Chiune Sugihara, 1941. This year’s Raoul Wallenberg Day event includes the screening of Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. (photo from Vilnius-Green House exhibit)
On Sunday, Jan. 19, the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day event pays tribute to courageous actions by diplomats Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Chiune Sugihara of Japan. During the Second World War, they engaged in selfless acts of civil courage, at grave risk to themselves and their families, to rescue many tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
This year, the Vancouver-based Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society focuses on the story of Sugihara. The event features a showing of the biographical film drama Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. As a consular official for Japan in eastern Europe during the Second World War, Sugihara saved thousands of refugees by issuing transit visas that allowed people to escape Nazi German forces. Once reviled in Japan, today Sugihara is considered a hero, with museums and a memorial site.
The keynote speaker on Jan. 19 is George Bluman, a local descendent of Sugihara visa recipients and an international expert on Sugihara’s life. Some of those saved by his visas ended up in Vancouver and other parts of Canada.
When possible, the Civil Courage Society also presents an award to an individual associated with British Columbia who, at significant personal risk, helped improve the lives of others while defying unjust laws or norms, past or present. Past recipients include Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh, Chief Robert Joseph and Mary Kitagawa. Their stories inspire Canadians to act with courage and live by their moral values.
This year’s event – sponsored by the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson, and supported by several organizations and volunteers – is being held at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, and it begins at 1 p.m. Admission is free; donations are appreciated. A reception follows. For more information, visit wsccs.ca. New volunteers and nominations for the Civil Courage Award are always welcomed.
Ujjal Dosanjh will receive the inaugural Civil Courage Award at the 10th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day on Jan. 18. (photo by Patrick Tam)
In honor of the 10th annual Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day, the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will present its inaugural Civil Courage Award to the Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh on Jan. 18.
WSCCS was formed by members of the Swedish and Jewish communities in 2013, with the goal of continuing the legacy of the Wallenberg Day in Vancouver and commemorating Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara and others like them through the establishment of an award for civil courage. The award is given to an individual associated with British Columbia who has helped improve the lives of others and society while defying unjust laws, norms, conventions or unethical behaviors of the time and place. The choice of Dosanjh as a recipient was unanimous in the panel of three, which includes Thomas Berger, a Canadian politician of Swedish descent and retired Supreme Court justice, Georgia Straight publisher Dan McLeod, and Thomas Gradin, honorary Swedish consul, former hockey player and a scout for the Canucks. Dosanjh was selected as the award recipient “for his actions as a critic of sectarian violence and his advocacy for social justice, often at great risk to his personal safety. As a critic of extremism and champion of liberal democracy he has been a great benefit to Canada and an inspiration to us all.”
Dosanjh is well known as Canada’s first Indo-Canadian provincial premier and for his roles as attorney general, federal health minister and a member of Parliament until 2011. Back in 1985, after the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple in the Punjab to flush out Sikh extremists, Dosanjh warned the Canadian government that sectarian violence could spill over into Canada. His warning fell on deaf ears. Four months later, on June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was bombed, killing 329 people, 280 of whom were Canadian. In the wake of this tragedy, Dosanjh consistently and publicly denounced violence as a means of establishing an independent Sikh homeland in India.
As a result these calls, Dosanjh has been subjected to death threats since the 1980s, he was attacked and severely beaten with a metal bar outside his law office and he had a Molotov cocktail thrown into his constituency office in 1999. He recalls a Facebook page set up in 2010 to discuss openly how to execute his murder. Despite these harrowing encounters, Dosanjh said he has always felt “safe enough” living in Canada. “Canadians are a peace-loving people who respect each other’s right to speak, no matter how distasteful one’s remarks might be,” he said. The threats subsided after 2010 but by then he had learned to live with them. “You can’t let these threats beat you into fear,” he added.
