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A Eureka Moment

True Holocaust tale in CAS prof’s book links student, teacher

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

Hillel Levine, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion, espouses a Talmudic model of learning through lively give-and-take, encouraging his students to share family stories. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Rebecca Lewinter never knew the precise details of her Polish grandmother’s 11th-hour escape from the Nazi Holocaust. She also had no idea that one of her professors had written a book about the man who made that passage to safety—and, it could be argued, Lewinter’s existence—possible.

The connection surfaced one evening several months ago, when Hillel Levine hosted a dinner at his Beacon Hill apartment for students in his Jews in America seminar. After making quick work of a spread of baked salmon, hummus, steamed broccoli, and quinoa, the students took turns impersonating early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, based on A Bintel Brief, a collection of letters to an advice columnist at the now legendary Jewish Daily Forward. The immigrants’ dilemmas ranged from tales of families sundered by geography (a Boston immigrant has nothing to say to his wife and children when they join him from Minsk after a 15-year separation) to complications of courtship (a 20-year-old woman falls in love in America as her parents arrange a match for her in the old country).

Levine, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion, who espouses a Talmudic model of learning through lively give-and-take, egged the students on with comments like, “So, your parents want you to go back to Poland to marry this schnook?” Soon the students loosened up, offering advice to the turn-of-the-century forlorn and lovelorn. “You should just tell your parents you’re in love with someone,” said Michael Convicer (CFA’12). “If you don’t go with him you’ll always regret it,” said Hannah Farber (CAS’12), a psychology major.

While breaking bread in this homey, familial setting, students open up and “things happen,” says Levine. In his tiny living room that evening, he asked the students to share stories about the immigrant journeys of their own grandparents. Lewinter (COM’12) told the group that while she was fuzzy on the details, she knew her maternal grandmother had escaped the Nazis, thanks to a Japanese man who had issued her a transit visa to pass through Russia and Japan.

“I know that story,” said Levine. Lewinter’s reaction: “You’re kidding!” Lewinter recalled that there was a list of Jews who had been saved by those transit visas. “Someone spoke at my grandparents’ temple about it,” she added. “That was me,” said Levine. “I wrote a book about that man, and I have that list.”

Rebecca Lewinter (COM’12) (left) knew only that her Polish grandmother was rescued by “a Japanese man”; fellow seminar member Andie Firestone (CAS’15) listens. Photo by Kristyn Ulanday

The actions and likely motivation of that Japanese bureaucrat, Chiune Sugihara, are the subjects of Levine’s 1996 book In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

It was a great moment, a real-life lesson reflecting all they’d studied in class, and “just a wonderful thing, to have this serendipity.” says Levine. For Lewinter, who attended a Jewish day school in Great Neck, N.Y., her grandmother’s story “never really fit in to other stories about the Holocaust.” Before the dinner at her professor’s, it was “only from my grandmother that I ever heard about Japan being involved in saving Jews.”

Manning a window at the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1940, Sugihara looked daily upon desperate crowds of Jews pressing to gain entry into Japan. He defied direct orders, issuing transit visas to as many as 10,000 Jews fleeing likely deportation to Nazi death camps. Refugees from Poland and other Axis-occupied nations in Eastern Europe were flooding foreign consulates—what Levine refers to as “Jews’ scavenger hunts for visas”—in the hope of finding even circuitous ways to any country that would accept them. Sugihara continued to stamp their visas until the Japanese government closed the consulate and transferred him to Berlin. His efforts enabled Lewinter’s grandmother to travel from Lithuania to Vladivostok, Russia, then to Japan, and eventually to New York City.

For Lewinter, whose maternal grandparents are both living, it was always her grandfather’s story that resounded most. A habitual collector of photographs and other mementos from as far back as public school, Lewinter’s Austrian-born grandfather was rescued at 15 as part of the nonprofit kindertransport program. (Between 1938 and the start of World War II, the Kindertransport Association sent nearly 10,000 children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain, without their parents.) His story, unlike his wife’s, is as accessible as a scrapbook.

What Lewinter does know is that her great-grandmother, her grandmother, and her grandmother’s four siblings were left in Poland in the late 1930s by their father, who had gone to America to get everything in place for when they joined him. But when the Nazis tightened their grip and began transporting Polish Jews to ghettos and concentration camps, the family “trekked through different countries and got to Japan,” says Lewinter. While the family likely would have faced death in Poland, they thrived in America, with Lewinter’s grandmother and her siblings producing more than 40 grandchildren, and Lewinter’s mother and two siblings bearing 3 children each.

Levine’s book has earned considerable media attention, but that moment of recognition shared with Lewinter gave him “this wonderful feeling,” he says. Photo by Kristyn Ulanday

In his book’s prelude, Levine, who is president of the International Center for Conciliation, an NGO organized to prevent and resolve violent conflicts, writes that Sugihara’s story “can teach us the simplest lesson about responsiveness and responsibility in a not-so-simple world.”

Sugihara was a high-level bureaucrat in various jobs, including the trans-Siberian railroad. “This was a good man,” says Levine, “but why did he do it? What I gathered from survivor stories, and from his son, was that Sugihara never took bribes.” When women walked in and opened their blouses, he offered them tea instead. “The only explanation for his acts of courage was just love of life.” Sugihara didn’t see the panicked refugees as Jews, Levine explains, but as human beings. “He knew what would happen to them. He did not want them to suffer.”

Although Sugihara was sometimes referred to as “the Japanese Oskar Schindler,” the German industrialist immortalized in Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and later in the Oscar-winning film of the same name by Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09), they were completely different men, notes Levine. Schindler was a complex study, an unsentimental, pathological gambler who exploited Jewish labor even as he saved lives, he says.

The acts of rescuers like Schindler and Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg “render the story of their Japanese counterpart all the more…compelling,” Levine writes. In Sugihara’s Japan, “there simply were no Jews with whom to empathize.” In fact, his only exposure to Jews were high school readings of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and a military training that labeled Jews as fomenters of Communism. And Sugihara, who died in 1986, was not one to act on whims. “He analyzed the situation in terms of the little he might help and the risks that he and his family would face,” says Levine. He went on to grant transit visas to anyone who applied, even though most lacked proper documents. “The more visas he would issue, the more Jews there would be in line,” says Levine. “He even invited Jewish representatives inside to process the documents, with conveyor-belt efficiency.” In trying to understand the Japanese authorities’ leniency when it came to scrutinizing these visas, Levine muses on a “conspiracy of goodness.”

Levine’s book has earned him some renown, and considerable media attention. But that moment of recognition shared with Lewinter gave him “this wonderful feeling,” he says. The fact that his scholarship provided that connection and opened his students’ eyes “not just in the course, but in their lives—that’s what a teacher-student relationship is all about.”

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