Honoring Chiune Sugihara, an Unknown Hero
"Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." – Talmud
Before this summer, the community at URJ Camp Coleman had never heard of Chiune Sugihara; now, I do not think that they will ever forget about him. Earlier this summer, in commemoration of Tishah B'Av (a holy day that remembers many sad events in Jewish history), we decided to plan a day to learn about Mr. Sugihara. Unfortunately, his story is almost completely unknown.
Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II, defied his government's official policy. At great personal risk, Sugihara signed thousands of visas to free Jews who had no other place to go and who, without his assistance, would have almost certainly died. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Sugihara survivors and their descendants are alive today because of his deeds.
Bryan Kellert, Camp Coleman's karate specialist, taught the camp community about "heroic courage," a core element of the Bushido code that he learned about in training for his Black Belt. Some historians claim that Sugihara was influenced by this code and that it helped guide his decision to defy policy in order to save lives. After learning about Sugihara's story, the whole camp had the opportunity to have an interactive Skype call with Rick Salomon, son of a Sugihara survivor. Rick shared his father's story with the campers, who listened with rapt attention and were given the opportunity to ask their own unscripted – and – questions. "Did anyone fear that maybe Sugihara was trying to trick them?" asked Ely. Joey wanted to know, "What were the real risks that Sugihara took?" and Matthew wondered, "How did the Jewish people end up knowing that they could go to Sugihara?" These are just a few of the excellent questions our campers asked.
From watching segments of a PBS movie about Sugihara to participating in activities and discussions throughout the day, Coleman campers and staff came to understand the awesome challenge he faced – and they began to understand Sugihara's unique greatness and love of humanity. Thanks to the Visas for Life Foundation, we also displayed 40 photographs throughout the camp that highlighted the travels and key moments in Sugihara's life. Perhaps the highlight of the day came during evening services, the theme of which was "finding courage in everyday life." Each of the participants and their counselors spoke to this issue as we welcomed Japanese Consul General Kazuo Sunaga to participate in our service.
As the Consul General spoke, the Camp Coleman community presented him with a special gift in commemoration of Sugihara's righteous actions. Throughout the service, led by Beth Schafer, the campers sang passionately and, as is the Coleman custom, snapped their fingers in appreciation when they liked what they heard. The Consul General himself also smiled throughout the service, snapping and singing with the Coleman community, and after listening to a fervent rendition of Matisyahu's "One Day" at the end of the service, he turned to me and said, "I am deeply moved by this. The Japanese youth need more of this type of thing that you are doing here." Sometimes it takes someone from outside our community to help us recognize what we have and to realize how fortunate we are. We are indebted to Chiune Sugihara for making this day – and more – possible.
When the day was done, many campers told me they thought we should honor a new person every year. Yet people like Chiune Sugihara are not easy to find. I am so glad we had the opportunity to tell his story – and I do not believe the campers will ever forget him.
Bobby Harris is the director of URJ Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, GA.