If you grew up in the heart of the Cold War, you would hardly think of 1940’s Siberia, as a path to freedom. However, that was exactly what it was to some 2,100 Polish Jews. Thanks to a Dutch Consul and a Japanese Diplomat, thousands escaped to freedom via Siberia’s railroad.
After the invasion of Poland in 1939, many of the Jewish population found temporary safety in Lithuania. On June 22, 1941 Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union. They would ultimately fail, and be repelled, but not before a million Jews were slaughtered by Nazi death squads.
It was during this period that Polish Jews sought safe haven in Lithuania. It was there they were blessed with two unlikely heroes. Men who partnered together, working feverishly to spare as many they could. Their names were Jan Zwartendijk, and Chiune Sugihara.
Before the War, Zwartendijk, worked for the Phillips company, a maker of radios and light bulbs. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands and the Soviet’s occupied Lithuania, he became acting Dutch consul in Kovno, Lithuania. Sugihara was the first Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania. He communicated with the Polish underground to spare as many lives as possible. While Zwartendijk issued visas to the Dutch colony of Curaçao, Sugihara facilitated their path to Tokyo.
In one of the most dangerous times in history, with little or no provision, families boarded rail cars in hope of safety. They traveled via the Trans Siberia rail line to Japan, and from there, made their way to San Francisco. Against the backdrop of Nazi executions, an oppressive Soviet regime, and a hostile Japanese government, these men defied the odds.
Their valor granted thousands the opportunity to make, not only a better future, but any future at all. During the time of the Holocaust, an era of tremendous pain and heartbreak for the Jewish people, these men made a difference. They were normal people in abnormal times, but they answered the call.
A call to do what they could, so others could do what seemed impossible. In signing their name on slips of paper, they too defeated Hitler. They essentially told him, that his plan for annihilation would not win, with every life they spared.
Often, the call to act isn’t a super human feat, but a very simple one. If we will look for it, opportunities are around every corner. On a personal level, who is standing in our path today, that needs our help? It maybe as easy as listening, or sharing a cup of coffee and a smile. A simple act of kindness may enable them to make the journey from fear to personal freedom.