Looking back on Louis Armstrong

Di letzte nayes #2 (GUL)





The Great, Yiddish-speaking Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.

At the beginning of last century, in the emotional hotbed of New Orleans a child slave of the ghetto was born of a prostitute mother and “missing” father, on August 4th., 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His mother Mary (Mayann) worked as a protitute and couldn’t take care of him. Louis therefore spend the first years of his life living with his grandmother, Josephine. After age five, Louis lived in stark poverty in a two room house with his mother and sister, Beatrice.

The house of Louis childhood.

From his 7 th. year he was raised by a Jewish family Karnofsky. The Karnofskys had arrived in New York in 1886. Bernhardt Karnovsky, his wife, Rebecca, and there 10 children (originally Litvaks from Kovno/Kaunas), hired Louis to work on coal merchants Bernhardt Karnofsky’s junk wagon.  The Karnofskys took him under their wing, fed him with a hot meal every evening, lent him five dollars to buy his first cornet. And because they were Jewish, as a gesture of gratitude for their generosity Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck for the rest of his life. It is known that he purchased his first cornet around 1907 with money loaned to him by the Karnofskys.

Louis with mother and sister.

Although his name was Louis Armstrong – he was often just called Satchmo – a word that described his mouth as a sacoche mouth (a mouth that have a form of a a saddlebag).

He somehow stumbled into the attention of a financially poor but loving Russian Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys. This little fellow, with an appreciative, magnetic personality, attached himself to the father, to help him with his horse-and-wagon hauling business.

Little Louis.

The Karnofskys loved the child, took him in for dinners, including Shabbat, and provided more than bed and shelter. They provided him with the love he needed, and his first musical instrument that led this confused, hungry youngster onto worldwide fame — as a jazz performer, music innovator and worldwide ambassador for humanity. Louis Armstrong proudly spoke fluent Yiddish, from his childhood through his whole life, and always wore a Star of David around his neck. The Karnofsky-children called him ”Cousin Louis”.


Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1952)


Kovno’s Jewish community prior to World War II numbered 120,000. Systematically ravaged by the Nazis, deported by the Russians to Siberian gulags or butchered by Lithuanian anti-Semites, they dwindled until only a few survived.  The Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara (risking his career and his family’s life) , and his Dutch colleague Jan Zwartendijk saved 6.000 by issuing transit visas allowing them to escape. (In 1985, Israel honored Chiune Sugihara as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions.)


Chiune Sugihara.


On a summer morning in late July 1940, Consul Sugihara and his family awakened to a crowd of Polish Jewish refugees gathered outside the Japanese consulate. Desperate to flee the approaching Nazis, the refugees knew that their only path lay to the east. If Consul Sugihara would grant them Japanese transit visas, they could obtain Soviet exit visas and race to possible freedom.  Sugihara  did not have the authority to issue hundreds of visas without permission from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. Chiune Sugihara telegraphed his government three times for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees. Three times he was denied. The Japanese Consul in Tokyo wired:


After repeatedly receiving negative responses from Tokyo, the Consul discussed the situation with his wife and children. Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again. This would result in extreme financial hardship for his family in the future. (He was in fact fired by his government at the end of the war in 1945.) Chiune and his wife Yukiko even feared for their lives and the lives of their children, but in the end, they did follow their consciences. The had to sign the visas they felt.

Yukiko Sugihara.

For about one full month (July 31 to August 28, 1940) Mr. Chiune Sugihara and Mrs. Yukiko Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, they wrote and signed visas. They wrote over 300 visas a day, which would normally be one month’s worth of work for the consul. Yukiko Sugihara also helped her husband register these visas. At the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches. Sugihara chose not to lose a minute because people were standing in line in front of his consulate day and night for these visas. When some began climbing the compound wall, he came out to calm them down and assure them that he would do is best to help them all. Hundreds of applicants became thousands as he worked to grant as many visas as possible before being forced to close the consulate and leave Lithuania. Consul Sugihara continued issuing documents from his train window until the moment the train departed Kovno for Berlin on September 1, 1940. And as the train pulled out of the station, Sugihara gave the Japanese visa stamp to a refugee who was able use it to save even more Jews.

After receiving their visas, the refugees lost no time in getting on trains that took them to Moscow, and then by trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok. From there, most of them continued to Kobe, Japan. They were allowed to stay in Kobe for several months, and were then sent to Shanghai, China. Thousands of Polish Jews with Sugihara visas survived in safety under the benign protection of the Japanese government in Shanghai. As many as six thousand refugees made their way to Japan, China and other countries in the following months. They had escaped the Holocaust.


A NOTE ON Jan Zwartendijk:

When the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in late July 1940, the Orthodox Jewish community – which realized they would not be permitted to observe their religion and would be actively persecuted for it under Communism – fear seized. During this transition period, they sought whatever means they could to escape to the free world. Sweden, the only accessible neutral in country in region, refused to accept refugees. Then two Dutch students (Nathan Gutwirth and Chaim Nussbaum) from the Telshe Yeshiva, which was located in Lithuania, asked the acting Dutch consul in Kovno, Jan Zwartendijk (the Philips Corp. director in Lithiania) if he could help them get to Curacao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. The Netherlands had been occupied by the Nazis in May 1940. Zwartendijk had been asked by the Dutch ambassador to replace the Dutch consul in Kaunas, who was a Nazi sympathizer.

(Still under construction.)

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