HISTORY | UNSUNG HERO
Risks and Rewards
Holocaust survivor owes life to actions of courageous “Japanese Schindler”
The debt of gratitude that Leo Melamed owes to Chiune Sugihara cannot, perhaps, ever be sufficiently repaid. But the former head of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the pioneer of financial futures trading is doing his utmost to ensure that the actions of the obscure bureaucrat who saved his life—and the lives of around 6,000 other Jews after the Nazi invasion of Poland—go down in history.
Melamed paid an emotional return journey to Japan in early July, 74 years after his family escaped war-torn Europe and the Holocaust, to pay tribute to the former Japanese consul general in Lithuania.
Horrified at the inevitable fate of Jews who could not escape their Nazi persecutors, Sugihara defied his superiors in Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry to rush through transit visas that would permit some 6,000 Jews to board trains, cross the vast expanses of Siberia, and take ferries to the sanctuary of Japan.
“For me, personally, it was a miracle,” said Melamed, now 82. “It happened because one man stood up and acted on what he knew to be right and what he knew was wrong.”
The Melamed family had been important members of the about 100,000-strong Jewish community in the Polish city of Bialystok before the war, his father a member of the city council and his mother a well-known women’s rights campaigner.
Their lives were shattered with the Nazi invasion of their homeland in September 1939, with Melamed’s father narrowly escaping before Gestapo agents searched the Melamed family home.
Then aged seven, Melamed can still recall the sounds of machinegun fire in the night and the leather boots of the men who raided their house.
With only the clothes on their backs, the family managed to get the last train over the border into Lithuania, which had become part of the Soviet Union as Hitler and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe. But with the Nazi dictator determined to take even more territory for Germany, Lithuania was only a temporary respite.
“We knew that the Nazis would take over and that our lives were still in danger,” Melamed said. “But there was a rumor that we could get a transit visa out of Russia. And when you are a refugee, any rumor is just like the real thing.”
Melamed’s father was one of the fortunate Jews to secure paperwork for his family.
Historians estimate that Sugihara worked up to 20 hours a day issuing visas until he had to leave his post on September 4, 1941, when the consulate in the city of Kaunas was closed. There are reports that he was still writing visas and handing them out of the window as his own train left Lithuania.
Sugihara was posted to other Japanese missions in Eastern Europe for the remainder of the war. Arrested by Soviet troops at the capture of Bucharest and held in a POW camp with his family for 18 months, Sugihara was eventually repatriated to Japan.
Back in Tokyo, he was asked to resign from the Foreign Ministry, apparently on the grounds of his disobedience in Lithuania.
In 1985, Sugihara was granted the Righteous Among the Nations honor by the government of Israel for defying Tokyo’s orders not to issue transit visas for Jews. Known as the “Japanese Schindler,” he died in July 1986.
Melamed said Sugihara put the dictates of his own god above those of his government, and never once regretted his actions.
After arriving in the port of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, the Melamed family eventually settled in Kobe before being granted a visa to settle permanently in the United States.
“The Japanese people welcomed us with open arms. There was no hostility; they gave us food and found us a place to live,” Melamed said.
Despite studying law, Melamed says his true love was trading on the CME. He soon joined the board of what was at the time a small and declining exchange that traded futures in butter, eggs, pork bellies, and cattle.
Facing skepticism for his concept of financial futures—but convincing economist Milton Friedman of the possibilities—he created the International Monetary Market in 1972 and became a legend in the financial industry. The CME is a $22 billion business today, thanks in large part to Melamed’s vision.
“They told me I was a risk-taker and that it was on account of my running around the world when I was a child,” he said. “It was not easy to do what I did, but I would not have had the chance to do it if Chiune Sugihara had not made the difference.”
Melamed met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Japan and used the opportunity to express his gratitude for Sugihara’s actions and to applaud the dramatic economic measures Abe has introduced in recent months.
Melamed also travelled to Tsuruga for a day of celebration for Sugihara and the thousands of lives that he saved. •