Archive

Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town: Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography provided by Boys Town

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine 

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/from-japanese-americaninternmentcamp)

 

Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.

 

The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin

Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime

 

Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and

e-mail correspondence.)

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.”

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away.

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind.

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944

 

James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns.

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese.

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi

Visit csujad.com for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit boystown.org for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 

Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944

Advertisements

Life Itself XV: War stories

August 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XV: War stories

In their own words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/in-their-own-wor…-on-world-war-ii/ 

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/the-tail-gunners…on-foot-and-film/

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/21/love-affair-with…-like-few-others

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/30/retired-warrior-…rinsurgency-guru/

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

Iraq War veteran Jacob Hausman battles PTSD and finds peace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/31/iraq-war-veteran…-and-finds-peace

Retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs newsman Howard Silber: War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/retired-omaha-wo…nt-globe-trotter/

Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/11/07/milton-kleinberg…on-of-his-memoir

Joseph Dumba and his Healing Kadi Foundation make medical mission trips to South Sudan

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/01/03/joseph-dumba-and…s-to-south-sudan/

Jacob Hausman, ©photo by Bill Sitzman

Cover Image OM1212

 

Having survived war in Sudan, refugee Akoy Agau discovered hoops in America and the major college recruit is now poised to lead Omaha Central to a third straight state title

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/01/having-survived-…ight-state-title

From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/23/from-wars-to-oly…-husker-football

 

By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans performed far-flung wartime duties

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/22/by-land-by-sea-b…g-wartime-duties/

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, old wars, new wars, endings and new beginnings

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/27/bob-kerrey-weigh…d-new-beginnings

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/17/ben-kuroki-a-dis…st-honorable-man/

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki: New book out about Nebraskan who defied prejudice to become a war hero

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/30/the-two-wars-of-…ecome-a-war-hero

 

Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki

 

 

Bill Ramsey, Marine: A Korean War Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/a-korean-war-story-2/

Brenda Allen’s real life country music drama took her from Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/01/brenda-allens-re…vietnam-to-vegas

Lauro play “A Piece of My Heart” dramatizes role of women in war zones

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/a-piece-of-my-he…women-in-wartime/

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin sees no incongruity in being rodeo cowboy, concert classical guitarist, music educator and Vietnam combat vet

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/17/from-the-archive…etnam-combat-vet

 

Brenda Cover (reduced)

Brenda Allen wearing the green beret and insignia

 

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial

 

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/the-life-and-tim…ionist-sol-bloom

Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/04/104

Holocaust rescue mission undertaken by immigrant Nebraskan comes to light: How David Kaufmann saved hundreds of family members from Nazi Germany

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/david-kaufmann-a…escuer-from-afar

Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/art-trumps-hate-…om-the-holocaust/

 

 

Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave

 

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/25/uno-center-for-a…ucational-system/

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/20/uno-afghanistan-…embattled-nation

 

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/james-martin-dav…halls-of-justice

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/combat-sniper-tu…d-enigmatic-work

Jesuit photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University documents the global human condition – one person, one image at a time

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/23/jesuit-photojour…-human-condition

 

Don Doll

 

A Long Way from Home: Two Kosovo Albanian families escape hell to start over in America

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/a-long-way-from-home

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/war-and-peace

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-l…s-afghan-odyssey/

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/three-old-wise-men-of-journalism

 

 

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/ 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/casablanca-a-fil…-as-time-goes-by/

 

John Hlavacek

John Hlavacek

 

Billy Melton served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the all black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/omahas-sweet-six…master-battalion/

Omaha’s Tuskegee Airmen

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/the-tuskegee-airmen/

 

14379473632092.jpg

 

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-berlin-airlift-story/

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center     

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/08/from-the-archive…a-medical-center

 

 

Bringing to light hidden heroes of the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/bringing-to-ligh…of-the-holocaust/

Ben Nachman’s mission

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/ben-nachmans-mission

Ben Nachman: At work in the fields of the righteous

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/at-work-in-the-f…of-the-righteous

Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/29/rescuer-curricul…on-the-holocaust

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/01/the-escape-artist

Walter Reed: Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/19/walter-reed-from…-in-world-war-ii

 

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter

 

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/the-hidden-child…kader-tom-jaeger

Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/lolas-story-out-…destined-to-live

Holocast survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/holocast-survivo…r-destinys-child/

A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/08/a-not-so-average…tory-of-survival

Sisters of the Shoah: Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/18/sisters-of-the-s…three-iron-wills/

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/15/bea-karp-holocau…painful-memories

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

March 27, 2018 2 comments

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

A gathering unlike any other took place the evening of September 24 at the home of Omaha Holocaust researcher Ben Nachman. Over the course of several hours a diverse group of guests heard three men discuss a shared legacy of survival — one that saw them persevere through the Shoah as hidden children in their native Belgium.

Two of the men, Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, are well known Omaha physicians. The third, Marcel Frydman, is professor emeritus at the University of Mons in Mons, Belgium, where he is a psychologist and the author of a book exploring the long-term traumatic effects of the hidden child experience. Kader and Jaeger, who already knew each other, were eager to meet Frydman and hear his findings since they shared a common past and homeland.

According to Kader, a pediatric neurologist, the hidden experience is one that unites men and women, even of different ages and nationalities, in a special fraternity. “Because of the nature of our experiences, whether in Holland or France or Belgium, you do form this kind of a bond with another hidden child. It’s a thing where we both survived, we both were hidden. The feelings we have just resonate back and forth. It’s a common understanding. It’s communication at a different level.”

Until recently, hidden children rarely spoke about their wartime experiences. For many, the events were simply too painful or too suppressed to tackle. But since a 1991 international hidden children’s conference attended by all three men, more and more long silent survivors have been seeking each other out to talk about their shared heritage in hiding.

Frydman, who came to Omaha at the invitation of Nachman and through the auspices of the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, hopes to have his French-language book published in English. Jaeger, a pediatric psychiatrist, has read the book and feels it offers valuable insights into the whole host of circumstances that determines how individuals cope with the emotional baggage of childhood trauma well into adulthood. He said the book provides a therapeutic framework for treating not only former hidden children but anyone suffering from post traumatic stress, which he added is a timely addition to research on the subject in light of the emotional toll the events of September 11 and after have taken on the damaged American psyche.

On hand that evening at Nachman’s were educators, lawyers and journalists, all of whom came to learn something about the ordeal the three men underwent. As the night unwound, it became clear from what was said that the hidden experience is one marked by profound separation anxiety, where youths taken from homes and families go into hiding among total strangers and try to conceal their Jewish identity in order to save their lives. As each survivor described the story of his survival, he revealed something of the psychological scars borne from these searing events so far outside the normal stream of human conduct. They explained how, even after escaping extermination and building successful adult lives now a half-century removed from their ordeal, they remain haunted by the specter of their hidden odyssey, an odyssey that has both driven them and frustrated them.

There was something nearly sacred in this solemn exchange between the survivors and their rapt audience. The men and women huddled around the Nachman living room listened intently to every word uttered and asked questions that begged for more detail. The evening was also meaningful for the survivors.

For Kader and Jaeger, meeting Frydman and learning of his work helped further validate their own hidden histories, which remained shrouded and inarticulated until they began piecing together their own backgrounds at that 1991 conference in New York. Kader said a book like Frydman’s “gives more credence to the feelings that survivors have. When hidden children get together they end up talking about the same kinds of things and what they talk about has often been well-repressed.”

Kader said the more hidden children he gets to know, the more he realizes “all of us, in our own way, have the same sort of common thread of experiences and we all go through the same kind of process of finding a way out of it (the trauma) to make something of ourselves.” He said Frydman’s work helps demonstrate survivors “can cope and manage. Even though you may have these recollections of traumatic experiences in the back of your mind you can get past that point and go on with your life. His research shows all sorts of common denominators. You realize what you’re going through is a natural evolution other survivors go through. It’s reassuring to know we’re all not crazy.”

For Frydman, whose work in this area was sparked by a group of survivors at the who asked him to lead their counseling sessions, the evening was a chance to share his findings with fellow countrymen who endured a similar fate during and after the war. In writing his 1999 book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions, Frydman found an outlet for his own survivor issues and a forum for examining the consequences of the hidden experience, many of which he found overlap from one survivor to another.

