One of the many deeply depressing aspects of the Holocaust is that many of its victims could have been saved, if only others had given them safe harbor. Across Europe, Jews attempted to escape the Nazi regime but were turned away by countries that refused to take them or even assist them in obtaining safe passage. Japan, an ally of Nazi Germany, was officially one such country. But thanks to a rogue diplomat stationed in Lithuania named Chiune Sugihara, who disobeyed his government’s directives, thousands of Jews, including many Polish yeshiva students, were able to acquire exit visas and flee through Japan, many ultimately arriving in America.
I’m very familiar with the story of these Jews, because my grandfather was one of them. Which is why a piece in this past week’s Wall Street Journal caught my eye. In an article titled “A Mole Inside Assad’s Embassy Aided Syrian Rebels,” Adam Entous tells a strikingly familiar story.
Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in the Syrian embassy here, was leaving Ramadan prayers at a mosque late one night two years ago when he ran into an opponent of the Syrian regime. Mr. Barabandi knew the man slightly and offered him a ride home.
The chance conversation that followed transformed the diplomat’s life. It also altered the fortunes of scores of Syrians working to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I need to ask you something,” the regime opponent, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, said as they trundled through Washington in a rusty Audi 2000. “There are these activists, and they need passports.”
Mr. Barabandi thought for a few seconds, then said he would help.
Entous goes on to tell how Barabandi, working out of the Syrian embassy in Washington, secretly “issued travel documents for nearly 100 Syrian activists, according to interviews with him and more than a dozen opposition leaders.” With Barabandi’s illicit passports in hand, “activists were able to flee and campaign against the same regime he officially represented.” Even as the death toll in Syria eclipsed 100,000, these opposition leaders escaped to tell Syria’s story and work against the murderous Assad regime. The piece continues:
Opposition figures in the U.S. and Europe say Mr. Barabandi has been a lifeline. Besides antiregime activists, he obtained passports for ordinary Syrians blacklisted by the Assad regime, according to interviews and Syrian government documents. He also secretly passed information about the regime to the Syrian opposition and U.S. lawmakers, helping identify targets for sanctions later imposed.
Read whole thing for a full account of the cloak-and-dagger methods Barabandi employed to stay one step ahead of the Syrian regime. He has since applied for asylum in the U.S., where his application is currently being reviewed.
In 1985, an Israeli writer tracked down Chiune Sugihara, then living a quiet and anonymous life in Japan, and asked him what made him do what he did. Sugihara answered,
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well, it is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face-to-face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them…
I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives…
The spirit of humanity, philanthropy, neighborly friendship … with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
In times like these, such stories remind us that even as human beings are capable of the cruel depravity of a Hitler or an Assad, they are also capable of the remarkable courage and fortitude of a Sugihara or a Barabandi.
Related: Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer