You know the old saying about the personal being the political? In the end, the personal is the political, but the personal doesn’t stop there. The personal undergirds everything. That’s why we can’t help caring more about people we know than people we don’t know, and why one of a fascist’s first moves is to dehumanize the outgroup he plans to exterminate.
It would take a stone heart not to be moved by the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed as vice-consul in Kaunsas, Lithuania, who saved thousands of Jews in 1940, writing visa after visa after visa almost impossibly after visa, far past the point where his hand cramped unbearably and his arm stopped working. He issued those visas despite his government’s orders that he stop.
He was an extraordinary man, and Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations in 1984.
But there are estimated to be many thousands of people who are alive now because Sugihara saved their parents or grandparents. One of those people is Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck. And then there are people like the cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper.
So Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem commissioned the composer Lera Auerbach to write a symphony called “Vessels of Light” to honor Sugihara’s memory. The symphony was “at Ms. Cooper’s initiative,” Mr. Mlotek said; it was Ms. Cooper who first approached Ms. Auerbach, and it will be Ms. Cooper — a “world-renowned Japanese-American-Israeli cellist,” Mr. Mlotek added — who is the soloist at the symphony’s American premiere on April 19. (See box.)
And Mr. Mlotek, who is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene and will emcee the performance, also has become the chorus master, teaching the singers how to pronounce the Yiddish words they will sing. That’s because “both my father and my uncle were recipients of Chiune Sugihara’s heroism and courage, so anything I can do to honor his name is holy work for me.
Mr. Mlotek’s father, Joseph Mlotek, “never talked about this with me,” Zalmen Mlotek said. “Everything I know I pieced together from writing and interviews.
“My father was such an emotional man. He had lost his parents, and all his siblings except a brother, Abram, and a sister, Sara — he also lost his grandparents, and most of his extended family. They all were murdered, and he couldn’t talk about it without crying. And when he cried, I cried. I didn’t have the sense or the maturity at that age to say, ‘Okay, we will go through this story this time, and I will write it down.’
“I couldn’t do it, and he couldn’t do it.”
But “I do have poetry and letters that he wrote,” Mr. Mlotek added.
Joseph Mlotek was born in 1918. On September 6, 1939, the Nazis marched into Warsaw. Three days later, Mr. Mlotek, at 21 already a journalist working for a Yiddish-language socialist newspaper and an up-and-coming leader, left the city with his brother, who was a few years older. From Warsaw, they went to Vilnius, and then to Kaunsas. “I don’t know if they heard about Sugihara,” Mr. Mlotek said. “There was a rumor; news spread about a Japanese diplomat signing visas. The story is that when Sugihara saw all those Jews, hundreds and hundreds of Jews, at the gates, waiting, then against the orders of the Emperor Hirohito, who said not to get involved, he went with his conscience.
“It’s an amazing story.” By the time he was forced to stop, “it was 6,000 visas later,” Mr. Mlotek said. That’s 6,000 worlds that Chiune Sugihara saved.
Joseph and Abram Mlotek went from Lithuania to Vladivostok on the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast then to Kobe, Japan, and from there to Shanghai, where they spent the rest of the war.
“My father already was known as a Yiddish writer and teacher, and he was active in youth groups, so he got a job in Calgary, in western Canada, teaching in a Workman’s Circle school,” Mr. Mlotek said. “From there, he went to New York.” He met Chana Gordon, they fell in love, got married, and went on to long careers as Yiddish folklorists and Yiddish music unearthers, popularizers, and archivists. Joseph Mlotek died in 2000, and Chana Mlotek died in 2013.
Ms. Cooper, who can trace her ancestry through her Japanese mother to a Japanese composer and a poet who composed haiku, is an American, a Jew by choice, who splits her time between the United States and Tel Aviv, where she is deeply involved in the music world. She plays two very old cellos, one made by Guadagnini in 1743 and the other made by William Forster Senior in 1786. And she is the daughter-in-law of Irving Rosen, whom Sugihara saved. (Her husband is investment banker Leonard Rosen; they have three children together.)
Returning to the music, “Inspired by the heroism of Chiune Sugihara and the thousands of Jewish lives saved through his decisions and actions during World War II, Lera Auerbach created the music, libretto, and artistic concept for Symphony No. 6 ‘Vessels of Light’ for violoncello, choir, and orchestra,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Auerbach was inspired by the heroism of Chiune Sugihara and the thousands of Jewish lives he saved. She weaves a multilayered tapestry of words and music with Yiddish poetry, the art of Japanese Kintsugi, the mystical Shevirat ha-kelim — the breaking of the vessels — and the words of Psalm 121 in a work she dedicates to Chiune Sugihara and all those who risk everything to save others.
“The score of ‘Vessels of Light’ is musically gorgeous,” he continued. “The composer consulted with the pianist Evgeny Kissin. And she consulted with Boris Sandler, who was the Yiddish editor of the Forward for many years, on the poetry.”
The poetry that the chorus sings “is extraordinary. It’s by some of the Soviet poets whom Stalin murdered, and some Israeli poets, and some American poets. I don’t know, so I can’t categorically say that this is the first symphonic work to use Yiddish poetry of this kind, but I believe that it is certainly one of very few to do so.
“The music is extraordinarily suited to the emotion of the text.”
There is so much emotion in the symphony that for everyone involved, “this is more than just a gig,” Mr. Mlotek said.
Instead, it is holy work, he said.
Who: Kristina Reiko Cooper and the New York City Opera and Chorus
What: Perform the American premiere of Lera Auerbach’s “Vessels of Light”
When: On Wednesday, April 19, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan
How: Go to www.carnegiehall.org and follow the links for tickets