For his book he returned to the very site where he was sheltered after the war — a home for hidden and abandoned children of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent — and to the same group of individuals with whom he shared his early adolescence. To his astonishment he discovered that in spite of their war deprivation many of these individuals have achieved great professional success, with an unusually high percentage ending up in the healing arts, as evidenced by himself, Kader and Jaeger. As he studied this population he identified elements and conditions that explained the apparent anomaly of survivors reaching such heights from such depths.

“In my opinion, two factors were important,” Frydman said. “First, the quality of family life before the war. These children knew there was a possibility of recovering the family unit. They felt forsaken but they knew their parents didn’t abandon them. This was very important when they were confronted with the conditions of an institution where the affective life was very low. The second factor was the quality of the environment in which the child was placed during and after the war. If this environment was good and supportive, he could find again a normal life, mobilize his potentialities and perform very high. It’s no accident that hidden children have chosen social or therapeutic professions. If you have experienced something as hard as we did you may be more skilled to help others.”

Frydman finds survivors exhibit a remarkable resilience as a result of having endured what they did. Jaeger believes he and his peers managed compensating for the trials and deficits of their interrupted childhood because attaining success, coming as it did against all odds, became an act of defiance.

“Resiliency is an act of defiance in some ways,” Jaeger said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You were wrong,’ to those people who said, You can’t do this, or, You won’t ever reach a certain point. As Marcel (Frydman) points out, the thing that contributed to this resilience was the love and nurturance we were inculcated with despite everything going on around us.”

Recently, Jaeger found poignant evidence of the love he was endowed with via two formal family photographs his mother, who escaped the Shoah, commissioned at the time of the roundups and deportations. “I was struck by the fact that she felt it was important to have a memory to sustain our family even in the midst of what was going on. It reinforced what Marcel said about how important the home environment was. It probably provided a buffer that sustained us when we left home and went via this underground railroad into hiding.”

Another impetus for survivors to strive so hard, Jaeger said, was their strong desire “to get on with things and to accomplish anything and everything we could. Most of us wanted to find acceptance — to be included in the mainstream.”

Frydman, Kader and Jaeger were hidden at several sites but their protective custody mainly came in institutions run by various good Samaritans, including Catholic nuns. They are glad to have ended up in such good, caring hands. Frydman said there long was an assumption children placed with foster families were more fortunate than those placed in institutions, “but now I can say that wasn’t true because the child placed in a family was alone in his stress — the family sheltered him but couldn’t share his loneliness and sense of forsakeness — whereas the child in an institution eventually discovered he was not alone and any stress experience is made more bearable when the stress is shared.”

In addition to drawing on his own experiences for the book, Frydman drew on his past work counseling “forsaken children” — orphaned or otherwise abandoned youths — which provided a field of reference from which to extrapolate. What Frydman found in comparing and contrasting hidden children with abandoned children is that “the trauma of the hidden group is more complex and is provoked not by one factor but by a succession of factors,” he said. For example, he points to the roundups of Jews that Nazi authorities began staging in the early part of the war that invariably sent detainees to death camps. The fear engendered by these roundups signaled to children that they, their families, their friends and their neighbors were in peril. He said, “Even if you were not deported you heard about what was happening from other Jews who witnessed these events and the anxiety of the adults was communicated to the children.”

As it became evident the only way to save children was to hide them, an underground network formed to shield them. Because it was easier and less conspicuous to hide a child alone as opposed to a family, children were usually separated from their parents.

“Little children couldn’t understand why they had to be hidden and without their parents,” Frydman said. “It was a safe thing to separate them, but for the children it wasn’t a healthy thing. They were lacking the presence of their parents. They were missing all the affective, emotional ties. And children understood there was a danger of being denounced. We were told not to reveal our real name and not to reveal our Jewish identity. The child understood this, but it increased his anxiety. He understood too that the parents were also in danger. Sometimes he knew one or both of the parents had been arrested and deported, and sometimes he hadn’t any news of there whereabouts. You don’t find these conditions when you study forsaken children.”

Prolonged exposure to such danger and distress left many former hidden children with deep-seated feelings of apprehension and insecurity, said Frydman. “Because they lived for years in an environment perceived as menacing they have some problems associated with anxiety. This has been fixed, at least on the unconscious level, and so they develop some defenses in order to adapt themselves. There’s often a lack of trust and a sense of guardedness toward others. Some of them think they must control every aspect of a relationship because during the war they had no control. For example, some of my subjects told me they resist forming new relationships because it means risking being forsaken another time.”

Even when in the same institution Frydman said hidden children demonstrated fewer issues of desertion than abandoned children because prior to being harbored hidden children presumably enjoyed a stable home life. “They had the chance to be in a normal family before,” he said, “so they were better prepared to confront the separation. They knew there might be a family to try and find after the war whereas the forsaken children knew there was no family to be found.” A striking difference he found in abandoned children versus hidden children is the slowed mental development of the former group compared with the latter group.

The author conducted his research for the book with the aid of one of his students. Interviews were completed with more than 50 adults who found sanctuary in Belgium or surrounding countries during the war. Frydman and his assistant used a non-invasive technique to draw subjects out, some of whom had never before verbalized their hidden past. “The interview was a non-directive one,” he said. “We didn’t ask questions. We just gave the subject the opportunity to evoke his experience and helped him to express what he had to say. For some of the subjects, recalling the past was an ordeal. Some cried. They couldn’t stop. The trauma came back. And, yes, for some it was the first time they’d spoken about it.”

The fact that so many hidden children remained resolutely silent about their past for so long is a phenomenon that Frydman has tried to explain in his book. He said it was a case of hidden children growing up in an atmosphere where the subject was viewed as too painful to revisit or misunderstood as something that could be easily dismissed.

“Just after the war hidden children didn’t feel they had the right to speak because speaking about the trauma implied reliving it,” he said. “They would have spoken if they could have found some help, but in post-war Europe we hadn’t any psychologists. And adults didn’t understand what to say, so if they spoke about the war at all, they said, ‘You were lucky.’ Of course, it’s true, we were lucky not to be deported, but we suffered. If every adult says to you, ‘You were lucky,’ you haven’t even the possibility to express your suffering.” Or, as Jaeger explains, “People were getting on with their lives and moving away from that ordeal and, in effect, really nobody was there who psychologically gave you permission to speak. That listening ear and that permission just weren’t there.”

As the trauma is denied or ignored, Jaeger said, it festers like an untreated wound, only buried out of view, yet never too far away to be reopened. “In psychology there’s a phenomenon where you either dissociate or you compartmentalize things that have been extremely bad. Children exposed to bad events can lose memory of those things. That’s a protective mechanism to enable you to go on, but those feelings are always there at the surface. Certain sounds can evoke fear and anxiety in former hidden children. The sound of a truck is one of the most feared sounds because trucks were used in the roundups. It was the sound of your future. Of being rounded up, deported to camps and confronting almost certain death. Vulnerability is always just below the surface for some of us.”

Jaeger said it was only recently, upon reading Frydman’s book, he recalled suffering panic attacks as a boy after the war. He remembers the episodes occurred while riding in cars and presumes his anxiety was triggered by dim memories of deportations. Because Kader and Jaeger were quite young when they went into hiding, their memories are somewhat tenuous. Those who were older when hidden, like Frydman, retain clearer memories of the events and the trauma.

Symbols can also summon the horror of a perilous childhood. For example, Jaeger said some survivors have “a problem trusting authority or trusting the system” because they associate those things with the uniformed soldiers or officials who menaced them and their families.

Jaeger admires Frydman’s book for its clear, thorough assessment of the hidden experience.

“It is an exquisite explanation of the dynamics of the experience and of its long term effects. It really has a kind of global description that applies to you no matter what your own hidden experiences were. He helps us understand how we arrived at where we are. Also, it’s really one of the best explanations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its long term ramifications.

“There’s been lots written about PTSD, but this sampling of a population from a psychological point of view is somewhat unique in that here we have a group of people still living 50-plus years after the fact. It often takes that long for hidden children or camp survivors or other trauma victims to share their experiences because they evoke an emotional vulnerability that is not that easy to deal with. Everybody has to do it in their own way. There are people who to this day still don’t say anything. They haven’t reached that point. This is so applicable to what happened at the World Trade Center because that trauma will be imprinted over generations in some cases.”

Ultimately, only fellow survivors can truly understand what their brothers or sisters of the Holocaust have gone through. Still, every time they share their story with others it gives added meaning to their witness bearing — allowing their testimony to live on in others. The need to testify grows more urgent as the number of survivors dwindles.

“Time is of the essence in that we’re the last generation of witnesses left,” Jaeger said, referring to hidden children like himself, Kader and Frydman. In an era when the nation’s moral fortitude is being tested by the threat of terrorism at home, he said, it is more vital than ever to stand up and speak out against evil.

Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live

March 27, 2018 2 comments

Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

After the Holocaust, Lola could not find her sister and mother. By the time she did, they were headed from Sweden to South America. Lola met and married fine cabinet maker and fellow survivor Irving Reinglas in a refugee camp and they emigrated to America with their first child. The couple’s new life here saw them build a business and raise a family. Meanwhile, Lola’s sister and mother built a new life of their own — in Uruguay, where Helena met and married Walter Tichauer, a German Jew who fled there after Kristallnacht. Lola was finally reunited with her mom, in 1957, when Karolina visited the States. Three more years passed before she saw Helena. On a 1961 visit to Uruguay. Lola laid the groundwork for her mother, sister and sister’s family to move to America, which they did in 1963. 

“I feel I was destined to live”


Each sister’s odyssey is a compelling lesson in human intolerance and endurance. Helena’s story will be chronicled in an upcoming Press edition. This is Lola’s story. 

By the time the former Lola Schulkind reached Plaszow, the forced labor camp turned concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, the words of her father reverberated in her head. 

“He always told us, ‘Remember one thing — live. No matter what, try to do your best and live. Don’t give up.’ And whenever it was very bad, somehow I heard the voice of my father. Even to this day,” she said, “when things go bad…I hear that voice, ‘Don’t give up.’ I don’t.”

It was at Plaszow she believes Oskar Schindler saved her life. The camp was where the Jewish workers under the German industrialist’s protection were interned for a time. Schindler, she said, was a well-known figure in the camp, but his good works on behalf of Jews were not. His enamelworks factory was nearby. He operated a pot and pan factory inside the camp and was often in and out of Plaszow, where, it turned out, he bribed the commandant to keep “his Jews” safe. 

One night, a teenaged Lola was caught past curfew sneaking food to her father in the men’s barracks. What happened next was something she didn’t understand until years later — long after Schindler’s rescue efforts were revealed. Taken to a hill by uniformed men, a man in the group she now recognizes as Schindler “took a gun and put it to my head,” she said. “I thought he was going to kill me. But he started hitting me…beating me, beating me…until I lost my consciousness.” She now surmises that with German soldiers looking on, he could not let her go with only a warning and, “instead of killing me, he beat me” and, thus, “saved my life.”

Plaszow was a Dante’s Inferno overseen by sadistic Amon Goeth, a large man often seen on horseback or surrounded by dogs trained to attack “on his command of Uda. When you saw him, you knew trouble was coming,” Lola said. Built over a Jewish cemetery, inscriptions on desecrated tombstones could be read in the pavement covering the heavily fortified camp’s roads. Random, public executions orchestrated by Goeth and his SS staff were done for sport and intimidation. 

It was there Lola and her family arrived in 1942. The previous several months the family had been confined, with thousands of others, to a barbed wire and stone wall enclosed ghetto in the Podgorze district of Krakow. Even after generations of living in Poland, the Schulkinds and their fellow Jews were systematically made enemies of the state by edicts of the German occupation that began in 1939. “We were born and lived there from one generation to another for probably 100 years, but we still had no home. It was like we never belonged,” Lola said.

Almost immediately, Jews lost their rights, their jobs, their possessions. Curfews limited their movements. Yellow Stars of David identified them. They were targets of roundups, beatings, killings. With her own eyes, Lola saw male Orthodox Jews accosted on the street by thugs and the victims’ beards savagely “cut off, skin and all,” with knives. She knew of people arrested and never being seen again.

Lola, who’d completed elementary school and one year of business school, was 14 when the war broke out. The Shoah not only ended her early formal schooling, but her childhood as well. Her father had to give up a business employing several people. When ordered to leave their homes in March 1941, Jews were marched to the ghetto prepared for them, where they lived in squalor. Allowed to take only five pounds of articles per person, they brought whatever clothes they had.

Jews were moved into what had been the homes of Gentiles, who, in turn, left to take over the Jews’ abandoned homes across the river. 

The Schulkinds occupied a two-room flat with another family of five in an overcrowded apartment house. There was Lola and Helena — two years her senior— then-11-year-old Nathan, and their parents. “We thought it was bad before we went to the ghetto. Then, we went to the ghetto. Not enough food. Ten to fifteen people in two rooms. We slept on the floor. No privacy. No way to take a bath. The living conditions were terrible. We thought, This is the worst. Well, how wrong we were,” said Lola. Nothing could prepare them for what lay ahead.

Ghetto life was a particular shock to the Schulkinds, who’d enjoyed a privileged life replete with servants, summer-long stays in cottages, winter skiing vacations at lodges, et cetera. A bookworm, Lola had no access to her beloved literature.

The historical anti-Semitism harbored by a large segment of the native Gentile population, combined with the Nazis single-minded implementation of the Final Solution, left few friends Jews could turn to for aid. What help did exist, in the form of food or shelter, exacted an exorbitant price and extraordinary risk. 

 

Lola’s father, whose plan to take his family to Russia years earlier was rejected by her mother, boldly refused handing over his valuables to the authorities. “He took a great chance,” she said. The family used jewelry and silver to barter with Poles and Germans for precious food provisions in scarce supply..  

The ghetto was a despairing place where time stood still. Nothing beyond the imposing stone wall or the forbidding armed guards surrounding it existed. “We were afraid because we never knew what was going to happen tomorrow,” said Lola, “or for that matter in an hour from now.” People disappeared. Others got shot. When word came the Germans were liquidating the ghetto, she saw soldiers throw infants out of third-floor windows.

Making the harsh life there a little more bearable was her father’s eternal optimism. Despite having come back from service in the Austrian Army in World War I a man who “didn’t believe in anything” having to do with God, she said he was an inspiring fellow who buoyed people’s spirits. “When you’re an optimist like my father was, you always believe that better days are coming. He was always telling people. ‘Tomorrow is going to be better.’ He always believed.”

Hardly a pacifist, he wanted more than anything to see justice done to his people’s tormentors. “My father always said, ‘No matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to stay alive and see the Germans beaten, but good.’ And, believe it or not, he survived the concentration camp and lived to see himself liberated and the Germans beaten like dogs. Two days later, he died.”

There was no leaving the ghetto unless chosen for a work detail at a forced labor project outside it or you were brazen enough to sneak out. Lola was picked to work as a cleaning girl at a Krakow hospital where wounded Germans were treated. Mornings, she was part of a group of slave laborers taken by truck to their assigned jobs. The manual labor was new to her. “It was the first time in my life I scrubbed floors, cleaned windows, cleaned toilets and washed dishes,” she said. 

Demeaning as the work might have been, she counted herself lucky as it meant access to extra food. “Whatever I could save, I brought it back to the ghetto for my parents and my sister and brother to eat.” She said to her surprise some Germans at the hospital were “very good” to her. “If they had food they couldn’t eat, they’d tell me, ‘You take it.’ I was very happy I could bring some food.”

As her saga unfolded, Lola found working “the only thing that would save you…No matter where you were, as long as you could work, you were OK. Once you just laid down…then they took you and shot you like a dog. A lot of people physically and mentally couldn’t do it. They gave up. They said, ‘What for?’ And they died.”