In an interview with the Independent, Dosanjh said he was “totally humbled” when he learned he would be receiving the award a few weeks ago. Though he’d not heard of the WSCCS, he was familiar with the story of Raoul Wallenberg. “To be honored in his name is something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams,” he confessed. “I’m extremely honored to be associated with Wallenberg’s name, though what he did was under much more difficult circumstances and, therefore, all the more important. Still, to be acknowledged in your own lifetime for things you stood for, that some may find disagreeable, is great because it’s good to have friends.”
Dosanjh is presently writing a memoir and said though he misses the “gut and thrust” of politics, he has no longing for the weekly commutes to Ottawa and, prior to that, to Victoria.
WSCCS will present the award at the Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Sunday, Jan. 18, 1:30 p.m. B.C. lieutenant governor, the Hon. Judith Guichon, will attend the ceremony, which will include a screening of the film The Rescuers by Michael King, which tells the story of 13 heroic diplomats who saved tens of thousands of lives during the Second World War. Admission is by donation.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Left to right, Henry Ross-Grayman, Thomas Gradin and Mayor Gregor Robertson. (photo by Wendy Fouks)
There was a full house at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for the community’s marking of Wallenberg Day on Jan 19. Sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, the annual event was the natural outgrowth of the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park in 1986. It was revived at the 20th anniversary in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the then honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group.
Each year, the event pays tribute to courageous and heroic actions inspired by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Both men, at grave risk to themselves, their families and their future, chose to follow their own personal moral code and save the lives of large numbers of Jews during the Second World War.
Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson read a proclamation naming the day “Raoul Wallenberg Day in the City of Vancouver.” He said, “There are always heroes in our midst and elevating their place in society and celebrating and having discussion … is absolutely critical in a civil society.”
This year, the heroism of Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton was highlighted in the movie Nicky’s Family. This emotionally powerful film told the story of how Winton saved the lives of more than 600 Czech children just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The film documents how his actions have inspired young people to engage in direct acts of tikkun olam.
British Consul Rupert Potter honored Winton, saying, “I have never introduced a film to quite so full a house as this, which, I think, is testament to the content and the importance of the subject and what the film represents….”
There was an especially moving moment when members of the audience who owed their lives to the heroic actions of people such as Wallenberg, Sugihara and Winton were asked to stand. This action made the impact of these men clearly visible, showing that one person can make a profound difference in the world.
Naomi Taussig, the cantor of Temple Sholom Synagogue, spoke about the miracle of how her father and uncle were saved by Winton. She said, “Where would I be but for the actions of a single man who chose to do something when he could have done nothing at all? I feel a responsibility to live proudly as a Jew, honoring my grandparents, Emil and Irma. I try to live kindly, with compassion and intention. Nicholas himself says we must live ethically, and do whatever we can – no matter how small. We must take action rather than believe we are too insignificant to make a difference.”
I, too, owe my life to the actions of a diplomat. Against the orders of his government, Sugihara gave out visas to Jews, allowing them to escape certain death and travel to Japan. My mother was a recipient of such a visa. Had she not received it, I would not be here today. Last year, I traveled to Japan and had the honor of meeting with Sugihara’s granddaughter to express my deepest gratitude for the actions of her grandfather. It was a heartfelt meeting that I will remember for the rest of my days.
We need these stories to remind us of the inherent good that lives within people. We need to educate, to pay tribute, to remember and, finally, to inspire people today, as well as future generations, to act with courage and live their values in a way that contributes to the healing of the world.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is passionate about wanting to leave a legacy encouraging others to engage in behaviors inspired by Wallenberg, Sugihara and people like Winton. We are looking for people who, at significant personal risk, have helped improve or save the lives of others by going against unjust norms or conventions. Over the coming year, the names of suggested individuals who meet the criteria (including being associated with British Columbia, even if their actions may have taken place outside of the province) will be reviewed. Next year, at the annual Wallenberg Day event, we hope to present an award for civil courage to acknowledge heroic acts in today’s world. For more information, contact the society at [email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will mark Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day on Jan. 19 with the screening of the documentary Nicky’s Family, about Holocaust hero Nicholas Winton.
