Another Hero I’ve Never Met

I recently had a powerful conversation with a friend about humility and arrogance.  We talked about the danger and allure of arrogance, how blinding it is and how much it keeps us from seeing each other’s humanity.

“Sometimes,” my friend shared, in a moment of deep candor and vulnerability, “even when I’m actively not being arrogant, I wonder if I’m being arrogant.”

I think we all know what she means – how easy it is to value our own strengths, how easy it is to take credit for our own successes, how easy it is to create separation, to be blind to the gifts of others, to forget that who we are and what we have is thanks to others.

Here’s how I was reminded of the wisdom of her words.

On my way into work yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about Tatsuo Osako, a man I’d never heard of, a man who is a hero to me…

Before getting to Mr. Osako, a bit of background.  I am the grandson of refugees, Holocaust survivors who escaped the Nazis in 1940 thanks to Chiune Sugihara, a Japanase vice consul in Kovno, Lithuania.

In 1940, Mr. Sugihara, defying his superiors, issued transit visas to more than 6,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Lithuania. These visas allowed these Jews, including my grandparents, to escape Lithuania and go by train to Vladivostok, Russia, and then to Japan by boat, saving them from the concentration camps.

The story of Mr. Sugihara is part of my family history.  My grandfather told this story to us countless times when we were kids, and long ago I read the 1979 book The Fugu Plan by  Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, that documents this history.

Mr. Sugihara didn’t act alone.  Someone needed to escort these thousands of Jewish refugees on the boat trips from Russia to Japan and ensure them safe passage.  And that brings us back to Tatsuo Osako.   He was not a diplomat, he was an employee of the Japan National Tourism Organization.  Yet he spent nine months from 1940 to 1941 serving as this escort on boats going back and forth between Russia and Japan, a civilian playing a diplomat’s role because there was no diplomat to do the job.

Tatsuo Osako with a passenger on a ship

Sadly, I’ve never met Mr. Osako, my newly-discovered hero who died in 2003.  But, thanks that article, I not only learned about Mr. Osako, I learned, while barreling towards Grand Central Station, that the author of the book about Mr. Osako, Akira Kitade, was going to be in Grand Central Station as part of an exposition that day by the Japanese Tourism Organization.  Turning my day upside-down, I made my way to Vanderbilt Hall and found my way to Mr. Kitade, a quiet man in his early 70s in a black shirt and a trim tweed jacket.  Many years after the War, Mr. Kitade worked for Mr. Osako at the Japanese Tourism Organization, and though Mr. Osako never spoke about his part in helping these 6,000 Jews escape, Mr. Kitade eventually learned about Mr. Osako’s story and decided to write a book about it.

Making my way past the velvet ropes to the back of Vanderbilt Hall, I found Mr. Kitade and introduced myself.  I shared my story and he shared his.  Our conversation was kind, open, and also tentative thanks to language barriers.  I bought a copy of his book, still only in Japanese, and we talked about his hope that Stephen Spielberg will someday make a movie about Mr. Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler.”

Akira Kitade with the scrapbook of Tatsuo Osako. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

I also met Chikako Ichihara, the woman in charge of the Japan Tourist Board exhibition.  Though she was swirling in the rush of last-minute preparations for this expo that she’s spent a year developing, she stopped and made a few minutes to talk.  I found myself overcome with emotion, as was she, as I related my family history and shared my gratitude for her choice to include the history of Mr. Sugihara and Mr. Osako in the expo.   She shared some details I didn’t know about the Japanese government’s policies and about the heroics of so many everyday people who chose to take a stand and do something they knew was right. As we closed our conversation, she shared that her father had come from the same village as Mr. Sugihara, the man who wrote the visas that saved thousands of lives.

What a morning.  What a reminder, impossible to ignore, that so many people I’ve never met are part of who I am, that there are so many ghosts of everyday heroes who have paved the path for me.

We all have these stories in our lives, known or unknown to us.  They too often are lost in the blur of the everyday, allowing us to create a too-narrow narrative about who we are and what it took for us to arrive at today, at this place, at this life.

We are who we think we are, and we are also so much more thanks to the incalculable efforts of so many heroes, past and present, to whom we owe our gratitude.