I was asked to share the story of my Zayde at the opening of the 'Jewish Refugees in Shanghai' Exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum on Monday night. My beloved Zayde who passed away a few months ago, was a survivor who spent 5 years in Shanghai after escaping Poland with the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva. A few people asked me to share my speech. It can be read below:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you Gavin for inviting me to share a few words at this beautiful exhibition - which has a lot of personal significance to myself and my family.
My late grandfather Rabbi Shimon Goldman of blessed memory came from the city of Shedlitz in Poland. When the second world war broke out, through a series of events that included a number of close encounters with death and eventually safe haven in Shanghai, my grandfather miraculously survived the war… the sole survivor of his entire family!
My grandfather owes his miraculous survival first and foremost to the grace of G-d and to his incredible messengers, one of whom I would like to highlight this evening; the heroic Consul of Japan, Chiune Sugihara who issued my grandfather the visa that spared him almost certain death and was the reason my grandfather ended up in Shanghai.
In March 1939 Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to open a Consulate service. He barely had settled in to his new post when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1 1939 sending a wave of Jewish refugees into Lithuania. My grandfather was one of them.
By that stage it was virtually impossible to get out of Europe, not least because most of the countries in the free world were refusing to allow in any of the refugees. But then a plan emerged that offered one last hope for freedom.
Vietnam, at that time a Dutch Colony, agreed to let in refugees. However to get there they had to travel through the Soviet Union who were only prepared to allow the refugees to pass through on condition they had Japanese transit visas.
Into the picture comes Chiune Sugihara who was informed of the situation by the desperate refugees. When the authorities instructed all foreign embassies in Lithuania to pack up and go home Sugihara asked for an extension. He received an extra 20 days. He had to act fast. In order to issue a vast quantity of Visa’s he first needed the permission of his government. He wired them three times. The response from the foreign ministry in Tokyo was clear: Absolutely no visa’s should be issued!
Sugihara was faced with a huge moral dilemma. His humanity won. Together with his brave wife Yukiko this righteous couple worked non-stop issuing 300 visa’s a day – the amount that would usually take a month to issue.
Sugihara issued thousands of Visa’s until the consulate closed and he was forced to leave Lithuania. He continued issuing documents from his train window and as the train pulled out of the station he gave the consul visa stamp to one of the refugees who was able to use it to save even more Jews.
Incredibly, because of his ‘rebellious’ actions he lost his job after the war, cutting short his promising political career, but nothing could ever undo his incredibly heroic and life-saving deeds.
Oskar Schindler has been immortalized by Steven Spielberg for saving some 1200 Jews by putting them to work in his factory.
Chiune Sugihara is not as well known as Oskar Schindler. But like Shindler he too had a list… a list of some 6000 Jews that he saved! Sugihara saved five times as many lives as Schindler. I actually saw the list; my grandfather Shimon Goldman is Number 2029 on the list.
How many people are alive today thanks to Sugihara? They estimate some 30,000 souls!
Our sages teach us to learn from everything in life. To me one of the important lessons from Sugihara is the ripple effect of every action. Sugihara didn’t only save my grandfather, he also saved me. Because if not for Sugihara I may very well not be standing here today.
On a practical level for us this means, when you think of doing a favor for a fellow human being, when you think of the impact you can make on somebody else’s life, do not only think of the present but think of the future, think of the generations that will come from this person, think of the contributions this person will make to the world – think of the impact your good deed will have that will continue to reverberate through the consciousness of humanity forever – as our sages taught, Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah, one good deed leads to another, and then to another, and then to another, and who knows what the ultimate impact will be.
In my grandfather’s memoir entitled ‘From Shedlitz to Safety’ he describes in vivid detail his journey to freedom.
He describes how as a young teenager, after receiving the visa from Sugihara, he escaped together with the Rabbinical Academy known as Tomchei Temimim where he was studying at the time.
First stop was Japan. They started off in Kobe but because they were only on a three month Visa they had to make alternate arrangements. In the end they took the short boat ride to Shanghai which was under International rule and open to refugees.
My grandfather describes the large and cohesive Jewish community that greeted them, which even included organized Kashrut facilities.
In December 1941 after Japan entered the war life in Shanghai changed. The city lost its unique International status and though still part of China became in effect a Japanese city. One of the new innovations was the establishment of the Shanghai Ghetto, curfews and military occupation.
In all, my grandfather spent 5 years in Shanghai. Throughout that time he continued his studies in the Rabbinical Academy. Life was tough, hunger was a daily challenge, but thanks to food and aid coming from overseas he and his fellow students survived. It was only after the war when the full magnitude of the brutality and devastation became realized, that they understood how fortunate they truly were.
After the war my grandfather received a Visa for America where he started a new chapter of his life, rebuilding his life and his family and leaving an inspiring legacy of faith, strength and fortitude for all his descendants.
My grandfather passed away last year at the age of 91 leaving behind many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. On his tombstone is listed the names of his parents and siblings, none of whom have a graveside of their own. (In an interesting twist of fate, I have a cousin who is now the Chabad Rebbetzin in Shanghai).
For me this evening and this exhibition is above all about gratitude. Gratitude to the almighty G-d and to the people of Shanghai. Gratitude to the Jewish Museum and the Confucius institute and to all of you for being here this evening. And finally gratitude to the countless brave and holy heroes like Sugihara who despite everything shone as a beacon of light during a very dark period in history. May we forever be inspired by their goodness and light, Amen!