Death was never far away. Not long before the ghetto’s liquidation, she recalls orders being given via loudspeaker for all inhabitants “to concentrate in one place.” They were told to bring only what they could carry, which meant something awful was coming down. Sure enough, she and her family watched in horror as an estimated 1,500 men, women and children were ordered out of the crowd — to stand in front — where they were killed by machine gun fire. “I witnessed that. You know, I had never seen my father cry before. He was crying like a baby and blood was running like a river. It was horrible.”

The ghetto dwellers were assembled once more, prepared to march to an unknown destination, when her brother Nathan was pulled out of line by the Gestapo. “The man said to him, ‘You can’t go.’ He was 13, but very skinny and very little, and they were pulling out all the old people and young children and the ones whose looks they didn’t like.” That’s when her mother bolted for her only son. “She grabbed him and went back in line with him. The man came and looked at my mother and he said, ‘If you’re going to do that, I’m going to kill your son and you right now. He can’t go.’ So, they put Nathan out and put him on a truck to Auschwitz. That was the last time we saw him. They brought him straight to the ovens.”

The remaining human caravan from the Krakow Ghetto ended up in Plaszow, a compound around which an electrified fence ran. Stripped naked, prisoners endured another selection process that eliminated the weak and old. It was then and there that Lola’s paternal grandmother was forced to dig her own grave. “She said to us, ‘If that’s what God wants, that’s what’s going to be.’ She went in that grave with her bible, and they shot her right in front of us,” Lola said.

Brutality became a numbing reality at Plaszow. Random acts of barbarism the order of the day. Once, Lola was forced to watch the hanging of a man caught trying to escape. “And so help me God I could hear the bones crack in his neck. They let him hang three days, so everybody that worked saw him. I said, ‘No, this is it, I will never survive.’” She did survive, but only by steeling herself. “I was like a stone. I left everything behind me. I had no feelings.” When the woman next to her in the barracks died overnight, Lola waited until the morning to report it so that she could consume the extra ration of bread and coffee. In such a place, she said, “We could not speak about the future — only about what was.”

Upon first arriving at Plaszow, Lola continued her routine of being brought to thehospital to clean. Later, she worked in a quarry breaking stones with a hammer to make gravel. Once, she switched jobs with her ailing mother, who was too weak to carry a yoke laden with buckets of water. Lola briefly worked in a paper factory. Then, one day the factory was closed and she and others loaded onto cattle cars and taken by train to the first of two nearby camps whose German munitions factories she worked in. It was 1944. Her remaining family stayed behind at Plaszow. 

At Skarzysko Kamienna, Lola operated a machine making anti-aircraft shells. “You had a quota to make 80,000 shells per shift,” she said. “If you couldn’t make your quota in eight hours, you worked until you did. Sometimes, you worked 12-14 hours on one slice of bread and a cup of coffee.” Unable to meet the quota any other way, workers mixed defective shells in with the good ones. Once, a woman foreman discovered a bad shell in Lola’s batch and used a riding crop to administer “25 lashes on my rear end,” Lola said. “I couldn’t sit for six months.”

In 1945, Lola went to Czestochowa, the site of another munitions factory. There, she fell ill. “I could not eat. I could not drink. I was down to 60 pounds.” Later, she found herself again in transit by train — this time to Germany — when the train stopped at night. By morning, the captives discovered their captors were no where to be seen. The advancing American Army had set the Germans on the run and the emaciated refugees were soon rescued. The war was over. “I was free,” Lola said.

After months of rest and nourishment in an American-run refugee center, she felt strong enough to travel. “I didn’t have money. I smuggled myself on a train to Poland. It took me three weeks to get to Krakow.” She went to her family’s home, praying for some sign of her family, only to find strangers. “The woman there said to me, ‘Oh my God, you’re still alive?’ I said to her, ‘You drop dead.’” Undeterred, she found an uncle who’d survived and stayed with him. Two cousins joined them. In Krakow, she learned the fates of her brother and father. Awaiting word on her mother and sister, they located each other and began corresponding. 

Just when it seemed the danger was ended, pogroms broke out in several Polish cities. “Poles started shooting Jews in the street. They didn’t want us. My uncle said, ‘This is no place to stay.’” Lola said. Like hundreds of thousands of other survivors, they wanted out of Europe. Ironically, they fled first to occupied Germany, where displaced persons camps were a way station out. Lola, her uncle and cousins went by way of Czechoslovakia, where they stayed a week and were treated royally. “The people were wonderful.” In Germany, they lived in the Foehrenwald refugee camp, where she fell in love with Irving Reinglas at first sight. Married in ‘46, they lived in Munich until ‘49, when they came to America under the auspices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a major supporter of Jewish survivors in DP camps.

The ship carrying Lola and Irving docked in New York Harbor on Thanksgiving Day. Given the choice of staying in New York or relocating, they opted instead for a smaller, slower city. HIAS officials suggested Omaha, where the couple knew not a soul. With Jewish Community Center sponsorship, they settled here and cobbled together a successful life. They learned English. They ran their own business, Easy Chair of Council Bluffs. They gave their two daughters, Jeanatte and Ann, a good education and every advantage. Lola eventually regained her sister and mother.

Today, Lola is without her Irving, who died in 1988. The grandmother of two stays active. A longtime volunteer at the Rose Blumkin Home, she now gives her time to the Methodist Hospital gift shop. Except for an occasional speaking appearance or interview, she doesn’t revisit the Holocaust. “I don’t live in the past. It’s not that I have forgotten. I know I’ve been to hell and back,” she said, “but this is not my main subject. I think about today and tonight. If I lived in the past, I would have been in the nut house a long time ago.”

The Holocaust, she said, is an unfathomable episode whose echoes, sadly, reverberate in latter-day oppression and violence. “There is not a word in the dictionary that describes the atrocities. And for what? Wherever you look today, people are fighting. And for what? For power. For nothing else.”

That’s as close to an explanation as Lola Reinglas can offer in making sense of her Holocaust survival. An Omaha resident since 1949, Reinglas and her sister, Helena Tichauer, survived a series of internments, some together-some apart, that defied reason except for the intervention of fate and their own indefatigable will.

“We’re both very strong women,” Reinglas said of she and her sister. Born Lola and Helena Schulkind, they were the well-to-do daughters of a proud, old Krakow family that included a younger brother, Nathan. Their father Karol was an electrical engineer and their mother Karolina a model of refinement. 

Like so many Shoah families, the Schulkinds remained intact but a short time in the war. First, Nathan was taken away. He soon perished. Then, a grandmother was killed. Finally, Lola was sent to one camp while Helena and her parents remained at another. Except for a short separation, Helena and her mother remained together during the entire ordeal. Their father survived mere days after being liberated.

 

Holocast survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child

March 27, 2018 2 comments

Holocast survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Helena Tichauer was tempted to give up more than once. If she had, no one would have blamed her. For persecuted Jews like her and her family, reasons for despair were everywhere in Nazi-occupied Poland. Her family’s pleasant, comfortable life in Krakow had been wrenched away in the looming darkness of the Holocaust.

She’d already lost her little brother, Nathan, when he was seized by the Gestapo from the clutches of their mother in the Krakow Ghetto and sent to his death at Auschwitz. No sooner did her remaining family arrive in Plaszow, the forced labor camp and eventual concentration camp depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, than her paternal grandmother fell victim to Nazi atrocities. 

“She was pulled out of line with many others and ordered to dig graves. Then, they had to go into the graves. She took her bible with her. She was a very religious person. She said to us, ‘The upstairs is calling.’ And she was shot with the others.”

After seeing this, Helena, who’s lived in Omaha since 1963, said she thought, “This is our end. I prayed to the Lord that maybe I don’t get up the next day.” In Plaszow, she watched as her mother wasted away. She knew she must do something before it was too late. “I was the one that looked after her,” said Helena, who had to fight through her own malaise. “I didn’t have any spirit. I vegetated. But I had my mother, and I had to live for her.”

The eldest of Karol and Karolina Schulkind’s three children, Helena took charge of her mother’s well-being because someone had to. Her mom was a rather fragile woman, whose delicate sensibility and privileged background ill-prepared her for the rigors of enforced manual labor and starvation rations. “She never did work before the war. She was spoiled,” is how Helena described her pampered mother, whose stately Krakow home was run by servants. Helena’s younger sister, Lola Reinglas, was at Plaszow, too, but in a different barracks. Eventually, Lola was shipped out of Plaszow altogether. Their father was in another section of the compound reserved for males. Occasionally, the family was able to visit each other before curfew, but otherwise Helena and Karolina were on their own.
 
