In 1939, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara was working in the Japanese embassy in Lithuania during one of the most terrible periods humanity has known, and he saved thousands of Polish Jews from the Nazi threat by issuing them with exit visas.
His act of heroism, in defying his own government for many years, was just an obscure footnote in the history of the War until the people whom Sugihara had saved broke their silence and decided to tell his story. Then everyone celebrated his great courage; the media joined in and authors were inspired to write books describing him as a ‘Japanese Schindler’.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government was collating the names of all such saviours in order to reward them for their efforts. One of the ways in which the Jewish state tried to acknowledge their debt to these heroes was to plant trees in their honour. When Sugihara’s bravery became known, the Israeli authorities planned, as was the custom, to plant a grove of trees in his memory, cherry trees – Japan’s traditional tree.
Suddenly, the unusual decision was taken to revoke the order. They decided that cherry trees were not an adequate symbol of Sugihara’s courage. They chose instead to plant a grove of cedar trees because the cedar is a much more vigorous tree and one with sacred connotations, having been used in the construction of the first Temple.
Only when the trees had already been planted did the authorities learn that in Japanese ‘sugihara’ means…a grove of cedar trees.
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