Rabbi Ken Aronowitz
Published with Permission
Editor’s note: Rabbi Ken Aronowitz of Temple Emanu-el served as the speaker for this year’s Joint Memorial Service, which was held Sept. 27 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. The service is held annually to remember and honor the fallen soldiers and deceased Nisei veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion who served in World War II. Hosted by the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center, this year’s service paid special tribute to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, whose members were eyewitnesses to the horror of the Holocaust.
In March 1945, while pursuing the German army as they retreated from France into Germany, the 522nd soldiers came across
Lithuanian Jews who had barely survived a Dachau death march. Calling the 522nd soldiers “eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Aronowitz urged the surviving veterans to share their stories so that similar injustices and acts of inhumanity will never again be repeated.
The following is the text of his speech. The Herald thanks Rabbi Aronowitz for sharing his speech with our readers.
I am the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Hawai‘i’s Reform Jewish congregation, where we aspire to be a makom kodesh, a holy place.
I was greatly honored by the invitation to speak here at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which I believe is also sacred ground.
In 2004, my wife Hinda and I purchased a home in the Carlos Long section of Pälolo Valley, next door to the Matsumotos. Mr. Matsumoto was a member of the 442nd (Regimental Combat Team), and every Veterans Day, I would accompany my wife as she delivered flowers to him. I wish I knew then what I know now as to what a tremendous debt of gratitude we owe Mr. Matsumoto and his fellow Nisei veterans.
I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in Pelham, right outside New York City. It was a wonderful place to live, and I received a good education. But, sadly, in my social studies classes the heroic exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry [Battalion], the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, along with the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service — these were absent from my textbooks and my teachers’ lessons when it came to the history of World War II.
Therefore, I am so very grateful that through our Holocaust Remembrance Service last April, Temple Emanu-El and I personally have made a very meaningful connection.
It began when I met Phyllis Hironaka, whose father of blessed memory (Sam Sazao Hironaka) served with the 522nd, which led to meeting Mr. [Joseph] Obayashi and Mr. [Masayuki] Higa from the 522nd, which led to meeting Wesley Deguchi and Byrnes Yamashita of the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center and, eventually, Eric Saul, curator of “The Unlikely Liberators,” a powerful photo exhibit of the Nisei veterans and the survivors of Dachau, whom they helped to liberate 70 years ago.
All that has led me here today.
In 1987, a member of our Jewish community, Judy Weightman of blessed memory, created the Hawaii Holocaust Project. A portion of the introduction reads as follows: “During the last months of the war, the 522nd, detached from the 100th/442nd, was temporarily attached to the Seventh Army and sent to Germany. There, in the last tumultuous days of the war, the 522nd provided supporting fire for seven different army divisions. But events moved so quickly that the Nisei artillerymen sometimes found themselves ahead of the infantry as they pushed further and further into Germany.
There, in the spring of 1945, these young Japanese American men, some of whom had families interned in U.S. relocation camps, came across the striped-clothed concentration camp survivors of Dachau and its many sub camps.”
Through the Hawaii Holocaust Project, Ted Tsukiyama, Joseph Obayashi, Harold Ueoka, along with other veterans of the 522nd, shared their unforgettable memories of that cold spring in Germany — the dead and dying along the roads, the freed prisoners who came into their mess area to eat out of their garbage pits, the survivors eating dead animals. And, despite an order not to share food with the death camp survivors, the 522nd set up a makeshift hospital and fed the survivors powdered eggs and pancakes.
But I am not here to simply recount the history that I’ve learned, for the Nisei veterans here today, as well as the family members of those killed in action or who passed away since the war — all of you have lived it.
Instead, I would like to focus on the lessons that I — and we — can learn from these brave men, which is very much in keeping with Jewish teachings and values.
The Rabbis taught that each of us has a yetzer tov, an inclination towards doing good in the world, and if everyone lived this way, then the words of the prophet Isaiah would ring true: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The Rabbis also taught that each of us has a yetzer hara, an inclination towards doing evil in the world and, sadly, throughout the world’s history, too many have been moved to commit horrific acts, making the Prophet Joel’s words also ring true that there are times when we need to “Beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, leading the weak to say I am strong.”
In his best-selling book, Rabbi Harold Kushner observed that when bad things happen to good people, it can unlock an inner strength that one didn’t realize he had. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese American military personnel in Hawai‘i were forced to turn in their weapons, while on the Mainland, Executive Order 9066 resulted in 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children being forcibly removed from their homes. Leaving behind their property, furniture and businesses, they were forced to live in barracks and horse stables in brutal heat and cold behind barbed wire.
But rather than wallow in misery or lash out, the extraordinary men of the Nisei battalions summoned their inner strength to serve the very country which, out of fear and mistrust, had mistreated them and their families.
In their drive to prove America wrong, the members of the 100th, 442nd and 522nd volunteered to be sent to Italy and France. Because they were looked upon as expendable by the United States military, the Nisei battalions were placed on the front lines in some of the most intense battles of World War II. The fear that these young men in their late teens and twenties felt at being greeted by a barrage of German machine gun and other weapons fire, and having to retrieve the bodies of their fallen friends and comrades, was superseded by a desire to do the job they were there to do.