Now 104 years old, Winton lives in England (where he was born). The story of his heroism during the Holocaust starts in 1938, when he was a stockbroker. Receiving a letter from a friend in Prague about the plight of Jews in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he traveled there to assess the situation for himself. Shocked at what he witnessed, he established an organization to aid children from Jewish families, setting up office in his hotel room in Prague, from which he eventually expanded.
The director of Nicky’s Family, Matej Minac, said in an interview on Czech Radio in 2003: “When he came here to Prague, and wanted to rescue all these children, and he had a plan how to do it, everybody was telling him – you know, it’s absurd. You can never manage it. The British won’t let the children in. The Gestapo won’t let the children out. You don’t have the money, so how do you want to do it? It’s crazy. And Winton said that anything that is reasonable can be achieved.”
After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, the British Parliament approved the entry of refugees younger than 17 into the country, if they had a place to stay and a warranty was paid. Knowing this, Winton left his friends in Prague to manage the gathering of the children there and returned to London, where he started a campaign to find foster homes and the necessary guarantees for as many children as he could.
Winton also organized for the Jewish children to be transported on trains and then on to ferries to England, where the foster families met them. The operation later became known as the Czech Kindertransport. It lasted until the official start of the Second World War on Sept. 1, 1939, by which time 669 of “his children” had arrived in England. He kept records of the names and addresses of the children, their parents and their foster families. Most of the Jewish parents in Prague perished during the Holocaust.
Winton never told anyone of this enterprise. Fifty years after the fact, his wife found a suitcase in the attic with all his wartime documentation. She contacted the BBC, and they sent letters to the addresses of the foster families. Several dozen people responded. Most of them didn’t know the identity of their rescuer. His “children” and their children and grandchildren now number more than 6,000.
A 1988 TV program about the reunion of Winton and dozens of the children he had saved started a snowball of recognition; among the honors, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
In the late 1990s, Minac was searching for a theme for his next film. The Czech director read Pearls of Childhood by Vera Gissin, in which she mentions Winton and his rescue operation.
“I was astonished,” said Minac in the aforementioned radio interview. “That’s exactly what I needed for my story. I wrote a film treatment and I asked one lady, Alice Klimova, whether she could translate it into English. She said: ‘Matej, I think you have a few mistakes in your treatment, especially the scene in the train station, when the children are leaving for Britain.’ I said: ‘How do you know?’ And she said: ‘I know because I was one of those children, of Winton’s children…. I was only four-and-a-half years old. I don’t remember it so well. Why don’t you call Nicky, Nicky Winton?’ And I said: ‘How do you mean Nicky Winton? He’s still alive?’ She said: ‘Yes. He’d be very happy to talk to you, he’s a nice person, and I’m sure he would help.’ Two months later, I visited Nicky. We spent a beautiful afternoon together, and I knew that I can’t do only one film … but I will have to do also a documentary….”
In the end, Minac made three movies about Winton: one feature, All My Loved Ones (1999), the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002), which won an Emmy Award, and Nicky’s Family (2011), which includes reenactments and never-before-seen archival footage, as well as interviews with Winton and a number of those he rescued.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which is hosting the Nicky’s Family screening and reception here, incorporated in April 2013, Deborah Ross-Grayman, one of the society’s founding members, told the Independent. “This was the natural outgrowth of the Raoul Wallenberg Day event, which began in 1986 with the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was revived on the 20th anniversary in 2006, as a cooperative event sponsored by the honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group…. We formed the society in order to be able to formally present an award for civil courage, and so acknowledge and support such heroic acts today.”
She added that approximately 50 diplomats from different countries risked their lives and careers to save the lives of Jews during the Second World War. “We have shown films highlighting the acts of Wallenberg, Sweden, and Chiune Sugihara, Japan, [whose visa saved Ross-Grayman’s mother’s life] as well as people from Chile, Portugal and Spain. Wallenberg saved approximately 100,000 people and Sugihara saved approximately 6,000. Their names stand as a symbol for all such courageous and heroic acts.”
Nicky’s Family will screen at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre on Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].