As her smart, self-sufficient mother’s favorite, Helena was well-suited to be her mother’s caregiver. Except for one short interval, the two remained together throughout the entire Shoah nightmare and even for years after its conclusion. Their time together at Plaszow and, later, at the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen forged a mother-daughter survivor’s bond of unusual depth. 

This symbiosis began at Plaszow. It was 1942. Helena was 19. Her mother 41. Officially a forced labor camp then, Plaszow was — for all intents and purposes —already the concentration camp it would later be designated as. Escape was useless. An electrified fence ran around the perimeter. The commandant, Amon Goeth, ruled like the despot and sadist he was. People were executed for the slightest infractions or no reason at all. Prisoners were ill, overworked, underfed.

Amid such conditions, Helena’s own survival is amazing enough, but that she pulled her mother through the ordeal with her is even more remarkable. The fortitude and fate that brought Helena and her late mother out alive is shared, too, by Lola, a fellow survivor who was not reunited with her sister and mother until many years later. Lola was the first of the sisters to come to Omaha and she still lives here.

Much of their strength came from the sisters’ father, an educated man who, despite their unimaginable plight, they recall as never losing hope. Through it all, he remained “always” optimistic. “He said every day, ‘The war is over tomorrow.’ I wanted to believe him,” Helena said. She recalls he somehow managed secreting a radio inside the camp that he kept hidden and listened to for news of the Allies’ advance on Axis Germany. “He’d come and cheer us up, telling us the war would be over soon. Sure that helped. Wouldn’t that help you if you were down in the dumps? He lifted our spirits and the spirits of others, too. It’s true.” He survived the Holocaust, tragically dying two days after liberation. 

She said her father also willed himself to stay alive in order to keep an oft-repeatedvow he made — that he would live to see the day the Germans were “beaten. Yes, he had strong will power,” she said. His daughters did, too. “If I didn’t have, then I would be six feet under a long time ago,” said Helena.

Still, there were times, she said, when “I was thinking to give up. I could have. I could have thrown myself in the electrified wires and been finished with my life. But I couldn’t, because I had to live for my mother.”

Weakened by disease and malnutrition, Karolina was a pale shell of herself. If she were unable to work or if even she appeared unfit, Helena knew her mom would soon be disposable and, thus, a sure target for extermination.

“My mother was very sick. She had thrombosis in both legs. She had terrible bronchitis and TB (tuberculosis),” said Helena. “I forced my mother to work. There was not any other way. I pushed her and she pushed herself, even though it was very hard for her. I said, ‘If you’re not going to work, they’re going to kill you.’ She knew if she was not going to do it, it was going to be the end. She wanted to live.”

To fool the guards into thinking her mother stronger and ruddier than she really was, Helena used a ruse that, if discovered, could have meant death for both of them. “Everything was taken from me. Everything,” she said, except for one item she hid from the humiliating strip searches conducted in camp — a tube of lipstick. 

“I carried the lipstick here,” she said, indicating between her bosoms. “Mother was very white, like no blood was left in her face. She was very frail. Each morning, I tried to put on my mother’s cheeks the lipstick, so that she would look healthy for the Germans. Every day…I made her look healthy. I saved my mother this way.”

It was not the only time she saved her mother’s life. Once, she said, her mother left the barracks to use the latrine, which wasn’t much more than a hole in the ground. “She fell down the hole and she was drowning in shit up to here,” Helena said, gesturing to her neck. “Somebody called me, and I had to pull her out and wash her off. It was a terrible thing.”

How different things were only a few years before — before the German invasion and occupation of Poland began in 1939 and, with it, the ethnic cleansing campaign the Nazis called The Final Solution.  

The Schulkinds were a family of prestige in the largely Gentile district of Krakow they resided in. Their history in Krakow went back more than a century. Karol, the father, was a highly respected and successful electrical engineer and the owner of his own company employing several people. A World War I veteran, he attended university in Austria. He was, Helena said, “a brilliant, eminent, handsome man.”
Karolina, the mother, was a pretty, porcelain doll of a woman who was the picture of refinement in the house she decorated and in the artistic pursuits she favored.

The family vacationed together, with swimming and hiking-filled summers in the country and winter skiing treks in the mountains. 

Helena was a smart, lively 16 year-old with two years of “gymnasium” (high school) under her belt and a dream of becoming a physician. “I wanted to study medicine,” she said, but her fondest “desire was shattered” by the outbreak of hostilities.

September 1939 is when it all changed. An eerie quiet fell over Krakow the first few days after war was declared. “Nothing was happening, but then the Germans began bombing Krakow”, she said, using the blitzkrieg strategy that overwhelmed Polish defenses, if not Polish resistance. “We spent most of the time in the basement bunker in our house. I was terribly afraid something might happen to my mother and father.” The Schulkinds and their house survived the attack unscathed, but neighbors were not so lucky. Then, the German Army marched in and life as the Schulkinds knew it stopped. No more work. No more school. No more freedom.

Everything the family once took for granted was stripped from them, including their possessions, as Jews were made official outcasts in their own land. In March 1941, the city’s Jewish population was ordered to gather up no more than five pounds of belongings per person and marched across the river into an abandoned Gentile district that became their ghetto prison. The stone wall and barbed wire enclosed Krakow Ghetto would be their grim dwelling place the next several months.

The Schulkinds shared a two-room flat with another family of five. Fear ruled the ghetto occupants’ lives. Beatings and killings were widespread. Once, the inhabitants were gathered in a public square and those ordered out of the ranks, some 1,500 men, women and children, were machine gunned. Enforced labor, which was mandatory for all able-bodied persons, regardless of age, provided some relief. Each Schulkind worked except for Nathan, who was too frail. Karolina, the mother, repaired military uniforms. Karol, the father, plied his trade as an electrical engineer inside and outside the ghetto. Lola was transported by truck each morning to clean at a Krakow hospital. Helena swept dirt from the street and sidewalk in the summer and cleaned snow in the winter. 

Food was in chronic short supply and the only way to get more was to barter or trade. In a bold and dangerous move, Helena’s father defied authorities and held onto the family’s jewelry and silver, which he kept hidden. Helena said she used these valuables for procuring food on scavenging missions outside the ghetto that she planned and executed herself. 

“I tried many times to get out from the ghetto,” she said. “Not to escape, but to organize food supplies. And I did. My mother said, ‘You know, if you’re going to go, you’ll be killed.’ I said, ‘I’m going to take my chances.’ I was frightened. But, you know, in a situation like that I took the chance.”

She said that while the ghetto was barricaded by heavily guarded wall and wire, there were entrance-exit points where one could dare sneak past or bribe the guards, who were often directing traffic in and out of the ghetto. Her preferred method was to position herself near the passage way and bide her time for a guard to turn away or occupy himself talking with someone, and then, when “the opportunity” presented itself, she “slipped out. I went where I could get food. I can’t remember where, but I bought it somewhere” with the forbidden treasures she carried. Then, food in hand — “a loaf of bread maybe or whatever I could get”  — she had to repeat the process and “slip back in. I thanked God nobody ever caught me. I would probably have been shot.”

Months later, at Plaszow, Helena said she employed a similar artful dodger routine. “There was some kind of opening there, and I looked for the opportunity and I went out,” she said. This time, however, she had nothing to barter with. “I went to some homes where Gentiles were living and I begged them for food.”

Helena’s family was severed the first time when the ghetto was emptied and its occupants assembled in preparation for marching to the nearby Plaszow camp. The Gestapo began pulling the old, the young and the sick out of line, including her brother Nathan. Her mother pulled him back. That’s when the Gestapo told Karolina she and her son would be killed right then unless she let him go. He was taken away, never to be seen again by his family. He died at Auschwitz.

She soon lost another member of her family, when her grandmother was shot before her very eyes at Plaszow. The misery of Plaszow ground prisoners down. Degradation and torture were all they could expect. Death, their only release. Once, Helena was picked at random and beaten. “They chose me — I don’t know why — and they put me on a table and gave me 25 lashes on my bottom with a leather crop,” she said. “No reason at all.” 

Camp commandant Amon Goeth would “shoot people, line the bodies up” and force prisoners like Helena to “look at them. This was Goeth. He was terrible.” At the opposite end of the spectrum was Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist well known among prisoners for doing “business with the Nazis” in the camp, where “his Jews” were protected and where he operated a pot and pan factory. Helena’s sister, Lola, believes a fateful encounter with him saved her life. Caught bringing food to their father after curfew, Lola said a man she now recognizes as Schindler beat her unconscious rather than let her be shot by the SS.

The only relief from all this despair was in the scattered moments Helena and her family stole with each other. Their work — pounding rocks into gravel at a quarry — was pure drudgery. What passed for meals — a slice of bread and cup of coffee in the morning and a rutabaga broth at night — offered no satisfaction. The starvation diet forced prisoners to make awful choices. “I asked my mother — What should I do? Should I eat bread now or keep for tomorrow? I kept for breakfast.” 

In 1944, Lola was shipped out of Plaszow to work in the first of two munitions factories. Then, Karol was transported to another camp. This left Helena to fend for herself and for her mother. “My sister was gone. My father was taken away. And I had to care for my mom. It was very hard. I was just a young person. I didn’t know from life.” Then, Helena’s worst fears were realized when she was separated from her mother and shipped to the Tarnow Ghetto. Strangely, she said, she was sent back to Plaszow, where she was gratefully reunited with her ailing mom. She believes her father played a role in getting her returned. “My father was still alive, and people told me he had some influence with higher officials.” 

Helena, her mother and others were taken by train, on cattle cars, to Auschwitz. They knew evil was there. “I was terribly sad when I heard the word Auschwitz. I was afraid they took us to die,” Helena said. However, they were spared in the short time they were there and, later, at Bergen-Belsen. As the war neared its end, the Nazi killing machine was disrupted. She and her mother were among those liberated by American soldiers at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.

“When the war ended, people cried from happiness” at having survived, she said, “and from sadness, too. The first words were, ‘I don’t know what happened to my father’ and ‘I don’t know what happened to my brother.’ It was very emotional.”

Liberation found Helena and her mother drawn down to maybe 65 pounds each. Her mother was quite sick. Their recovery began in Germany and continued in Sweden, where the International Red Cross found them passage. Helena’s mother recuperated in a sanatorium. “The care was excellent,” Helena said. 

It was in Sweden Helena learned Lola was alive. By the time they exchanged letters, Helena and her mother were bound for Uruguay, where relatives lived. Meanwhile, Lola married Irving Reinglas and settled in Munich, Germany before coming to America with their first born child in 1949. It was in Uruguay Helena met and married Walter Tichauer, a gifted glazer who fled Germany after Kristallnacht. Their two sons were born there. He did glazing work and she was a nurse’s aide.

Years later, Lola prevailed on her mother and Helena and her family to relocate from Uruguay to America. They came to the U.S. in 1963. Just as Lola and Irving made a good life here, so too did Helena and Walter. Helena had her own hardware store in north Omaha, where she survived being held-up at knife-point, and, later, she had a gift shop in the Westroads. Walter applied his craftsmanship to new building projects. In 1967, Helena and her sister lost their mother. She was only 63.

Today, these survivor sisters are longtime volunteers at Methodist Hospital. They love America and appreciate the way the country has embraced them.

A grandmother of five and great-grandmother of two, Helena rarely talks about the Shoah. When she does, she says, “I don’t wish on my worst enemy” what occurred. “That’s why we have to remember. Not because it just happened to Jews. Because it’s happened to many nationalities and religions. They’re humans. They are people. They have a soul. They have feelings. And this is what counts.” Now writing her biography, she’s proud of how she’s carried on and started over, first in Sweden, then in Uruguay and then in America. “That’s the story of my life. I’m still alive. I still go on. Maybe this was destiny for me. I believe in destiny.”

Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story

March 27, 2018 1 comment

Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

For the first 52 years of his life Fred Kader lived everyday in the shadow of a lost past. An orphaned child of the Holocaust, Kader’s early years remained an unfathomable mystery that he hoped one day to solve so that he might finally come to know how he survived the Shoah as a small boy in his native Belgium.

That he had been one of an estimated 4,500 hidden children in his homeland during World War II he already knew. That he was the lone surviving member of his immediate family he was certain. That he ended up in an orphanage reserved for Jewish children he definitely recalled. That an uncle found him after the war and took him in to live with his family he also remembered. But precisely how he came to be hidden, where he was protected and by whom were details frustratingly outside his memory’s reach. After all, when the events that eventually, tragically separated Kader from his family first transpired he was about 4 years old — an age when distinct memories are rare in even the best of circumstances. Given the trauma he endured during the four years he was in hiding, he no doubt buried memories that he might otherwise have retained. Adding to his dilemma was the sad fact that the few members of his extended family who were left could provide only partial answers to the questions that dogged him all these years later.

For Kader, a pediatric neurologist with his own private practice in Omaha, the strain of not knowing his own life history left an ever-present void he could not fill and with the disturbing sense that pieces of this puzzling odyssey lay just beyond his grasp. Kader, a soft-spoken man with sensitive eyes, described what it is like to be burdened with such a gulf inside.

“It’s like a big box of unknown,” he said in his delicately-accented voice. “It’s a big box that’s empty, yet it isn’t empty. You know it’s full of things but there’s no way of getting into it. When you have a chance to talk about it, you remember so little that it takes just a few minutes to put in words what you can say about it because the rest of you just represses it all. The pieces you know fill just a small corner of the box and the rest of the box is empty and yet you know it isn’t. And you know whatever is in there certainly affected you and influenced you and has a direct relationship to who you are and what you do. It’s a strange kind of void. It’s part of you and yet it’s separate from you. You must keep going in spite of it and just try and accept it.”

Fragments and snatches of memories from war-torn Europe haunted him, but he could never make sense of them or be sure they were not fabrications of his imagination. Besides, the images in his head were obscured — like shadows filtered through a screen. For example, he recalled resting his head in someone’s lap and crying during a noisy, nighttime road trip, but could not remember who consoled him or why or where he was traveling. Then there was the image of him wandering the streets as a little boy lost and somehow being whisked away to safety by someone. Why he was alone and who rescued him he did not know.

“It was all bits and pieces. Some of it I knew was facts, some of may have come from something I remembered and other parts of it may have come from something I read and incorporated. After a while, things kind of merge and run together and it’s hard to tell what is factual, what’s a memory and what’s a nightmare.”

Striking an uneasy truce with his seemingly irretrievable and intractable past, Kader got to the point of never expecting to fully know what caused him to be spared amid the Holocaust. Then, at the urging of a fellow hidden child from Belgium who, amazingly enough, had also wound up as a pediatric specialist practicing in Omaha— child psychiatrist Tom Jaeger — Kader joined his friend at the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II in a shared search for clues to their missing stories. Heading into the 1991 conference in New York City, the then-52-year-old Kader adopted a decidedly guarded attitude about what he might find, so as not to be disappointed if his questions turned up no real answers. “Emotionally, I was trying to stay pretty calm, cool and collected because I didn’t want to build up any kind of false hopes of being able to find something out,” he said. “I mean, who was going to know anything about this one little Jewish boy in the middle of this immense devastation that went on in Europe?”

 

 

Much to his astonishment, however, he discovered a wealth of information that, for the first time, gave him a near complete picture of how his own hidden child story played out and revealed the identities of those individuals whose actions shielded him from almost certain death. These revelations came about as the result of Kader meeting people at the conference who knew his story either as researchers or as first-hand participants who aided his survival.