That, combined with their famed “Go for Broke” attitude, led to the rescue of the Texas [Lost] Battalion at the Vosges mountains in France, liberating the town of Bruyeres in France, as well as ending the Italian campaign by climbing 4,000 feet under heavy fire to break the Gothic line in 32 minutes, which was something other units had not been able to do in months.
As a person of faith, I believe that true happiness and meaning come from serving something greater than oneself. That life is about we, and not me. For the Japanese American soldiers, this was spelled out by, of all people, Hideki Tojo, prime minister of Japan during World War II, who said that the Nisei were Americans, and following the Bushido precepts of the samurai code, they should be loyal in serving their country. This is precisely what the members of the Nisei battalions did, becoming the most decorated units in the United States military.
In the section of the Talmud known as Pirkei Avot, there is a teaching that says: The reward for doing a mitzvah, or loving act, is the mitzvah, or loving act. The Nisei veterans that I’ve spoken with and whose interviews I’ve read have a difficult time thinking of themselves as heroes or liberators. They aren’t people who clamor for ticker tape parades or to be interviewed for that matter. If you speak to a member of the 100th, 442nd or 522nd, they will tell you to a man that, “We were doing the job that we were sent to do, which included having to shoot and kill people.”
It’s not something they wish to celebrate but rather something that we recognize by gathering at Punchbowl to honor the men who gave their lives and who have passed away since the war for what they did for future generations of Japanese Americans and all Americans.
Several months ago, I watched the heartbreaking scenes of violence on the streets of Baltimore. I felt tremendous anger as a pastor watched the senior residence, which his community had raised millions of dollars to build, go up in flames. I thought to myself, “How can we teach people not to react so destructively in the face of being mistreated?”
Today, I know the answer. The answer lies in the teachings and values that had been passed on to, and instilled in, the Nisei from
parents, teachers and clergy. Gimu (obligation, duty), meiyo (honor), haji (not bringing shame upon one’s family), gaman (endurance) and shinbö (patience). Because the Nisei soldiers took these with them into battle and served with such distinction, I am convinced that the United States government learned from their mistakes and after the attacks on 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans were not rounded up and put into internment camps.
In Sefer Haagadah, the book of legends, there is the story of a man who came before a famous Rabbinic master named Shammai and said, “Take me as a convert to Judaism, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Bible while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry with the man and chased him away.
The man then stood before Hillel, another Rabbinic master, and said, “Take me as a convert to your faith on the condition that you teach me the entire Bible while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Bible, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
Rabbi Hillel was referring to the well-known phrase from Leviticus, Chaper 19, V’Ahavta L’Reacha Kamocha: love your neighbor as yourself. Loving your neighbor as yourself means recognizing that your neighbor is a human being created Btzelem Elohim, in the image of God, just as you are, and that it is important not to lose that humanity when dealing with or referring to others.
The power of “The Unlikely Liberators” exhibit, which was displayed at Temple Emanu-El and will be at Kahala Mall in October (through Oct. 24) is that it shows two groups of people who were de-humanized by, in one case, Hitler and the Nazis, and in the other case, by the United States government.
By living up to their motto, “Go for Broke,” the Nisei veterans — some, who, along with their families, had to endure dehumanizing treatment — became the unlikely liberators of another group of people who had been stripped of their humanity. When the brave men of the 522nd arrived unknowingly at Dachau and other sub concentration camps, they encountered survivors who had been stripped of their names, which were replaced by numbers tattooed on their arms. In a similar action, Japanese American men, women and children had their names taken away and replaced with a paper tag containing their family number.
But when they came upon those who had not been gassed to death in showers or murdered on death marches, the Nisei loved their neighbor as themselves. As Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian Jew and survivor of Dachau, put it, “When a member of the 522nd gave me a bar with the name Hershey on it, it was first time in three years that a person in uniform showed compassion for me.”
Hitler’s plan to strip the Jews of their humanity and to wipe them out ultimately failed, but not before 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews had been murdered.
It failed because, as the actions of the 522nd proved and as one of the readings in our prayer book begins — the good in us will win — and thank God and thanks to them, that is what happened.
I realize that it is difficult for you to talk about the horrors of war and what you saw outside the death camps, but I am asking you, the Nisei veterans here today, please share your stories with us. And to the families of those Nisei veterans no longer with us — please share your father’s or grandfather’s story. My Japanese Chinese Jewish kids who think that the world revolves around hanging out with their friends and having the latest iPhone model — they need to hear it.
Everyone needs to hear it so they can learn and be inspired as I have been and, maybe, just maybe, like a wave upon the ocean, we can become a country where service to family, community and country becomes prevalent. Tell your stories, for you were eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, which the world must not be allowed to forget or to deny. Tell your stories so that groups of people will never again be targeted for mistreatment the way European Jews and Japanese Americans were.
In the book of Genesis, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse.”
May God bless the Nisei veterans, who were indeed a blessing to the Jewish people. May they and their families be blessed. And for the members of the 442nd, 100th, 522nd, 1399th ECB and the MIS buried here and in military cemeteries in Europe, Zichronam Livracha — may their memories continue to be a blessing and let us all say “Amen.”