A child survivor of the Holocaust who transformed world financial markets gave credit to two men and two nations Sunday night, Jan. 21, at Sandy Springs’ Westin Atlanta Perimeter North.
Leo Melamed, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange chairman emeritus who invented financial futures and moved futures trading from a warehouse floor in Chicago to computers everywhere, was the keynote speaker at Am Yisrael Chai’s “Conscience and Action” event, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day six days later.
Melamed and his parents fled Poland to Lithuania when he was 7, thanks to the foresight of his father regarding the Nazis’ intentions. They then escaped to Japan with one of 2,000 or so transit visas issued by Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, whose acts of conscience in defiance of his government’s orders saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish lives. Melamed expressed gratitude for the warm welcome extended by the people of northern Japan.
Am Yisrael Chai, which is dedicated to Holocaust education and genocide prevention, devoted this year’s event to Sugihara, whom Melamed called one of the most righteous men in the world. Melamed has spent several decades helping the Sugihara family publicize the diplomat’s heroism. A film about Sugihara, “Persona Non Grata,” premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival two years ago.
One of Sugihara’s grandsons, Chihiro Sugihara, also spoke at the Jan. 21 event. Even though his grandfather was only 5-foot-4, he said he remembers him being like a big refrigerator — solid outside and beautiful and fresh inside.
Congregation Ariel Rabbi Binyomin Friedman’s father-in-law, Rabbi Yehudah Dickstein, who died in October, was one of the thousands saved by Sugihara, whose beneficiaries included everyone studying at the Mir Yeshiva.
Drawing on the Talmudic lesson that saving a life is like saving a world, Rabbi Friedman said, “This heroic man saved many thousands of worlds.”
Am Yisrael Chai is bringing its Daffodil Project — an effort to plant 1.5 million daffodils in memory of the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust — to Japan to honor Sugihara with a memorial garden at his alma mater in Tokyo, Waseda University. Donations were collected at the event toward that purpose.
But Melamed, whose life was saved and fortune made through forward thinking, didn’t limit the ceremony’s focus to the past.
Speaking during a federal government shutdown linked to the fate of immigrants, he sent a clear message about the value of refugees and other immigrants, as well as the importance of the American conscience. Melamed said he and his parents reached Chicago with no money, no family and no clout, but the United States enabled him to use his talents and his imagination to reach the top of the business world.
“This country gave me that opportunity,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world.”