First, he met writer Sylvain Brachfeld, the author of a book chronicling the hidden children of Europe, including those in Belgium, and who upon hearing Kader’s original name — Jeruzalski — immediately placed him and his story. “It was really meeting Brachfeld that just sort of put the key in the lock and unlocked the door,” Kader said. “I mean, he just pinned me. He said, ‘I know who you are and I know exactly what page you’re on in my book. I know exactly what you looked like as a kid.’ And the door just swung open and from there I met all these people who knew me and knew what had happened to me. I didn’t know them, but they recognized me. They were actually able to corroborate some of the things I had in my memory. They dated it, they placed it, and a timeline started, so to speak, and my early years sort of got sorted out. It was like catching up with my life story. It was overwhelming.”

Perhaps the most powerful corroboration came from Marcel Chojnacki, who informed Kader that it was his lap the then-4 year-old Kader rested on during that mysterious and road trip at night. It turned out Chojnacki actually discovered Kader and some other orphaned children waiting to be transported to Auschwitz. He put them in the hands of a rescuer, Madam Marie Albert Blum, a nurse who arranged for the waifs to be transported by truck back to safekeeping. At the time, Chojnacki was a fellow hidden child, although older than Kader, in the charge of Blum, who operated the Home of Wezembeek, a former sanatorium-turned shelter for Jewish children that was part of an underground network of safe houses throughout Belgium. The child-saving network that Blum participated in was known and somewhat tolerated by the Nazis and was sanctioned and partially protected by high levels of the Belgium ruling class, including Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

Before Marcel Chojnacki and Madam Blum intervened on his behalf, Kader had already been rescued twice. His story of loss and survival began in September, 1942. The mass deportation of Jews in Belgium was already well under way. His father had been rounded up with other Jewish men and sent to a forced labor camp in France. His older brothers were already on their way to death camps. One day, Kader found himself with his mother at the Antwerp rail station, where trains were transporting Jews to various way stations en route to Auschwitz. A surviving aunt, who was also at the station that day, later told him that his mother made the heart wrenching decision to try and save her lone remaining son by ordering him to walk away from her. His mother knew he stood a chance because of his Aryan-like features — namely, blond hair and blue eyes. Like a good little boy, Kader obeyed his mother and wandered away, never to see her again. He does not remember his mother’s face or voice or smell or manner. No photographs of her or any member of his family exist. Of that fateful day, he recalls only aimlessly walking the streets of Antwerp and being swept up and carried away by some unknown good angel.

In recent years Kader has learned his rescuer that day was a nun who escorted him to a house near Antwerp set-up for hiding Jewish children. Called the Home of the Good Angels, Kader was there with five other children only a short while before the house was raided. Kader and the other children were sent to Malines, a major train terminal and deportation site for Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the Wezembeek orphanage was also shut down by the Nazis, who forced Madam Blum and the dozens of children in her protection to move to Malines. It was in Malines where the paths of Kader, Blum and Chojnacki intersected. After being thrown out of their hiding place, Kader and his fellow young vagabonds, suffering from lack of food and sleep, were holed up in one corner of a former army barracks in Malines. Soon, Blum and her caravan of orphans arrived, too — unaware of the presence of Kader’s group. All of the children were slated for transport to Auschwitz. A convoy of trains carrying Jews from France were to be their passage. Civilian trains were being employed at this time in the transport of Jews. That day, the trains were late arriving, Kader has learned, because some captives kept jumping off, causing repeated delays as the guards recaptured the fleeing prisoners or shot them on sight. In an ironic and tragic twist, it turns out Kader’s father and uncle were on one of the trains en route to Malines. Neither Kader nor his father could have known the other was so near. And, as fate would have it, Kader’s uncle — his father’s brother — escaped into the countryside during one of the train convoy’s unscheduled stops, but his father did not.

 

 

During the better part of a day and night, the enterprising Blum took advantage of the delayed trains to negotiate with German army officials, some of whom could be bought with bribes, for the release of the children to her care and for a guarantee of their safe transit back to Wezembeek. As the day drew on, some of the older children with Blum, including Chojnacki, wandered off to investigate the barracks compound around Malines. And it was while nosing around one barracks that Chojnacki and his mates came upon the huddled, ragtag forms of Kader and the others, who were brought to Blum’s attention and added to her protective custody. Malines proved to be a crossroads of hearts and fates. While Kader, his uncle, Madam Blum and her wards were spared the horror of Auschwitz, the brutally efficient Gestapo were so intent on meeting their deportation quota that they dragged patients out of hospitals and onto the trains to take the place of the children. It is presumed Kader’s father went to his death in Auschwitz too.

When, in 1991, Kader met up again with Marcel Chojnacki and learned how he came to be with him under Blum’s protection, it was like coming face to face with his long “lost brother” and finding the once closed door to his unknown past opened wide. Kader said, “He knew how I came to be saved. How I survived. Meeting Marcel, the door didn’t just swing open, it came off the hinges. It was just a flood of information. It couldn’t come fast enough. It grew exponentially. I was trying to keep my feet on the ground to make sense of all this.” He and Chojnacki have become close friends in the ensuing years. As part of his attempt to reclaim his past, Kader has traveled to Belgium to visit many of the sites he spent his hidden childhood in and to thank Chojnacki, Blum and other individuals who played a role in his survival. For Kader, the term hero only begins to describe how he feels about Blum, a Jewish woman who risked her life over and over to aid helpless children like himself. Blum has been recognized in her own country and around the world for her rescue efforts.

Kader’s immediate post-war life, like that of many hidden children, was an unsettled affair. He stayed at a convent for a time and for two years he and other children fended for themselves at the by-then vacated Wezembeek facility and grounds. He developed street smarts during this time. “You had to mature fast if you were going to survive,” he said. His uncle found him — purely by accident — and brought him to live with his family. Kader said his uncle rarely spoke about the war or the personal losses endured. “It was too painful to talk about it. He survived and my father didn’t. He was the sole survivor of the family. And here I was reminding him of the family that he lost.” He said his uncle’s family treated him well, but his orphan’s sense of abandonment and wariness made him resist their kindness. “As a kid, you realize there’s nobody there for you. You’re it. You’re on your own. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Whether you’re safe or not. You lived through the war. You ended up in an orphanage. Then, you’re at your uncle’s place. They tried very hard to make a family life for me, but I don’t think I let them because everywhere you go, you wonder, How long am I going to be here?” Kader’s mistrust and alienation only intensified when, at age 11, he was sent to live with a great aunt and her family in Montreal, Canada. “And then all of a sudden you’re transported to a different place. To a different country. With a different family. So, again, you’re left wondering How long” How come? and What’s going to happen next? I looked at it as the next step in being alone and traveling on an ongoing basis. It took me years and years to make sense of my existence.”

Finally, with time, he came to feel he did have a home and a family, after all. “It took a while to accept that there was no more wondering about whether I belonged somewhere. As you get a little older you stop wondering what’s going to happen and you realize this is not just another temporary stopping place, but that this is it. This is the end of the line. This is where you’re going to become part of a new family and this is where you’re going to plant roots.”

 

 

Gradually, Kader began to flourish in his new life. He did well in school, especially upon discovering that education was an opportunity to make something of himself and, in a way, to make up for some of what he had lost. From the time he arrived in Montreal he felt compelled to serve others. “I knew I wanted to do something to help people.” He couldn’t fully understand it then but he has since come to believe his wartime experiences are what drove him to be a physician focusing on children. “It’s no accident I found myself working in medicine with kids. My past was a means to an end. Obviously, knowing what happened to me the first seven years of my life does give you a basis to realize how you got to this point and how you got be who you are. It makes you more whole when you can understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

After training in Canada and the United States, Kader settled in Omaha in 1974, where he worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center before entering private practice. He and his wife of 36 years, Sarah, are parents to three grown children (two of whom are professionals working with children) and are grandparents to three.

Since discovering his past, Kader, now 62, has spoken publicly about his experience as well as about the horrors and the lessons of the Holocaust. He feels it is the obligation of all survivors to do so. “We have to tell our story because it’s the only way we can teach people what happened. You hope people will listen and you hope people will learn. If you know about it, then when you see bigotry in front of your eyes you’ll recognize it and then maybe you’ll try to put a stop to it.”

Meanwhile, Kader’s search for more details about his family’s exact fate may never fully be completed. For example, his investigations have not been able to determine what happened to his only sister. “There’s still little pieces missing,” he said. “Things that I’ll probably never know. You never quite get to the end. So there’s still a sense of not totally putting closure to it.”

