A Day for Remembering

Yesterday was national Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, the day when we take time to remember all those who have died during the Holocaust and in armed conflict around the world since then.  It is a day that always makes me reflect on the things I have learned, seen and experienced throughout my life but also while we travelled around Europe.

When you are in the Baltic States and Poland, there is no way you can avoid the difficult and emotive subject of World War II. For me it was one of the highlights of all our travels. Throughout my life I have had a deep interest in the history of this part of Europe.  To finally be able to travel to some of the places about which I had read so much, was a truly incredible experience.

Of course, it was not always easy – to say the very least. It is also true to say that our children found the time spent there much harder to deal with than any of the other countries we visited. However hard we tried to do fun things, it seemed that everywhere we turned there was some reminder of the tragedy that was World War II – a museum here, a memorial there.

Did you know that…

Latvia lost about 220,000 people, which equates to 11% of its population – 30% of them Jewish.

Lithuania lost nearly 14% of its population, more than 350,000 people and 33% of them Jewish.

Poland lost a staggering 5.6 million people – 3 million of them Jewish – the total number of the dead representing more than 16% of its population.

So how do you cope, when travelling with children to places that have witnessed such hardship, such tragedy, and where the painful memories are evident everwhere?  Well, there are several things to try but I won’t pretend to have all the answers.

You try not to overdo the WWII focus (we failed miserably on this one), you talk about what you’ve seen and learned (we overdid on that one too), and you try to visit only the best places. Despite our other failings, we found some superb museums – so we did well on that score. 🙂

Great Museums

Poland (497).jpgOne of the best was the Uprising Museum in Warsaw – a hugely informative museum, which deals very sensitively with the whole issue of World War II, the plights of the Polish and Jewish population and the Warsaw Uprising.  It is a hands-on museum, full of beautifully presented material and a museum which we all found hugely inspiring.

At the very end of our holiday we stopped in Berlin for a few days, where the Jewish Museum absolutely won first prize with us all.  After weeks of travelling and visiting places, we were all ‘museum-ed out’, as the kids put it, and literally dragged ourselves to the Jewish Museum on the pretence that we could always just sit in its garden – after all, the building’s award-winning architecture and the beautiful gardens had come with the highest recommendation from sister/auntie Fleur – and she should know… 🙂

Berlin (61).jpgAfter a little rest in the beautiful Museum Gardens, we decided to give it a go – it seemed logical, since we’d paid our way in (a mere €10 for a family of five). Well, that was the last we saw of the children for the next three hours, and not only that – but at closing time, they refused to leave unless we promised they could come back the following day. And before you say what you’re thinking, let me be honest…. our children are good, but no, they’re not that good. 🙂 They don’t like going to museums any more than other children do.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is just very special, an eye opener and an inspiring building, with exhibitionsBerlinR7 (10).jpg that make you want to find out more, open drawers, try things on and try things out, explore just that little bit more. It is provides a remarkable insight into centuries of Jewish history, and a visit there is nothing short of an uplifting and hugely moving experience.  So yes, we did go back, and we stayed till closing time (again…) and then had to be thrown out of the museum bookshop. 🙂

Acts of Human Kindness

Travelling around this part of the world can be sad, upsetting, moving, and yes, even depressing.  But then, once every so often, you come across a story that picks you up and makes you think that goodness and kindness can be found everywhere.  Take this true story of Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko.

Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara.jpgChiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who had been posted to Kaunas in Lithuania just before the start of World War II. For centuries both Lithuania and Poland had been renowned for their religious tolerance, and this had attracted a large number of Jewish people, who settled down and lived peacefully amongst the local community. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, had almost 120 Yeshivas (Jewish schools) and its Grand Synagogue was the most beautiful and grand Synagogue ever seen. So when Poland was invaded in 1939, it was logical that the Jewish refugees headed north into what they thought would be the safety of Lithuania. They brought with them stories of terror and fear.

A Cunning Plan

It didn’t take long for Chiune Sugihara to realise the dangers in which the Jewish people found themselves, and together with Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch Consul, they hatched a cunning plan.

The Dutch colonies of Curacao and Dutch Guiana did not require visas for settlers.  If the Jewish refugees could be transported via Russia into Japan, they could travel by ship to safe havens in the colonies. All that was required were transit visas for Russia and Japan. Russian officials had agreed that the refugees could travel overland to Japan, provided they had Japanese visas. All that stood in their way was the Japanese government, but they refused to cooperate.

Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer…

Vilnius (46).jpgChiune Sugihara did a lot of soul searching – he was a kind man who had strong moral values. When his request had been refused several times, he took matters in his own hands and issued the Japanese visas anyway. It was August 1940 and Chiune knew he had to work fast – time was running out. With the help of his wife Yukiko, Chiune worked non-stop for the next 4 weeks, issueing 300 visas each day. Eventually, the Sugihara family was told to leave Lithuania on the 28th August, by which time they had written and registered 2139 visas, which enabled nearly 6000 adults and children to leave Lithuania.

Just before they left Kaunas train station, Chiune Sugihara handed the visa stamp to a Jewish refugee, who in turn continued to issue visas as long as he was able to do so.

He who saves a life, saves the world entire

Vilnius (47).jpgSugihara’s disobedience did not go unnoticed, and he was sacked from the Japanese Foreign Office immediately after the war.  He never spoke about his experience in Lithuana again. In 1969 one of the surviving refugees tracked him down and finally told the world of this man’s remarkable work during the early days of World War II. More people came forward, and once all the evidence had been gathered, Chiune Sugihara was awarded the highest award of the State of Israel. In 1985 he was honoured as being “Righteous among the Nations”, and a tree was planted in his name at  Yad Vashem.

When he was asked in 1985 why he had risked his life to save others, his simple answer was: “They were human beings and they needed help”. It is estimated that there are some 40,000 descendants in the world today, who owe their life to the act of one man and his wife.

The Act of Remembrance

If you ever find yourself in Vilnius, (which I highly recommend by the way) and visit the local Jewish Museum, make sure you take a little time to sit by a very simple memorial statue, surrounded by a dozen Japanese cherry trees,  in honour of a great man.

Holocaust Memorial Day – it is all about remembering those who died – and it is only right that we do so.  However, I also like to think that by remembering people like Chiure Sugihara and his wife, we pay tribute to those who made a difference, and changed the lives of thousands of people.

In 2008 and 2009 I visited  Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, which had a profound impact on me.  Following my first visit, I wrote about my experience of visiting, and about my emotions following the visit.  It is a very personal document, and may be upsetting to read, but if you would like to read it, please feel free to download it by clicking here.  In due course I will add it to the website in its own right.

Annemieke Waite is a freelance travel writer who specialises in writing for families and young people to EU travel destinations

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  1. Alison Paton
    Posted January 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Annemieke – this is really wonderful and thank you for writing so eloquently about such a complex and emotional subject.

  2. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted January 28, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    well done excellent article !

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