URI freshman from Worcester travels to Japan
after winning Anti-Defamation League essay contest
She participates in ceremonies for late Japanese
diplomat who saved thousands of Jews
KINGSTON, R.I. -- December 21, 2000 -- In the midst of the just-completed final exam period at the University of Rhode Island, Worcester's Allison Vuona hopped a couple of jets for a week-long visit to Japan.
The freshman pre-med student wasn't avoiding the rigors of her exams. Instead, she worked around them to participate in a celebration of a late Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of Jews flee Nazi occupation.
Vuona earned the all-expense paid trip from Dec. 8 through 15 as one of three winners of the Anti-Defamation League's Sugihara "Do the Right Thing" essay contest. It was the first time the League's World of Difference Institute ran the contest. In June, Vuona won the New England Regional contest and then was entered in the national contest.
The contest was named in honor of the late Chiune Sugihara, the former Japanese consul to Lithuania who in 1940 issued more than 2,000 visas to Jewish families, who had escaped the Nazi occupation in Poland. As a result of his efforts, which met with strong resistance from the Japanese government at the time, 6,000 lives were saved. Now the country is honoring Sugihara's great moral courage 100 years after his birth.
A graduate of Doherty High School in Worcester, the 18-year-old Vuona wrote her winning essay as part of a class discussion on nonviolence during her senior year. She is the daughter of Peter and Cynthia Vuona, both long time educators. Peter is a retired principal from the Worcester School Department, and Cynthia, a URI graduate, continues to teach there.
"The thing I am most proud of, is that my wife and I are both in education, and it is great when you have a youngster, especially your own, who can understand and work well with all types of people," Peter Vuona said. "To have her so well-received on this essay on tolerance really bolsters what we should be teaching our children. This also shows that URI is reaching out to great kids."
"My teacher, Marion Giocomelli, encouraged me to write," said Vouna, who wants to be a pediatrician or a pediatric surgeon. Vuona's essay talked about some little girls she baby-sat and some of their friends who together made fun of another girl's clothes and the way she talked. They talked about ignoring her in school.
"I had never met the girl who they were making fun of, but it really bothered me how cruel they were to this girl only because she was different," Vuona wrote.
As she listened to the girls, she remembered a story called Erasers she had read about a new girl in school who had been tormented. "I gave the book 'Erasers' to the girls and told them to read the story. I thought that I had done the right thing and I hoped that it would make a difference. A few weeks later when I was baby-sitting for the girls again, they had their friends over, but this time they invited the girl who a few weeks ago they had been making fun of."
Although Vuona realizes her actions were not of the magnitude of Sugihara's she said, "it is just my small contribution."
During the New England Regional awards ceremony last June, Vuona was presented $500 and a medallion.
Getting the call this fall that she was a national winner was a complete surprise. "They must have called my home, and then they called me here at URI," she said. "My roommate and my neighbor were in the room when I got the call, and I was like, 'Oh my God'."
Vuona joined two other students for three days and two nights in a hotel in Osaka, Japan, and then she stayed with a Japanese family. She was pared for three nights with a host family that has a daughter who is a high school senior. "I got a real feeling for Japanese culture and food," Vuona said.
At the Osaka high school, the Japanese students had a party for the American visitors. "They really wanted to meet with us, and we talked a great deal in informal groups."
While the high school was similar in size to Vuona's, she found something very different. "We had to take our shoes off and put on slippers when we went inside," she said.
Vuona participated in a major ceremony at the Osaka Convention Center honoring Sugihara on Monday, Dec. 11. "And then on Wednesday, I gave a speech before the mayor and it was televised. I spoke about how it was time to honor Sugihara, and how his decision impacted my life and others' lives. TV followed us around all day."
Vuona said she was a little nervous at first during the speech, but she got over that quickly and worked well with a translator.
In addition to the widow of Sugihara, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, local officials, and chiefs of major Japanese companies, Vuona traveled and chatted with 86-year-old Samuel Manski, who made the trip with the students. He was one of those granted a visa through Sugihara's efforts. He lived in Japan for a time, and then emigrated to the United States. He now lives in Massachusetts, about 20 minutes from Vuona's home.
He presented Vuona with a book he wrote, With God's Help, which details his odyssey.
"Today, I am not certain why the Japanese took the trouble to issue visas to us Jewish refugees," Manski wrote. "I have heard speculation that the Japanese government was grateful for Jewish assistance in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Or it may have been that the consul in Kovno (Lithunia), observing the distress around him, acted out of humanitarian motives. Whatever the reason, again God was with us."
Vuona also came back with Japanese stamps for the new millennium, and the first one issued honored Sugihara. "I also have a paperweight, which is a copy of the stamp Sugihara used to issue the visas."
Because of the ceremonies, Japan is now beginning to recognize the great contributions of Sugihara, Vuona said. "At Yatsu, the Hill of Humanity is the site of a museum dedicated to Sugihara," she said.
Vuona, a Centennial Scholar at URI who just wrapped up her first semester, says she loves the Kingston Campus. "I think everyone here is very nice and helpful."
Vuona added that her trip and exposure to the ADL will help her throughout her years at URI, and in her career as a whole. "Since I became involved with the ADL, I am now looking at the whole person. I realize that each thing you do matters."
Established in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League is one of the nation's premier civil rights and human relations agencies. Its mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.
For Information: Dave Lavallee 401-874-2116