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The Sirota Family and the 20th Century at the Japan Society


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I am blessed to live in a tradition filled with many incredible people, but it is rare I actually have the chance to meet a hero.  I give sincere thanks to the Japan Society for honoring a great Jewish woman, Beate Sirota Gordon.  A distinguished lady who wrote the equality clause of the new Japanese constitution, Ms. Gordon is also the scion of an illustrious musical family whose tree is traced in the movie, The Sirota Family and the 20th Century.  As Ms. Gordon herself said, although her father has been a half-century in the grave, the director of the film fell in love with him. While Leo Sirota, her father, could obviously not be interviewed; his music is played throughout, giving him a voice in the film that shows the depths of his passion of music. It is fair to say the audience fell in love with Sirota as well.

Having a distinct love for the Japanese culture, due to their excellent literature, and being fiercely proud of my Judaism, I could not imagine a more perfect evening.  The Japan Society is a beautiful building, tucked away by Dag Hammarskjold Square, a place I had visited so many times to protest the UN.  I was very pleased to be there for a less stressful reason. From the indoor water garden to the elegant pictures on the wall, the place seems to be a quiet oasis in a very busy city. Given the emotions I knew I would feel watching a Holocaust film, I found myself feeling strangely at peace and calm. It was a perfect place to watch the movie and I hope there will be more joint Jewish-Japanese events in the future.

Both the family and the film begin in Kamianets-Podilskyi during the time period in which Ms. Gordon’s grandparents lived. Each member of the Sirota family has been blessed with an incredible gift for music. Although they endure persecution and pogroms, they continue to attend some of the most prestigious schools of music from Kiev to St. Petersberg to Paris, performing and teaching wherever they went. Leo Sirota tours the world with his music and finds himself being offered a job in the most unlikely (and non-Jewish) place – Japan. Unfortunately, their lives and the lives of the people around them are shattered when the Nazis come to power.

Ms. Gordon talks painfully of her memories of being taught to Seig Heil at the beginning of every class, of being twelve-years-old and ostracized by those around her.  An uncle perished in Auschwitz and a cousin was killed fighting in World War II. Ms. Gordon herself was in America studying at Mills College and spent years having limited conversation with and information about her parents.

     After the war ended, the twenty-two-year old Ms. Sirota joined the Occupation force in Japan as a translator, as she was one of the sixty-five Caucasians who were fluent in Japanese. Her previous experience at Time Magazine had taught her how to gather information and therefore, she was able to do the research required to assist in writing the Japanese constitution. Although the project was top secret, Ms. Gordon sneaked in to gather as much information as possible while sneaking in a few novels in order to make sure no librarians caught on to her ruse. She was instrumental in making the constitution of Japan strive for a more equal and better place for everyone, including women.

Throughout the movie, I was amazed at the strength of the Jewish people, who have given so much to such a terrible world. This is the heritage of a people who have survived and thrived and embraced the title of “chosen” by contributing wonderfully to every society where they have found themselves as refugees.  What an honor to have the Japanese cultural society honoring the contributions of our people.  When talking about fixing the world, this is where it starts.

Ms. Gordon may be elderly, but she is still taking on the world. She talks about the pride she feels in the Japanese making war illegal in the constitution, “forever renounce(ing) war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” She speaks as a grandmother who hopes to see that amendment ratified in every single country, as another world war would end the world, as we know it.  In the stress I have been feeling with the developments in the Middle East, I very much doubt that such an amendment would work, but it is a dream well worth having.

At the reception after the movie, I felt a bit overwhelmed to be the youngest person in the room and mingled accordingly, trying to sound sophisticated and praying no one would send me back to the children’s table. I was honored to actually speak with Ms. Gordon and tell her how much I shared her dream of seeing war banned. “I am not an expert on the subject,” Ms. Gordon said modestly. “But it’s the only hope we have.”

“We are all experts in peace,” I told her, and was privileged to see the smile form on the face of someone whom I hope to emulate.

I’m currently in finals and am tearing my proverbial hair out trying to wrap my brain around the picayune of corporations. Meeting Ms. Gordon reminds me that there is a chance I can make a difference. How lucky I am to have gotten the chance to meet her!

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