September 1 will mark 75 years since World War II began. Most likely you don’t know the story of one brave man who saved 6,000 lives. When Polish Jews fled persecution, many arrived in independent Lithuania. But as the German army pushed across Europe in the summer of 1940, foreign embassies were ordered to close. While other diplomats turned their backs on the Jewish refugees, one honorable diplomat requested a month-long extension so that he could issue visas that would allow Jews to travel across European Russia and Siberia to Japan. The man was Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.
“The Rescuers,” by award-winning filmmaker Michael King, focuses on Sugihara and 12 additional unsung Holocaust heroes who risked their lives to help tens of thousands of Jews flee to safety. By doing what he thought was right, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign office for going against the orders of the Japanese government. He lost his pension and had to work menial jobs the rest of his life.
King’s “The Rescuers” stars renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert; Stephanie Nyombayire, an anti-genocide activist who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and a handful of survivors. One survivor in the film is Sylvia Smoller Austerer, who agreed to an exclusive interview for the Forward. She is alive today, thanks to Sugihara making it possible for her to escape Poland at age 7.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Austerer and spoke to her about the experience.
Dorri Olds: You’ve said, “What on earth made Sugihara do it?” Can you expand on that?
Sylvia Smoller Austerer: It’s hard to understand why he risked so much, even his life, when he had no particular tie to the Jewish people.
Do you have any theories about why he did it?
I think he was a very decent man, and he didn’t suddenly spring into that like Venus from the half shell in Botticelli’s painting. He got there through all the small choices that he made throughout his lifetime. When he was faced with a choice like this one, he did the right thing because that was a habit of his character. He was that kind of person through all of his life choices.
Do you remember your childhood journey to Japan?
I remember being on the Trans-Siberian railroad. That was when we were coming from Moscow to board the ship to Japan. I remember the ship because it was a very rough sea and I was not seasick, so I was very happy. [She laughs.]
How has the Holocaust shaped your life?
You know something? I’ve been thinking about that most of my life. It has shaped it enormously and through me it has shaped my son. It clearly lasts through several generations. I sometimes look at my granddaughter and see that she’s having a very happy childhood, and I think, “What would it have been like to have a happy childhood?”
Do you think it instilled fear and suspicion?
When I was young I very much felt like the outsider to everything, but at my advanced age I no longer have fear or suspicion and no longer feel like an outsider. I did until I married an American man. After that I began to feel American and like I belonged. Was there a fear when I was young? Yes, I think there was a withdrawal, a certain unnamed unhappiness and one other element: I felt guilt towards my parents.
What do you mean?
They had a very hard life when they came here, and I felt responsible. I think that’s not an uncommon reaction among children of refugees. In college when I was having a good time, I wrote very muted letters home. I didn’t want to sound overjoyed because I didn’t want to appear too happy. If I were happy, if I were having a good time after they made all of these sacrifices, I just couldn’t bear that guilt.
What was it like to revisit the past and think about Sugihara?
Being with the film crew and Martin Gilbert and Stephanie Nyombayire was really an amazing experience. I could not get over the thought: “How is it that I’m alive? How is it that I survived this?” It seemed like a bolt of luck that Sugihara was doing this and that we got the transit visa and got through Siberia. It all seems so incredible.
What lessons do you think you learned from your experience with Sugihara?
I believe there are two forces that determine our lives — one is character, and the other is pure chance. To what extent is it character? To what extent is it chance that essentially shapes what is going to become of our lives? I think it’s both [equally] but it’s interesting to think about the interplay between those two forces. When I was with the film crew and Michael King was taking me to places where I had been born and to Sugihara’s consulate, I was thinking it was the character of Sugihara that enabled me to survive and it was the character of my father, who had the guts to do this. And then it was chance. So much was chance. That interplay has always fascinated me.
What do you mean when you say your father had guts?
A lot of Jews perished because they did not leave. When I was a young woman and lived in the suburbs and my son was small and my friends were over and I had a house, it was the American dream. Suppose something ominous was going to happen. Could I leave all of that and become a refugee? It’s hard to imagine, and yet my parents did it and that’s what saved our lives. My aunt, my mother’s younger sister, would not go. She was an office manager in a company, and she said: “Oh, they need me. I can’t leave.” So she didn’t go and she ended up in all of these concentration camps. She was on the death march and dreadful things happened to her.
Is your aunt still alive?
Yes, and we have a very strong relationship. She survived the war and she ended up in the displaced persons camp and went to Cuba and got married there. Then she came to the States. Her daughter did not know her mother’s story because my aunt didn’t talk about it. One year I went to visit my aunt and tape-recorded her. I insisted she tell me her story. Afterwards, I sent that tape to her daughter.
Was it gut wrenching when you wrote your novel, “Rachel and Aleks,” based on your history?
No, it was cathartic. I wanted to write something else but I can’t get away from the subject of the Holocaust. It was a story that I absolutely had to tell.
What made you decide to write fiction instead of memoir?
That’s a good question. I did a lot of research and the novel is historically accurate, but I think fiction allows you to develop characters and a truer picture of reality than a memoir, because you can actually put yourself into the character you’re writing about and relive it through their eyes. Fiction gets at an inner, deeper truth better than a memoir does. In fiction I could attribute feelings and actions and thoughts to this character that I couldn’t if I were writing a memoir. In a memoir, how could I tell what Rachel was thinking? Also fiction allows you to create scenes that illustrate a certain point that may not have happened in actuality.
You have accomplished so much in your life. You were honored in 2013 for your Women’s Health Initiative research studies. How does it feel that you saved many lives?
As a principal investigator I was a part of something that was so much bigger than my own endeavor, but it is extraordinarily satisfying to have contributed.
This interview has been edited for style and length.