The Star on the Grave – inspired by a true story

Article | Issue: Feb 2024

Linda Margolin Royal’s novel, The Star on the Grave, was inspired by Chiune Sugihara, and the thousands of people – including the author – who owe him their lives.

 

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

In 1940, as the Nazis sweep toward Lithuania, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara defies his government and secretly issues visas to fleeing Jewish refugees. After the war, Sugihara is dismissed and disappears into obscurity.

Three decades later, in Australia, Rachel Margol is shocked when her engagement reveals a long-held family secret: she is Jewish. As she grapples with this deception and the dysfunction it has caused, unspoken tragedies from the past begin to come to light.

When an opportunity arrives to visit Chiune Sugihara, the man who risked his life to save the Margols during World War II, Rachel becomes determined to meet him. But will a journey to Japan, and the secrets it uncovers, heal the family or fracture them for good?

 

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KAUNAS TRAIN STATION, LITHUANIA SEPTEMBER 1940

Chiune Sugihara gazes through the train window at the stone-grey platform, crowded with groups of people and only just visible through the haze of train smoke and rain. Hardly anyone is sitting on the platform’s benches of chipped wood with rusting wrought-iron legs; this is not a place to relax. He watches people bid farewell to their loved ones with swift, tight embraces that wrinkle jackets and dislodge hats – quickly readjusted by fastidious mothers. Everywhere, tears are lost among the drizzling raindrops.

As people board the train, Chiune thinks the scene could be an impressionist painting. The soupy mist and water smear the expressions of the people gathering at the train windows, continuing the farewell ritual with their loved ones and friends on the platform. Armed Soviet guards peer at faces as they patrol the station, eager to flex their authority after the USSR took over Lithuania some weeks back. The travellers are yearning for this town of Kaunas, even though they haven’t left yet, remnants of fresh soil tended the day before still wedged under their fingernails. He closes his eyes, overwhelmed by the emotions on display, feeling out of place. Though he knows he stands out with his neat, crisp attire and his obvious Japanese heritage, what makes him feel other is the way he cannot imagine displaying such brazen, genuine, moving feelings.

‘They’re so grateful,’ he says to his wife, Yukiko, as he looks back out the window. He sits down, bows his head, tries to breathe. To anyone else in the carriage, he would simply look to be deep in thought, but his wife correctly reads it as distress. She reaches out, laying her gloved hand over his. He allows himself to reach up and touch her face before composing himself.

Across from him, their three young sons chat excitedly, full of adventure and curiosity about their destination. He smiles at them and glances back through the window to see a boy staring at him from the platform. He is a teenager, perhaps fourteen, filled with innocence, beaming with hope: not yet a man, but on the verge. The boy pushes his thick, dark hair away from his eyes as the wind plays havoc with it, and suddenly Chiune recognises him. Michael Margolin. Michael accompanied his father to the Japanese embassy only days earlier. The father – Chiune doesn’t remember the elder Margolin’s name – scolded Michael several times for flicking his hair away from his eyes, just like that. The reprimand had no real heat, Chiune remembers; it was simply the exasperated affection of a parent, to which he could relate.

Chiune locks eyes with Michael, gives him a small smile through the window, willing Michael to understand: Yes, I remember you. Michael’s face breaks into a smile of his own. He gestures at the window. Chiune opens it as the train begins to lumber away from the station.

‘Thank you, Mr Sugihara!’ Michael shouts, jogging alongside the carriage. A group of boys and girls begins to form, trotting behind. One teenage girl breaks from the others and catches Michael’s hand as they run, her dark hair caught by the wind. They’re all calling to Chiune. ‘Goodbye!’

Unable to stop himself, Chiune leans out of the train window to wave, and sees the large emotional crowd of Jewish refugees back on the platform, waving and calling out their heartfelt, final farewells. Their words minglethrough the rain and smoke, but he hears a young woman shouting, ‘We will never forget you! We will never forget you!’ Another is crying the words of a verse Chiune recognises from the Old Testament, and several call in a language he doesn’t understand – Yiddish, he guesses.

As the train pulls away from the station entirely, Michael lets go of the girl’s hand and jumps off the platform to run alongside the tracks. There’s shouting in the crowd as two figures break away in pursuit: Soviet guards. Another man follows them – Michael’s father – yelling something Chiune can’t make out.

‘Go back,’ Chiune calls out to Michael, who can’t hear him or his father over the train, and begins falling away as it picks up speed. Chiune anxiously leans out the window, trying to see through the fog, but the mist swallows them and makes them disappear.

Chiune braces himself on the window, sheets of rain sleeting into his face as he strains his ears. He can only hear the rhythmic chugging of the train; the shouts are muffled, steadily receding into the distance.

And then Chiune hears the gunshot, and the weather clears momentarily. His heart catches in his throat at what the evaporating mist has revealed.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Visit the publisher’s website

Author: Linda Margolin Royal

Category: Historical fiction, Previous Pick Featured (Book Post), Previous Picks (Book Post)

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Affirm Press

ISBN: 9781922930392

RRP: $34.99

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