Museum Fellowship Book Reviews

 
 

book cover used by permission of Scholastic PressA Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust
Allison Leslie Gold
New York: Scholastic Press, 2000

Reviewed by:
Pamela Blevins

Brink Junior High
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

 
 

A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who was directly responsible for saving thousands of Jews during World War II. Written especially for late elementary and junior high students, this edition of the book was published by Scholastic Books and made available to students through their TAB Book Club.

The author, Alison Leslie Gold, takes the reader into the life of Chiune Sughiara to show younger students that there were individuals during World War II who were compassionate. These people followed their beliefs despite tremendous opposition and the threat of harm to themselves and their families. Although this book deals with a very dark period of world history, it remains upbeat and hopeful. Alison Gold used interviews with the Sugihara family and with Solly Ganor whose family received a visa from Chiune. Materials from the Simon Wisenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provided background information for the book.

A Special Fate traces the life of Chiune Sughiara from his birth on January 1, 1900, to his death on July 30, 1986. From the beginning, Chiune's family believed he was destined to do something special with his life. Never did they dream he would come to save thousands of lives. Chiune was taught, as all other Japanese children, "to not be a burden to others, to take care of others, and not to expect rewards for his goodness." He often wondered how he would live up to these words. His father wanted him to become a doctor. When Chiune told his father he desired to be a teacher instead, his father was furious and refused to pay for his education. Unable to find funding for his teacher's education, Chiune took a subsidy to study for a diplomatic career and travel abroad. Thus, Chiune became a diplomat by default.

His career took off quietly as he studied Russian, English, Chinese, French, and German. During a stay in Tokyo, he met Yukiko who was to become his wife. She was not the traditional Japanese wife, although she could act the part if needed. She became his confidant and main supporter. They had two children by the time World War II started. Chiune could never have accomplished all he did without the backing of Yukiko.

While stationed in Kuanas (Kovno), Lithuania, Chiune became aware of what the Germans were doing to Jews and other unfortunate people. Since his country was an ally of Germany, Chiune could do little to help. During a Chanukah celebration, another guest, Mr. Rosenblat, told of his escape from Poland and of the mistreatment of the Jews. He asked Chiune to get him a visa out of the country. Chiune was doubtful his country would allow him to help; but he agreed to see Mr. Rosenblat the next day. Unfortunately, Mr. Rosenblat did not show up for the meeting. Gradually, Chiune came to see that Jews should leave and gently warned his Jewish friends to leave if they could. Many did not or could not.

When their third son was born in Kovno, Chiune wanted to send his family back to Japan. His wife refused. She and the children would remain with Chiune until his return to Japan. She was his wife for better or worse and would remain at his side.

On July 27, 1940, Chiune awoke to find his consulate besieged by Jews wanting visas to leave Lithuania by way of Japan. More than one hundred people surrounded the consulate wanting help. Many were filthy and agitated, but quite respectful of the consulate. Chiune anguished about this, knowing these people needed help and aware that his country would probably refuse him permission to help. After meeting with a committee, he agreed to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan, the Japanese Ambassador in nearby Latvia, and the Japanese ambassador in Germany for permission to issue great numbers of visas. At this time, the Soviet government also told him that his consulate was to be closed in August. He brazenly asked for an extension and was granted two months. Before cabling the ministry, he asked Yukiko for her thoughts. She told him that if he could help, he should.

The answer from Japan was not what Chiune wished it might be. He could issue visas to anyone who had an exit visa from Japan to another country. This helped some; but did not help others. The answers from the other two were decisively negative. Chiune remembered his lessons from childhood and, with Yukiko's blessing, decided to issue visas in defiance of his Foreign Ministry and under his own authority.

Until his consulate was finally closed, Chiune issued visas in defiance of his own Foreign Ministry. He did not know if they would indeed be honored when they were used, or not. He only knew he had to try. He worked day and night handwriting these visas. He issued over 2,193 official visas. Since these visas were for individuals, groups and families, there is no way of knowing how many people these visas represent. Also unknown is the exact number of visas he wrote since no record was kept once the consulate closed. He wrote visas until he could write no longer and he and his family had to get to the train. As a last act, he dropped a handful of diplomatic papers off the train as they left, hoping it would be used for forged documents.

Chiune was lucky, in a way, since he did not pay with his life. However, the hardships he and his family endured led to the death of his youngest son. He was returned to Japan, never to go into diplomatic service again. He and Yukiko had no idea how many, if any, people were saved by the visas. They only knew they could have done nothing else.

Eventually, Yad Vashem in Israel honored Chiune with the Righteous Among the Nations medal. At this time, he learned that his visas had indeed saved many people. It is estimated that he issued over 6,000 visas. Although the exact number of survivors is not certain, the known survivors have an estimated 40,000 descendents today. This makes the rescue by Chiune the largest rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.

Alison Gold creates a vivid account of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara's rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. It is a well-written piece of literature and is easy for younger students to read, as well as imparting a great deal of information for older students to absorb. The courage of Chiune and Yukiko to stand by their convictions in the face of death teaches students a valuable lesson and offers an ideal by which to live.

 

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