible relocation not only of japanese immigrants to the u.s. but also of american citizens of japanese descent. about 120,000 people were forced from their homes into these so-called relocation centers.
they were made to sell their businesses, homes, and they were vilified and treated as enemy aliens. their country was turning against them, more than 33,000 japanese americans served in the military during world war ii and i would like to remind our viewers that the american army was segregated at the time. both african-american soldiers and japanese american soldiers served in segregated units. the photo we just saw was of the 442nd regimental combat team in france in 1944. we have an audience comment, a viewer named vicki notes the motto was go for broke. they had a lot to prove. among the soldiers was a young man named clarence. he was born in wyoming. he was born to japanese immigrant parents. his family had been forced into a relocation camp in wyoming.
he was among the members of the 552nd field artillery battalion, which was a segregated unit made up of second-generation japanese americans. it became one of the most decorated units in american history. why am i telling you this? the two stories intersect. in may 1945, clarence's unit was in germany, part of liberating forces. when they came along people lying across the road side, prisoners who had collapsed after a so-called death march. as clarence recalled, these people look like skin and bones, many unconscious. among those who clarence encountered was a teenager. we have a photo from after the war. like leo, his family was lucky to get transit visas to japan.
unfortunately, the lithuanian passports were deemed invalid and the soviets would not permit them to leave. although they had the chance of this life-saving document, instead, they were imprisoned for a long period of time in lithuania under horrible conditions. there were mass shootings, starvation, disease. he was deported to a concentration camp and later to the dock out -- dacow. we will that many years later, decades later, clarence was reunited here at a gathering that commemorated the liberation. two young men whose trajectories
were changed because of who they were, because of racist ideologies. they found each other that way. we have an audience question coming in and i think we will get to it now. it is about why it took so long for sugihara to be recognized for what he did. a viewer named telling is asking -- helene is asking. any thoughts on that, leo? leo: it did take a long time, actually. the war was one reason. years later, i met the oldest of the sons in the embassy at the time. i met him in tokyo. we became very close friends. he told me many things about the bravery of his father and how
difficult it was for people to understand that his father was quite the hero he was and we both took the oath. he don't of faded -- he devoted his life to memorialize his father. my office in chicago became a mecca for any of the sugihara family members as well as officials from tokyo. today, japan is our strongest ally in the far east. we get many visitors from japan. i did my part, as i promised him. i promised him to devote myself to the memory of that. of course, i did, and continue to do.
1986, labeled sugihara's act as one of the righteous of the world. in doing that, sugihara became very famous for his great deed of humanity as did the u.s. holocaust museum memorialize him as well so that the work of many of us resulted in the world understanding what the great deed was. he is known as the japanese schindler because of what schindler's action was. sugihara he saved many more than schindler did. edna: another part has to do with the actual arc of his own
life. he was translate -- he was transferred to other cities in europe. he did not reveal the list of people to whom he had issued visas until february of 1941, i believe, so their identities cannot be traced. after the war, he and his family were put in a soviet internment camp. he did not realize that anyone had survived until the late 1960's. the story was not completely clear to sugihara in the immediate aftermath of the war. we have another question. a woman named debbie is saying that since japan was a nazi german ally, what did they think of a japanese diplomat helping jews? he was given instruction not to issue these transit visas but
did so anyway because of his conscience. could you also talk about the more recent japanese governments and your involvement with them and the recognition of sugihara posthumously? leo: in time, many would recognize the heroism of chiune sugihara. i took it upon myself to do as i said whatever i could, and so did many other survivors. i was not alone in that effort. this is a picture of the prime minister of japan. on my left is marsha bernstein. she also survived through a sugihara transit visa. the prime minister came to pay respect at the holocaust museum in light a candle in memory of
sugihara. the name of sugihara eventually in japan was understood by everybody to have been an extraordinary hero who defied government orders because his view of humanity was such that what was happening in europe and the danger we all had was wrong. wrong is too mild a word. he took it upon himself to do what he thought was right in saving these people, 2000 or so people from certain death. once the nazis captured the city, the jews there were annihilated almost in its entirety. edna: we can never know with any
precision exactly how many lives have been made possible because of the bravery, because of the actions of sugihara. it is not only the people who were direct beneficiaries but all of their descendants leo, you yourself have been very fortunate to have three children, five grandchildren. multiply that by thousands and thousands of people and their families. we would also like to give a special greeting to -- we are so grateful to you and to your father. in sharing his father's story, he has met hundreds of holocaust survivors and their descendants who are alive only thanks to his father. let's hear him describe the impact that meeting the survivors has had on him. >> i met so many survivors. so many survivors.
edna: it is absolutely incredible. we have many audience comments and we will share some of these with the later. -- with you later. sugihara visas saved family members directly or thanking him for his bravery. stephen writes that he has heard the sugihara before but it is wonderful to hear it first hand. i agree. i want to ask you a question about today and how the story affects us today. we are witnessing rising
discrimination, violence, vilification against asian americans here in the u.s. earlier this week, i was in new york city, chinatown, and i was disturbed to see there were civilian groups patrolling to protect against racist attacks. it made me really sad but it was necessary. in your view, what lessons can we apply from this history and how can it help us to prevent that attitude from continuing to escalate? leo: it is difficult to erase racism and it continues to be evidenced throughout the world. the one thing with -- that sugihara taught the world is one man can make a difference. each of us can make that difference like he did or in similar fashion or in any way to stand up against racism and bigotry. try to erase it and stamp it out
wherever it occurs. it is very serious and difficult for the people who suffer this racism, like in the case of asians and jews with anti-semitism prevalent throughout the world. these are the kinds of things that sugihara stands above everybody in showing how one individual can stand up to racism and do something about it. he saved thousands and today, hundreds of thousands of lives as a result of standing up. every person in the world can do something about it. he showed us how. he is a great humanitarian. edna: thank you so much for joining us today not only to share your story of survival but to share and make contagious your commitment to preserving and shining a light on this
legacy. it really means a lot. thank you. leo: thank you. edna: whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved an entire world. chiune sugihara offered lifesaving escape to innocent civilians who were targeted for destruction. his ingenuity, compassion live on in the many thousands of descendants who would never have been born for not for his heroism. we are honored to pay tribute to him today. resistance comes in many forms. in the case of sugihara, a simple piece of paper meant the difference between life and death. today, we learned and honored japanese-americans who refuse to allow racist discrimination to define them. as president truman later described the soldiers, they fought not only the enemy but they fought prejudice and they won. may we all be inspired to fight and stand up to hate whenever we see it.
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