A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust by Alison Leslie Gold.
Polaris, Scholastic, New York, 2000.
Nonfiction, 176 pages.
Lexile: 980L .
AR Level: not leveled
The story of one Japanese diplomat who followed his conscience to issue life-saving passports to Jews during World War II, against the orders of his superiors.
Sugihara was such an interesting figure. Many of his choices, starting with the one that caused him to eventually become a diplomat, were quite unusual for Japanese society. His early experiences defying his father look, in retrospect, like preparation for his major act of defiance in issuing the passports.
I couldn’t help but feel that many of his decisions would be presented differently in a Japanese book. Indeed, this very multicultural story could be viewed different ways by Japanese, Russian, Jewish, German, or American readers.
This particular story emphasized his independence, which makes sense given that it’s written for an American audience. After studying Russian, Sugihara eventually converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, and I was also curious how much, if at all, that affected his decisions.
How refreshing to read a story of WWII that wasn’t Euro-centric or American! While those stories are important too, I feel like everything I’ve read about the war focuses on an American or European experience, even though WWII also impacted Asia and Africa.
Although this does give the story of Sugihara’s life, I’ve labeled it as nonfiction rather than biography because the focus of the book is on his heroic actions during the Holocaust. Gold makes the bold, and entirely correct, choice to also focus on two specific young people who were in Lithuania at that time and received visas from Sugihara.
Masha Bernstein was a Polish refugee whose determined mother fled to Lithuania with her. Solly Ganor was a Jewish Lithuanian boy who personally knew Sugihara. Both were issued Visas, but the outcomes were very different. Gold focuses mainly on these two children’s stories in chapters that break up Sugihara’s narrative. They represent in more detail the various people and outcomes of the many, many Jews whom Sugihara only interacted with briefly.
Two well-chosen photo sections provide a visual window into Sugihara’s world, but nothing can fully explain why Sugihara, at great risk to his family, career, and life, would choose to save the lives of thousands of strangers he had been raised and trained to disdain. We can only admire his bold and courageous actions.
Some ethical questions might not be apparent to young readers, but offer food for thought for any adult readers of this book. Sugihara made choices that put his family in grave danger. His wife acquiesced, but his young children did not. Does what happened later change whether his decision was correct? Should he have lied to his government about what he did? There are ample points for discussion and debate.
I haven’t seen any curriculum based around this book, although there are other lesson plans about Sugihara. In fact, this 2000 book seems largely forgotten and unknown, even by teachers who I know do lesson plans on the Holocaust. There is also a picture book, aimed at introducing Sugihara’s story to young readers, which I’ve added to my TBR along with his wife Yukiko’s book Visas for Life.
It’s sad that this book is not better known, because it is very well done. The story on its own is moving, but Gold does a good job of translating it into a read appropriate for middle grade students. Some middle grade books are not likely to appeal to older readers, but I think this one would interest teens and adults as well.