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

March 17, 2018 2 comments

 

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons (2007)

Sergeant Ben Kuroki dreaded what awaited him.

It was 1994, World War II raged on, and the 27-year-old American serviceman was on special leave back in the States,  where he was ordered to make a speech about his wartime experiences. He felt ill-prepared to do so. After all, he grew up a poor Nebraska farm boy near Hershey. He’d had a spotty education. His school was often interrupted when his folks needed him to work the potato fields.

Kuroki had never done any public speaking unless you count a speech or two he gave in school. Now he was expected to address an audience of hundreds of well-heeled strangers, He was so intimidated, he tried getting out of it. But the U.S. War Department, which had arranged for Kuroki to speak, would not have it.

The crowd of movers and shakers belonged to San Francisco’s elite Commonwealth Club. Its members were used to hearing from power-brokers , including every U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln. Now they were about to hear from Kuroki, a skinny, young Japanese-American enlisted man at the height of America’s war with Japan. Skepticism ran high. For his part, Kuroki was plain scared and it took a lot to scare a man who has seen as much battle action as he had.

The B-24 Army Air Corps gunner had flown through the worst the German air defenses over North Africa and Europe could throw at Allied forces. A veteran of 30 bombing missions, including the famed Ploesti raid, Kuroki was already a hero. He went on to fly 28 more missions on B-29s over the Pacific.

On the eve of giving a talk before a group of fat-cats in San Francisco, he felt a new kind of fear. There was good reason for his unease. As a Japanese-American, Kuroki was widely viewed with suspicion or worse in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s ongoing bloody war with the Pacific island nation. Wartime hysteria, particularly on the west coast, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans beige forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Hostility toward anyone of Japanese ancestry was common.

Kuroki himself suffered insults and slights from the time he enlisted. Just being in the Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of the war, young men wanting to enlist like Ben and his kid brother, Fred, encountered roadblocks. Japanese-Americans already in uniform were kicked out. Those who got in were mustered out. denied combat assignments or shifted to the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America and persisted in the face of racism and red tape.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” he said recently from his home in Camarillo, California where he and his wife, Shige, live.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. None of his remarkable service record, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, would have happened if Kuroki  didn’t press his case up the chain of command: once, all the way to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson reversed U.S, policy that banned Japanese-Americans from seeing combat in the Pacific. As a result, Kuroki was the only Nisei to see such duty over mainland Japan.

His continuing inequality became Kuroki’s “59th mission.”

Kuroki’s singular story is told in a new documentary, Most Honorable Son, that premiered in Lincoln Aug. 1. The documentary is set to air on PBS (NET1) Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you can find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things. It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero, and you have even more of a story.

“He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian-Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

Even now, the 90-year-old Kuroki, a retired newspaper editor, asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family, no children, or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts, no brains” loyalty was his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children  to never bring shame to yourself or you family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

The tenor of the times was expressed in a newspaper headline that announced his speech as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” That story ran next to another condemning Japanese atrocities on the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Making the appearance even more dramatic, Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the west coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” he recalled.

Seeing the public relations windfall of a Japanese-American combat hero, the War Department put him to work winning hearts and minds by booking him on the public speaking circuit. By parading him around to civic groups and internment camps, it was hoped Kuroki’s example would reverse racist attitudes and boost Nisei recruits.

“Bivouacked” at a Santa Monica, California rest-rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time Magazine and the New York Times. Then came the Commonwealth gig in San Francisco. He was given a room at the Palace Hotel. An Army PR officer accompanied him. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked Kuroki to outline his experiences on paper., which Evans transformed into the moving speech Kuroki made.

“He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said of Evans’ work shaping his story.

The words Kuroki spoke that day and the heartfelt way he delivered them are said to have turned the tide of west coast public opinion on the Japanese-American question. Broadcast via radio in Calif., the speech got wide news coverage.

Here’s a sample of what he said on February 4, 1944:

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action. When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words.”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot left the cockpit to go back and give the injured man a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make what a man’s ancestry was? We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing.”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles, one against the Axis one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he shared, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face it.”

Following the talk, reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, a then University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kutoba’s research convinced him the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.”

“It helped people realize this is an issue they should think about and deal with.”

Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk. Vital evidence for the profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas, he appeared at internment camps in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, where his visits drew mixed responses: enthusiasm from idealist young Nisei wanting his autograph; and hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japam rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he says.

“Some started calling me dirty names. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kabota’s father, a then-teenager impressed with the dashing, highly decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanees-Americans also saw him,” Kubota said.

Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized,” Kubota added.

At one time, Kuroki’s story was widely reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels and a 1946 book, Boy from Nebraska, by Ralph Martin. Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best-known enlisted man to have served.

For years afterward, Kuroki kept silent about his exploits. The humble man, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher and editor, first with the York (Nebraska) Republican and then the Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise. He later moved to California, where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

Kuroki’s story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society, he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he has been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association an his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention, Kuroki and wife Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was honored again last month when the new documentary was screened at a dinner hosted by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann and First Lady Sally Ganem in Lincoln.

High distinction for a man from such humble beginnings. Always, he credits his Nebraska roots for preparing him for life and duty.

“I think in the long run, I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots, for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way east on Union Pacific Railroad section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of draught, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports and hunting with friends, trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different.

“But at the same time, I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor,” Kurokki said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese-American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him outside.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled, so we just sort of scattered, and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out. It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte.

“I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said,

Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the coming restrictive measures imposed on all Japanese-Americans during the conflict. As part of the crackdown, their assets, including all bank accounts, were frozen. As hysteria built on the west coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost. Lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte 13 miles away. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called.

“We knew were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said.

The brothers left the facility in frustration.

“It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island, so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem. He said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the brothers taking their loyalty oath.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Ben Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?'” “That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well.

“I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.”

At least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My god, i feared, for my life then,” Ben said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps. Almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction.  The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Ben Kuroki went to a clerical school in Logan, Colorado and then to Burksdale Field, Louisiana, where the 93rd Bomber Group made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP duty several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft, but I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid that if I did the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother. That I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

Kuroki took extra precautions.

“I wouldn’t dare go near one )B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career.”

The his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he even got over enemy skies. That’s when Kuroki made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Florida, the last stop before going to England. After three months of training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then, I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life. So I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant. Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later, I;m forever grateful because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

Kuroki made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a found of ammunition.”

In late 1942, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called “The Flying Circus,” before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he “had practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way: in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire, but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course, we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each other’s lives.”

A crewmate dubbed Kurpki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became he nickname for their B-24.

At the time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans be deported to Japan after the war.

By then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of “The Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panther tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his mates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in 1943, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. The crew feared for their lives but Spanish cavalry rode to the rescue. The Spanish held the Americans more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught. What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Romania is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at tree-top level against heavily fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached he 25 mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, Germany, when flak shattered he top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, he was assigned a series of public appearances, including the Commonwealth Club speech that caused such a stir. The came his visits to internment camps. None of this sat too well with Kuroki.

“I felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air cut was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch of the Commonwealth Club learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Kuroki also prevailed upon U.S. Congressman Carl Curtis (Rep.–Neb.), who telegraphed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George Marshall and Hap Arnold. Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time, when war hysteria was so high,” Kuroki said of the campaign waged on his behalf.

Stimson’s letter read in part: “I am now happy to inform you that by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sgt. Kuroki from the provisions of the policy.”

A fellow veteran and old friend of Kuroki’s, Carroll “Cal” Stewart, speculated it may have been the only time a GI “beat a War Department regulation during WWII.”

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice, federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights: once, at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Martha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time, he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” Kuroki said.

The B-29 he was assigned was dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki” in honor of Kuroki.

His crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their plane was parked next to the “Enola Gay” B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight and then only flanked by cremates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy.

After completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken GI called him “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the base hospital for the remainder of the war.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper, and I wouldn’t be here talking,” he said. “And it probably would ever have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about. I didn’t want to be called a Jap. Not after all I had been through. The insults and all the things that hurt all the way back, even in recruiting.”

 

%d bloggers like this: