Three nights ago as I sat in Kol Nidre services to usher in Yom Kippur, I listened to the Rabbi’s sermon with tears in my eyes. My fiancé and I attended the Chabad Young Professionals service in New York where Rabbi Levi told the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul for Japan in Lithuania during World War II.
Sugihara woke one evening to the sound of hundreds of Jews outside his window; panic-stricken, they would not make it out of Lithuania before being captured by the Nazis and transported to a concentration camp where they would likely be murdered. It was 1940, and the only way Jewish people could leave Lithuania to Japan was with a travel visa. The Vice-Consul called his superiors in Japan three times, begging for permission to write visas. All three requests were denied.
Sugihara ignored the orders and began handwriting visas. He worked 18-20 hours per day, producing a month’s worth of visas every day. In addition, he often wrote the visas for the head of the household, which permitted entire families to leave Lithuania. His wife would massage his tired, cramped hands between short writing breaks.
When the consulate was forced to close in September, Sugihara still refused to quit. He continued to write visas on the way to the train station, throwing the documents out the window for Jewish refugees to receive. As the train was pulling away from the station, Sugihara tossed blank paper with only the consulate seal and his signature. These papers would later be transferred to visas.
Sugihara saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish refugees who have now grown to more than 50,000 descendants. When he returned to Japan, he didn’t boast or brag of his good deeds. Instead, his actions remained virtually unknown. However, when the people whose lives he saved began looking for him, his righteous act was unveiled.
In 1985, Sugihara and his family were given Israeli citizenship, and he was granted the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in Israel.
The Sugihara story truly embraces Kol Nidre, which translates to “all vows.” As I sat listening to this miraculous, selfless story, I wondered if our, the world’s, Sugihara moment was happening right now. The Syrian refugee crisis has entered our homes daily, through email, television, discussions and newspapers, for months. It is possibly the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that three million Syrians have fled and another six-and-a-half million have been internally displaced. A global crisis often appears too large for one person to tackle. But what if Sugihara had said, “There are too many, I could not possibly help.”
The time is now. Whether we sign petitions for refugees to be relocated throughout the United States and Europe, or we donate funds for medical, food and educational expenses, we must not sit idly by as history continues to tell the same story.