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Holocaust Hero Chiune Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1st, 1900, and lived to make his mark on the twentieth century. Thousands of people owe their lives in part to his willingness to buck authority. For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Soviets and fired from his job by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

That's not the way Japanese children of his generation were raised. Sugihara walked to the beat of a different drummer even before the events that made him famous, when he went against his father's wishes and failed a medical school entrance exam -on purpose. Instead, he enrolled in a Tokyo university where he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.  Sugihara was assigned to Japanese-occupied Harbin, in Machuria, where he perfected his English, learned Russian, and joined the Greek Orthodox Christian church. As his career was taking off, Sugihara's sense of justice led him to protest the way the Japanese military treated Chinese citizens. Instead of getting rid of the talented diplomat, the Foreign Ministry transferred him several times. He was eventually reassigned to Europe.

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Sugihara was sent to Lithuania (with his wife and children) to open a new Japanese consulate in March of 1939. Only a few months later, Hitler's forces invaded Poland and thousands of Jews fled to Lithuania to escape persecution. In 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania ahead of the Germans, who were also advancing on the small nation. The Russians ordered all foreign diplomats out of the country, but Sugihara and Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk stayed behind. Zwartendijk came up with a plan to help the Jewish refugees get out and emigrate to a couple of Dutch islands in the Caribbean, but any travel visa would also have to be approved by the Soviet consul and by Sugihara, as the refugees would have to travel through Russia and Japan.
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Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to get approval for the plan, but he was denied several times. The consul in Tokyo told him to issue no travel visas at all!

Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again.

180sugitrainSugihara discussed the plan with his wife Yukiko and decided to risk his career and his entire future by defying his superiors. The couple then spent 29 days issuing travel visas, up to 300 a day, as thousands of refugees stood in line at his office. Yukiko would prepare and register the visas while Chiune Sugihara would sign and stamp them, hour after hour, without breaking for meals. They would work late into the night until Yukiko would massage her husband's weary hands in preparation for the next day. Sugihara was under orders to leave, which he could no longer delay. The family departed on September 1st, but he kept signing visas even as he boarded the train. Sugihara then tossed his official stamp out to the crowd, as he hadn't time to stamp them all. Watch a video account with commentary from a survivor and Yukiko Sugihara.
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The Japanese government was quite unhappy with Sugihara's disobedience, but they postponed his punishment because they needed his talents during the war. Sugihara was reassigned to the consul in Germany and then to Romania. He was arrested by the Soviets at the end of the war and the entire family spent 18 months in a POW camp in Romania. On his release, Sugihara returned to Japan, where he was fired from the Foreign Ministry. The family fell into poverty as Sugihara worked as a door-to-door salesman, a translator, and eventually a manager for a Japanese trading company office in Moscow. He kept a low profile and only visited his wife and children in Japan about once a year. Saugihara never spoke of his deeds during the war. The Foreign Ministry acted as if he never existed when  Jewish refugees inquired as to his whereabouts.
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It is estimated that 6,000 Jews were able to leave Lithuania for the east because of the travel documents Sugihara prepared. The became known as the Sugihara Survivors. The refugees traveled through the Soviet Union to Japan, where they stayed for months. Some traveled on to the United States, others to Shanghai, China, and some to the Caribbean islands they had originally planned to escape to.

260sugihara-warhaftigOne of the Sugihara Survivors was Joshua Nishri, who later became the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. In this position he was able to track down Sugihara and let him know, after almost 30  years, that his efforts during the war paid off for many thousands of refugees. Sugihara visited Israel the next year and spoke to many more Sugihara Survivors. In 1985 he was given the country's highest honor, as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem named him Righteous Among the Nations.
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Sugihara died in 1986. He wasn't well known in Japan until his funeral drew interest because of the many foreigner visitors who came to pay tribute, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan. When his countrymen learned of his heroism, a memorial park was built in Yaotsu-cho, Sugihara's birthplace. The Sugihara Memorial Garden stands at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A statue of Sugihara was erected in 2002 in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. The memorial shown in a picture by Alma Pater is in Vilnius, Lithuania. In the 21st century, some estimate that the original visa holders have 80,000 descendants. That is the greatest memorial of all.

See also: The Legacy of Sadako

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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