FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Holocaust survivor Samuil Manski believes strongly in fate, having been in the right place at the right time after fleeing Europe with a visa granted by a Japanese diplomat before ending up in Boston.
“How can you not believe in fate?” asked Manski, 90, during a recent interview. “I don’t fight fate.”
He vividly recalls what happened almost 70 years ago and hopes the world will not forget what he endured.
For almost 1 1/2 years he journeyed away from his native Poland, living in Lithuania, traversing the Soviet Union, entering Japan and winding up in Massachusetts, living with his father.
A lifesaving piece of paper issued by Chiune Sugihara, at the time Japan’s deputy consul general in Lithuania, is what gave him that chance.
Manski, his mother, brother, sister and three relatives were among upward of 6,000 Jews granted visas by the diplomat, reportedly in defiance of Tokyo’s orders.
“At that time he (Sugihara) had to be in that particular place and I had to be in that particular place at the same time and the conditions were ripe for something like this,” Manski said. “To me it matters that I am here. . . . It is a part of fate.”
The Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact meant his eastern hometown of Lida fell under Soviet control.
“The fact that Lida was occupied by the Russians rather than by the Germans saved my life,” he wrote in “With God’s Help,” a book he penned at the urging of his family and which was published in 1990.
The Polish native never saw a Nazi, but they later killed his grandmother, grandfather and other relatives after he fled.
“When you get an opportunity, you take it,” Manski recalled of his New Year’s Eve escape into neighboring Lithuania in 1939.
Because of work with the Soviet military, he knew when to cross the border. Fearing he could be shot for desertion, he got a doctor’s note after feigning illness by smoking and standing near a fireplace.
Manski, his cousin and another girl slipped into Lithuania but were caught and held until bribes won their freedom.
Once safely in the Lithuanian town of Ejszyski with relatives, they secured fake papers to remain there. As the year wore on the Soviets swallowed up the country.
So when rumors circulated that a Japanese diplomat was handing out transit visas to travel through Japan to Curacao, an island in the south Caribbean Sea, his mother jumped at the chance.
On Aug. 9, 1940, Manski received his visa. His oldest son, Chuck, now proudly displays the passport and the handwritten visa at his Chicago home.
“To this day, I am not certain why the Japanese took the trouble to issue visas to us Jewish refugees,” the elder Manski wrote. “Whatever the reason, again God was with us.”
With their visas, the family set off for Japan in January the following year but had to leave their 82-year-old grandmother behind.
In the dead of winter they boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway to begin the lengthy ride to Vladivostok, where they took a “cattle boat” for western Japan.
On the second day of the “rough” crossing, they landed in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on Feb. 24. “My first impression was of a fairyland, with small houses, flowers, clean streets and very polite people,” he wrote after setting foot in Japan.
They then headed for Kobe to secure visas for the United States.
With time on his hands, the young man often roamed the city. What stood out was that every time he turned around “there were people behind you, showing the way to go.”
He also remembered periodic rumors sparking fears the Nazis would convince their Japanese allies to send them back to Europe.
On April 30, their documents were finally approved.
Happily, the family boarded the Heian Maru, landing in Seattle on May 18. Shortly afterward they headed for Boston.
Filled with ambition, Manski plunged into his new life, taking classes to improve his English, working part time and then graduating from college.
In 1946, he married Estelle, started a family and was well on the road to becoming a successful hosiery salesman.
As life moved on and his three sons grew up, he appreciated how the visa brought him a new life. Yet, he did not think about Sugihara, whom he never met in person, until a Boston Globe reporter interviewed him by phone in the early 1990s.
“So all of a sudden a bell starts ringing in my head,” the former salesman said, adding the idea to build Sugihara a memorial at Temple Emeth near Boston “began to cook.”
Finally, after he collected enough money, the memorial was unveiled April 30, 2000.
Sugihara’s image is etched on black marble with a passage from Samuel 17:10 describing him in English, Hebrew and Japanese as a “valiant man whose heart is like that of a lion.”
On top of tirelessly working with Israeli and Japanese diplomats to keep the story alive, Manski spent time in local schools as well, often working with other younger temple members.
Despite an unbridled enthusiasm, his declining health prevented him from making more appearances. There are tentative plans, however, to link him with college students via webcasts.
For his hard work Manski was awarded a certificate of appreciation in July by Japan’s consul general in Boston.
“Mr. Manski takes it as his role to relay the Sugihara story to the next generation,” said Masaru Tsuji, former Boston consul general who is now in Japan.
As a lightning rod for preserving the past, Manski also seems determined to rightly honor individuals such as Sugihara.
“Without the past there can be no present and without the present there can be no future,” he wrote in his book’s epilogue.