TOKYO - In 1940, a small Jewish boy fleeing the Nazis put in to a remote Japanese port, saved by a Japanese consul who issued exit visas from Lithuania against his government's orders, rescuing thousands of desperate European Jews from certain death.
Leo Melamed arrived in Japan with little more than the clothes on his back but went on to the United States, becoming a lawyer and head of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), where he introduced the idea of financial futures trading.
On Monday, Melamed, 82, was back in Japan to honour Chiune Sugihara, who over a period of roughly a month issued visas that allowed 6,000 Jews to escape war-torn Lithuania and the advancing Nazis - saving several times as many people as Oskar Schindler, made famous in the film "Schindler's List." "It was truly death's door," Melamed told Reuters. "What was coming was the fire that was going to annihilate all of us, and he made the decision he did." Within a year, almost all the Jews in Lithuania had been killed.
Sugihara was later asked to resign by Japan's Foreign Ministry for defying the rules of a government then allied with Germany and that a year later was at war with the United States. He died in obscurity in 1986. "He did it because, as he said to his family, 'if I follow the dictates of my government, I will violate the dictates of my God,'" Melamed said.
FLIGHT AND DANGER
Trouble began for Melamed's family in Bialystok, Poland, when the Nazis invaded in 1939. They fled into neighbouring Lithuania and lived there until invasion by the Soviet Union posed new dangers. The only hope was a transit visa to Japan. "I was hardly ever in school in those days," Melamed said."I was always listening to grown-ups tell their stories or their fears and their hopes."