Leo Melamed Retraces Path of Escape From Nazis to Japanese Port

Mercantile Exchange Chief Rescued by 'Japanese Schindler'

Leo Melamed escaped the Holocaust by way of Japan, and went on to lead the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
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Leo Melamed escaped the Holocaust by way of Japan, and went on to lead the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 27, 2014.
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To this day, Leo Melamed recalls vividly the first thing his mother did when his family walked off the boat at the small Japanese port city of Tsuruga.

“She told me that she can now let go of my hand,” Melamed recalled. “She held my hand for two years straight.”

It was the first safe land the Jewish family had stepped on since fleeing their home in Nazi-occupied Poland two years earlier.

“This is the first time I can take a deep breath without being afraid that it might be my last,” his mother told her husband and her 7-year-old son when they stepped off the boat.

Back then, the young refugee was still called Leibel Melamdovich. But it was as Leo Melamed that he would later become one of the world’s best-known financial innovators, father of the futures market and of currency trading exchanges that have revolutionized stock markets worldwide.

As he spoke with the Forward in late June, Melamed was preparing to travel back to Tsuruga, the port of his boyhood refuge, to help memorialize the experiences he and 2,000 other Jews had there. They were a fortunate cohort saved by the intervention of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara — sometimes known as the Japanese Raul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler — even as his government prepared to ally itself with Nazi Germany.

Leo Melamed with his parents in Poland before the family fled Nazi Europe.
Courtesy of Leo Melamed
Leo Melamed with his parents in Poland before the family fled Nazi Europe.

Today, the city is no longer a key port for travelers crossing over from Russia, as Melamed and his family did. But the city’s leaders have set up the Port of Humanity museum, which honors the role it played in rescuing European refugees.

Melamed will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 1 during his visit, and will represent the survivors at the Tsuruga museum alongside Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Melamed has returned to Japan many times since he took refuge on its shores as a child. He came back as an accomplished business leader and a self-made financial wizard. At 82, Melamed is still at the top of his field. He serves as chairman emeritus of CME Group, formerly known as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and his brainchild, the financial futures exchange, is still viewed as one of the innovations that changed the world of trading in the 20th century.

Melamed sees his childhood journey from Eastern Europe, through Japan and finally arriving in America as key to shaping his business career. “I was accused of being acquainted with risk from childhood, so I guess I became a risk taker,” he said in his June 24 interview. “I think there is some truth to that.”

Melamed’s story of survival is also the story of Japan’s only citizen to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Sugihara was a Japanese vice consul in Lithuania when he decided to defy orders from his own government and grant travel visas to thousands of refugees, many of them Jewish, enabling their passage to freedom.

“If I follow the dictates of my government, I will be violating the dictates of my god,” Sugihara said afterward, explaining his actions. While many had thought the Japanese diplomat paid a price for his defiance, historians later found that he rose in rank in the Japanese foreign service until the end of the war.

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