By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
BEVERLY HILLS – “What can an eight-year-old do on a train for three weeks?” asked Leo Melamed, recalling a harrowing episode from his childhood. “There was nothing to do, so I learned to play chess.”
This was no ordinary ride on the rails. It was a flight to freedom for Melamed and his family, through the frigid Russian tundra along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, out of Nazi-occupied Poland and Lithuania to eastern Russia and later, Japan.
Melamed, 84, was sharing his stories during a Kol Nidre service, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. The event, held Tuesday evening at the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts, also included comments from actor Edward James Olmos and Judea Pearl, whose son Daniel was a Wall Street Journal reporter slain by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.
Many in the financial industry know Melamed’s name as a pioneer of the futures market, the man who created the world’s first electronic trading platform. As a law school student in Chicago, he misread a want ad for a part-time job and wound up working as a runner on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane.
Melamed was a shrewd study and absorbed the workings of finance and trading, and by 1969, he was chairman of the CME.
He and his wife, Betty, have three children and several grandchildren. The ripples in the pond of his life might never have spread, however, if not for the courageous action of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, regarded as one of the most important figures of the war.
Melamed was born Leibel Melamdovich in 1932, to a Jewish family in Bialystok, Poland. When German forces overran Poland in 1939 and 1940, Melamed’s father feared he would be targeted.
“My father was a teacher, and we knew that anyone with education, anyone who might be seen as a threat to the Nazis, would be captured first,” he explained.
Sugihara was stationed in Lithuania as a vice consul for German-allied Japan, and received explicit instructions from Tokyo not to issue exit visas for Jews seeking to leave areas controlled by the Nazis. Risking not only his career but his life, he defied the order and signed off on some 6,000 exit visas, allowing Jews of occupied Poland and Lithuania to travel to areas controlled by Japan.
Melamed said he has several clear memories of his family’s escape from Eastern Europe, and while he might have been too young to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, he could feel his parents’ desperation.
“The were worried, calm, but very desperate,” he remembered.
In his remarks during Tuesday service, Melamed told of the soothing words of his mother and how she explained the immeasurable value of Sugihara’s generosity and humanity.
“This is a miracle in our hand,” his mother said of the visas.
The Melamdovich family – among many others – rode the train in rugged conditions all the way to the eastern port city of Vladivostok, then ferried to Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture and other parts of Japan. By April 1941, the family had settled in the U.S.
Melamed later befriended Sugihara’s son, Hiroki, who relayed a quote from his father over his decision to issue the visas.
“If I listen to the dictates of my government, I will violate the dictates of my god,” Sugihara is said to have believed.
In 1985, Sugihara, then age 84, was named to Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations, a solemn honor bestowed by that nation’s government. He and his descendants were also granted Israeli citizenship, in perpetuity. Too frail to make the trip, Sugihara asked his wife and youngest son to accept the award on his behalf. Chiune Sugihara died the following year.
“He is simply one of the greatest of humanity,” Melamed said Tuesday. “Through him, I learned the willingness to take a risk, to take chances on new ideas and new ventures. There is never a guarantee in life, but you have to live to learn.”
Melamed’s memoirs have been translated into several languages, including Japanese, and he said he is always mindful of how human kindness played a role in the story of his life.
“Long ago, I made a promise never to forget my thankfulness for Sugihara. Never.”