Liv­ing By Luck and Chance

Forward Magazine - - Page Two - SYLVIA SMOLLER

Sylvia Smoller Aus­terer is an ac­com­plished pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Al­bert Ein­stein Col­lege of Medicine, au­thor of his­tor­i­cal novel “Rachel and Aleks” and she is alive today thanks to Ja­panese diplo­mat Chi­une Sugi­hara who made it pos­si­ble for her to es­cape Poland at age 7.

Septem­ber 1 will mark 75 years since World War II be­gan. You may not yet know the story of this brave man who saved 3,000 lives. But a new film shows when Pol­ish Jews fled per­se­cu­tion, many ar­rived in in­de­pen­dent Lithua­nia. But as the Nazi army pushed across Europe in the sum­mer of 1940, for­eign em­bassies were or­dered to close. While other diplo­mats turned their backs on the Jewish refugees, Sugi­hara re­quested a month-long ex­ten­sion so that he could is­sue visas that would al­low Jews to travel across Euro­pean Rus­sia and Siberia to Ja­pan.

“The Res­cuers,” by award-win­ning filmmaker Michael King, fo­cuses on Sugi­hara and 12 ad­di­tional un­sung Holo­caust heroes who risked their lives to help tens of thou­sands of Jews flee to safety. By do­ing what he thought was right, Sugi­hara was dis­missed from the for­eign of­fice for go­ing against the or­ders of the Ja­panese govern­ment. He lost his pen­sion and had to work in me­nial jobs the rest of his life.

King’s “The Res­cuers” stars renowned Holo­caust his­to­rian Sir Martin Gil­bert; Stephanie Ny­ombayire, an anti-geno­cide ac­tivist who lost 100 mem­bers of her fam­ily in the Rwan­dan geno­cide of the 1990s, and a hand­ful of sur­vivors, in­clud­ing Smoller. Here she speaks with the For­ward’s Dorri Olds.

DORRI OLDS: You’ve said, “What on earth made Sugi­hara do it?” Can you ex­pand on that?

SYLVIA SMOLLER: It’s hard to un­der­stand why he risked so much, even his life, when he had no par­tic­u­lar tie to the Jewish peo­ple.

Do you have any the­o­ries about why he did it?

I think he was a very de­cent man, and he didn’t sud­denly spring into that.... He got there through all the small choices that he made through­out his life­time. When he was faced with a choice like this one, he did the right thing be­cause that was a habit of his char­ac­ter. He was that kind of per­son through all of his life choices.

Do you re­mem­ber your child­hood jour­ney to Ja­pan?

I re­mem­ber be­ing on the TransSi­berian rail­road. That was when we were com­ing from Moscow to board the ship to Ja­pan. I re­mem­ber the ship be­cause it was a very rough sea and I was not sea­sick, so I was very happy.

How has the Holo­caust shaped your life?

You know some­thing? I’ve been think­ing about that most of my life. It has shaped it enor­mously and through me it has shaped my son. It clearly lasts through sev­eral gen­er­a­tions. I some­times look at my grand­daugh­ter and see that she’s hav­ing a very happy child­hood, and I think, “What would it have been like to have a happy child­hood?”

Do you think it in­stilled fear and sus­pi­cion?

When I was young I very much felt like the out­sider to ev­ery­thing, but at my ad­vanced age I no longer have fear or sus­pi­cion and no longer feel like an out­sider. I did un­til I mar­ried an Amer­i­can man. Af­ter that I be­gan to feel Amer­i­can and like I be­longed. Was there a fear when I was young? Yes, I think there was a with­drawal, a cer­tain un­named un­hap­pi­ness and one other el­e­ment: I felt guilt to­wards my par­ents.

What do you mean?

They had a very hard life when they came here, and I felt re­spon­si­ble. I think that’s not an un­com­mon re­ac­tion among chil­dren of refugees. In col­lege when I was hav­ing a good time, I wrote very muted letters home. I didn’t want to sound over­joyed be­cause I didn’t want to ap­pear too happy. If I were happy, if I were hav­ing a good time af­ter they made all of these sac­ri­fices, I just couldn’t bear that guilt.

What was it like to re­visit the past and think about Sugi­hara?

Be­ing with the film crew and Martin Gil­bert and Stephanie Ny­ombayire was re­ally an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I could not get over the thought: “How is it that I’m alive? How is it that I sur­vived this?” It seemed like a bolt of luck that Sugi­hara was do­ing this and that we got the tran­sit visa and got through Siberia. It all seems so in­cred­i­ble.

What lessons do you think you learned from your ex­pe­ri­ence with Sugi­hara?

I be­lieve there are two forces that de­ter­mine our lives — one is char­ac­ter, and the other is pure chance. To what ex­tent is it char­ac­ter? To what ex­tent is it chance that es­sen­tially shapes what is go­ing to be­come of our lives? I think it’s both [equally] but it’s in­ter­est­ing to think about the in­ter­play be­tween those two forces. When I was with the film crew and Michael King was tak­ing me to places where I had been born and to Sugi­hara’s con­sulate, I was think­ing it was the char­ac­ter of Sugi­hara that en­abled me to sur­vive and it was the char­ac­ter of my fa­ther, who had the guts to do this. And then it was chance. That in­ter­play has al­ways fas­ci­nated me.

What do you mean when you say your fa­ther had guts?

A lot of Jews per­ished be­cause they did not leave. When I was a young woman and lived in the suburbs and my son was small and my friends were over and I had a house, it was the Amer­i­can dream. Sup­pose some­thing omi­nous was go­ing to hap­pen. Could I leave all of that and be­come a refugee? It’s hard to imagine, and yet my par­ents did it and that’s what saved our lives. My aunt, my mother’s younger sis­ter, would not go. She was an of­fice man­ager in a com­pany, and she said: “Oh, they need me. I can’t leave.” So she didn’t go and she ended up in all of these con­cen­tra­tion camps. She was on the death march and dread­ful things hap­pened to her.

Is your aunt still alive?

Yes, and we have a very strong re­la­tion­ship. She sur­vived the war and she ended up in the dis­placed per­sons camp and went to Cuba and got mar­ried there. Then she came to the States. Her daugh­ter did not know her mother’s story be­cause my aunt didn’t talk about it. One year I went to visit my aunt and ta­pere­corded her. I in­sisted she tell me her story. Af­ter­wards, I sent that tape to her daugh­ter.

Was it gut wrench­ing when you wrote your novel, “Rachel and Aleks,” based on your his­tory?

No, it was cathar­tic. I wanted to write some­thing else but I can’t get away from the sub­ject of the Holo­caust. It was a story that I ab­so­lutely had to tell.

COUR­TESY OF AL­BERT EIN­STEIN COL­LEGE OF MEDICINE

The Res­cued: Au­thor Sylvia Smoller Aus­terer and thou­sand oth­ers owe their lives to the brav­ery of Ja­panese diplo­mat Chi­une Sugi­hara who risked his life is­su­ing visas to Jews dur­ing World War II.

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