Virtually everyone has heard of the World War II hero Oskar Schindler. Through the valiant actions of this German businessman, more than 1,200 precious lives were saved during the Holocaust. Schindler hired Jewish workers for his factories, saving their lives from the hands of the Nazi barbarians pursuing them to the last drop of blood.

But fewer have heard the name Chiune Sugihara. Although his heroic actions never reached the lights of Hollywood or Broadway, his incredible heroism during the war certainly can’t be overlooked. Here was a regular man, a Japanese diplomat working in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania, who issued visas to some 6,000 Jews, allowing them to escape Nazi-occupied territories via Japan. As the Nazis threatened to invade Lithuania, the Jews of that region knew what their fate would hold, so thousands surrounded the Japanese consulate in Kovno, hoping to obtain a visa to safety.

Disobeying his superiors back home in Japan, Sugihara issued visas by the thousands. From July 31 to August 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all day and night writing visas for the desperate Jews.

Eventually, as the war escalated, the Japanese government shut down the consulate in Kovno. Despite that, Sugihara kept writing visas, even from the window of his train as it was about to draw away from the platform and leave the city. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job!

After receiving their visas, the refugees typically followed a train route to Moscow, then followed the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, and on to Kobe, Japan. Most stayed in Kobe for a few months, then went on to Shanghai, China, and elsewhere.

My grandfather, Reb Nochum Preger, of blessed memory, was one of those fortunate enough to obtain a visa directly from Sugihara’s operation. He was the 44th name on the list of 52 yeshivah students, from Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim in Vilna and elsewhere in Europe, who were granted visas. The fact is, if not for Sugihara’s actions, I wouldn’t be here to write this essay. It’s that simple.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that 40,000 people are alive today because of the Sugiharas’ efforts! In 1985, as a small gesture of appreciation and gratitude for his efforts, Israel named Sugihara a “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He died a year later in Tokyo.1

Mark Salomon is a grandson of Bernard Salomon, and therefore directly linked to Sugihara’s 299th visa. Mark made the following statement, knowing that his family would not have existed without Sugihara: “Most people have this idea that you can’t really help the whole world, so what’s the point?” But, Mark continued, Sugihara showed that “whatever you are doing with yourself, you are having a much broader impact. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees, but it’s important in every aspect of your life to remember you are having an effect and to make it a positive effect.”2

Universal Transformation?

Calls to “change the world for the better!” and for tikkun olam are ubiquitous motivational slogans, persuading us to get out there and make this world a better place.

But looking around, one sees a world teeming with evil and negativity. How then can the One Above expect us to transform this apparent scrapheap filled with evil into a beautiful garden for His pleasure? It seems impossible!

Making It Personal

“You shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in them.”3

Grammatically speaking, wouldn’t it be more correct to say “in it”—in the sanctuary? Isn’t the verse referring to G‑d’s presence finding a home there?

Our sages explain that the verse is (also) referring to every individual. That’s right: that means you, too! All of us can—and must—construct a magnificent sanctuary inside our hearts and minds. It’s a garden that even meets the standards of the Almighty.4

Is it possible? Surely! For if G‑d commanded us to build it, then we are certainly capable of doing so.5

This commandment of personal Temple-building portrays the unique power of every individual. We are given the ability to achieve so much more than our wildest dreams can predict! As a young Jewish girl who endured the Nazi onslaught wrote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Her name was Anne Frank.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Sugihara’s herculean efforts to build a “sanctuary” for my grandfather would lead to my zaide building his own sanctuary, as the following story depicts.

On the first night of Passover, 1981, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—passed my grandfather’s home on President Street in Brooklyn. He was on his way from observing the Seder at the local yeshivah dining room to a public Seder at the Machon Chana school for women. The Rebbe stopped in front of my grandfather and asked, “Is this your mikdash me’at, minor Holy Temple?” When my grandfather replied that is was indeed, the Rebbe remarked, “May the verse ‘And I will dwell in them’ be fulfilled in actuality!” Thanks to Sugihara, my grandfather was able to make it across the Atlantic to the shores of America, and to build himself the most glorious sanctuary in which the Almighty could feel right at home!

Yes, one person can indeed change this beast of a world. Indeed, there’s an obligation placed upon the shoulders of every solitary human being to do their part. The impact of our positive actions will follow, as the the water ripples outward from one stone dropped in a pool of water.6