We’ve covered before the seminal story of financial futures markets, and how Leo Melamed — with the endorsement of Milton Friedman — founded the International Monetary Market in 1972. But an even more remarkable story, much earlier in Melamed’s life, set those events in motion. As a boy, Melamed’s family left Poland to escape the Nazis, and with the help of a Japanese consul in Lithuania were able to escape to Japan and, eventually, the United States.
Melamed visited Japan this week to honor Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who issued visas to 6,000 Jews, allowing them to escape to Japan in 1940. A New York Times story mentions that during the ordeal Melamed experienced what may have been his first brush with currency exchange:
Mr. Melamed, who had fled Lithuania with his parents to escape the Nazis during World War II, saw how refugees could trade foreign currency on the Japanese black market, where, he said, American dollars could fetch four times their stated value.
“The black market rate was simply the truth about how much the dollar was worth,” Mr. Melamed said in an interview. “That didn’t cause me to think of a market and currency, but it may have had some influence.
Making the events even more unlikely was that Sugihara was issuing the visas against the wishes of his government. According to reports in the Times and Reuters, he often stayed up all night to write visas, and even handed them out from a train window as he was leaving Lithuania for good. Sugihara later held less prominent posts in the government, which was thought to be punishment for his actions. He died in 1986. The Times story described his decision this way:
Mr. Sugihara appeared entirely motivated by an overriding sense of personal duty, knowing full well that he could face serious consequences for issuing visas without permission from the Japanese government.
“He said to the foreign office that ‘Even a great warrior knows to save an injured sparrow,’” said Mr. Melamed, who later befriended Mr. Sugihara’s son.
Several events have been arranged to honor Sugihara, including meetings Melamed will have with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. For more on Melamed’s journey and Sugihara’s story, visit the following:
CME Group Chairman Emeritus Leo Melamed Helps Honor the Humanitarian Acts of Chiune Sugihara in Japan (Press Release)
Financial Futures Pioneer Honors Japanese Consul Who Saved 6,000 Jews (New York Times)
Man saved from Nazis by “Japan’s Schindler” returns on journey of homage (Reuters)
Leo Melamed Retraces Path of Escape from Nazis to Japanese Port (Jewish Daily Forward)
Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness (2005 PBS Documentary)