Author recounts story of survival

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Journalist and author Masha Leon, born in Poland to a political activist father imprisoned during the Holocaust, told a Forest Hills audience last week that she owes her life to two people: her quick-thinking mother and a Japanese diplomat-turned-spy whom she never met.

Leon and her mother fled occupied Warsaw to Bialystok to Vilnius to Moscow to Vladivostok to Kobe to Vancouver to Montreal to Chicago to New York during World War II, but their passage and stay through Russia and Japan were thanks to an extraordinary series of events.

After escaping from Warsaw and heading east as far as Vilnius in Lithuania by 1941, Leon's mother secured tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost city, but her health began deteriorating, Leon said. Doing the opposite of what made sense to her, her mother went to Intourist, the Soviet travel agency, to ask if there was a faster way to Vladivostok.

"Just then a pilot walks in and says his plane can't take off unless every seat is filled, and he has two empty seats," she said. Leon traded her train ticket and food coupons for the flight. The train never left Moscow, she said.

The passage to Vladivostok was made possible by a special visa issued to Leon's mother before they left Vilnius by a man named Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat sent to the Lithuanian city to spy on German and Soviet troop movements, she said.

A Jewish boy invited Sugihara to his family's Hanukkah party, where he met other Jewish refugees whose stories made an impression on the Japanese man, Leon said.

Sugihara's telegrams to Japan asking the government to offer them asylum were denied, so in August 1940 with his wife's blessing he issued thousands of visas to Jewish families without state approval, one of which got Leon and her mother to Kobe, Japan, and seven months of safety.

Leon said she only found out in the 1980s, after Sugihara's story began to become known.

As a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, Leon learned about the man who had saved her and met and interviewed Sugihara's widow in the 1980s.

"I broke down sobbing in front of her because this is the woman who could've told her husband, 'Don't do it,' " Leon said.

Sugihara was dismissed from the diplomatic service by the Japanese government in 1945 and stripped of his power. He died in 1986.

"The Israeli consul general heard about him, sought him out and honored him [in 1969]," Leon said. "His own children didn't know what he'd done."

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