Just recently, I went to Lithuania on a research trip for my second novel. I joined an Jewish American Genealogy Tour and spent ten days with a group of fascinating people, each with their own story to tell.
I met one of the participants on an afternoon off in Kaunas. A lovely New Yorker, named Robin, who was searching for a statue, in front of which, her mother had had her picture taken, with her sister, in 1940.
As luck would have it we found the statue within minutes, in the grounds of a theatre, nearby our hotel and Robin asked if I would take some photos of her in front of the statue to create a then and now set of images for her family.
I was honored and incredibly interested in the story behind the photos. It is one I have contemplated many times since my return. The protagonist, a 15 year-old girl, gets sent with her sister from a small village in Poland to Kaunas to try and achieve exit visas for herself and her sister.
They make contact with certain people who steer them in the direction of a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara, a man who helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis. Most were housed in a detention center in Tokyo until the war ended when they were able to continue their journey onto New York, Johannesburg or London.
Robin’s mother and aunt were lucky to attain visas to New York straight away, and at some point in the future, her grandmother joined them.
It’s a wonderful story that, in such a time of deep tragedy for the Jewish people, warms my soul. Robin’s grandmother’s decision to send her two daughters on such a mission can now be seen as inspired and heroic, but at the time must have felt desperate and frightening. Sugihara and others, who helped those two girls on their journey half way across the world were probably risking their lives to do so, and were equally brave. And what about the girls themselves? The experience must have coloured their perspective on life for the rest of their days, hopefully in a good way because they did it. They actually survived.
Someone said to me the other day that it’s not survival of the fittest, per se, but survival of the most adaptable. In the light of the above story, and based on my own experience, I think that’s true.
All of this is totally anachronistic, and has absolutely nothing to do with the novel I was researching, of course …