Some years ago, I started a contest for high school students inspired by the courageous deeds of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul to Lithuania in 1940, who against his government's orders, issued over 2000 transit visas to Japan to Jews escaping Europe. These refugees, mostly from Poland, were trapped in Lithuania because the Germans had already invaded Poland and the Russians, who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, were moving westward. Their only hope of escaping the Holocaust was through Japan. Sugihara acted on his conscience rather than on protool and took the risk and issued the visas during a two-week period in August 1940. My parents (Rachel and Aleks in the book), were recipients of such a visa, visa#459, and it is due to that, that I owe my life, and by extension, the life of my son, my granddaughter and unknown generations to come. Sugihara lost his diplomatic position after the war due to this "incident", but was eventually recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem in Israel.
I wanted to do something meaningful to commemorate this deed and so devised the essay contest open to New York City High School Students, and endorsed by the New York Board of Education. The student was to write an essay on some moral or ethical choice he or she had made in his or her own life and describe the effects of that choice. It was called "The Sugihara Do The Right Thing Contest". A group of invited volunteers constituted the Judges' Panel to select the winners. Winning students got substantial cash prizes, donated by the Kleiner Family Foundation. This contest ran independently for several years after which it became a project of ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and the Board of ADL in New York became the Panel of Judges.
The contest spread to Boston where it was organized by my son, Dr. Jordan Smoller and to San Francisco where it was organized by Robert Kleiner, my nephew and son of Eugene and Rose Kleiner (who have their own amazing story). Eventually, it included an exchange program where Japanese students came to the U.S. and American students went on a trip to Japan, partially supported by free airline tickets from All Nippon Airlines. Aspects of the program continued under ADL auspices in a somewhat different format.
And here is the exciting news: Last year, Matt Chanoff a San Francisco philanthropist and venture capitalist, serves on the boards of Shining Hope for Communities,(SHOFCO), which combats gender inequality and extreme poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, by linking tuition-free schools for girls to accessible social services for all. Matt has brought the contest to Nairobi, to SHOFCO, and this year for the first time, prizes have been awarded in Kenya!
What an amazing chain of events: Sugihara's moral, courageous act, impacted, among many others, the lives of my parents, me, my descendants, all those winners of the Sughara Do the right Thing Contest in the US., and now in Nairobi, and who knows how far their influence has spread and will continue to spread!