A Futures Trader’s Debt to the Past
Crain’s Chicago Business - Shia Kapos.
April 17, 2015

Lep Melamed
Leo Melamed

Leo Melamed was 7 when he and his family fled Poland to escape the Nazis. They traveled to Lithuania, where a Japanese consular official defied government orders by issuing a coveted travel visa that allowed them to immigrate to the United States.

“My mother told me later that she didn't let go of my hand for two years,” recalls Melamed about his family's journey from Poland to Lithuania and then Japan and, finally, Chicago.

Melamed, now 82, became a world-renowned player in the financial industry. As head of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he helped introduce electronic trading to the futures industry in the U.S. and opened the door to such trading in Japan, Korea, Singapore and, most recently, China.

That childhood connection to Asia was underlined this month when a Tokyo university gave Melamed an honorary degree for his work highlighting the wartime heroism of that long-ago official.

Melamed, born Leibel Melamdovich, and his parents never met Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese general counsel in Lithuania in 1940. But they were among 2,000 Jews to receive the lifesaving visas that allowed them to travel the treacherous Trans-Siberian Railway and on to Japan.

Melamed's parents were schoolteachers. His father was an outspoken critic of Soviet communism, which made the family's trek even more perilous. While they were in Lithuania, the Soviet Union took control, and Melamed's father became a target for his political views.

“We were being chased by the Nazis and were afraid of the KGB, too,” Melamed recalls.

Fifty years after the war's end, the U.S. government unsealed documents that were sent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., including one that listed Melamed's family among those needing U.S. protection. A museum curator came across the document and called Melamed, a former member of the museum's governing council.

“She says, 'You'll never believe what I'm looking at. Here I am holding a letter to the ambassador from the State Department and it concerns you,' ” Melamed says.

Family lore had it that the Melameds were granted entry into the United States because his father correctly answered a key question about what he intended to do for work. Not wanting to indicate he might take a job away from an American, the senior Melamed said he would teach Yiddish. “He wouldn't be taking a job from anyone,” Melamed says, laughing.

HIGHER ORDER

Many years later, Melamed was speaking at a financial event and met Sugihara's son, Hiroki. Hiroki Sugihara had dedicated his life to sharing his father's story of risking his life to save European Jews and he asked Melamed for help.

The elder Sugihara was arrested by the Soviets on unrelated charges and held with his family for three years. They returned to Japan and he died in virtual obscurity.

“It took the world a long time to recognize the deed this man carried out. (Oskar) Schindler is famous, but he had an economic purpose. The Jews he saved worked for his factory,” Melamed says of the man made famous in the film “Schindler's List.” “This man, Sugihara, had no economic purpose of any kind and in fact got in trouble for violating the rules. He told his son and his wife, 'I'm following the rules of a higher order.' He had no other reason but a moral conscience to do this.”

“He bent the rules that a lot of diplomats were not willing to do to help Jewish refugees at that time,” says Susan Bachrach, whose team at the Holocaust Museum uncovered the document. For years, Melamed would speak at events in the U.S. and Japan with Sugihara's son.

“He would talk about life in the consulate with his father, and I would tell my story,” Melamed says. Hiroki Sugihara died a few years ago, and Melamed since has stayed connected with Waseda University, the elder Sugihara's alma mater, and continued to bring awareness to his story.

Melamed, now CME chairman emeritus, also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his recent trip, and expects he'll visit again.

“I vowed I would never say no to anything that relates to Chiune Sugihara,” he says. “I couldn't because I owe my life to him.”

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