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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II

Both Alike in Dignity

It wasn’t like Mr. Muncznik to get lost. Then again, his mind wasn’t what it used to be.

Every Sunday, he would take the bus to visit his old friend, Berek, in Pasadena. On this particular Sunday, however, his mind had slipped, causing him to get off far earlier than he anticipated. Now, he found himself wandering the streets of Little Tokyo.

Despite the fact that he was lost, Mr. Muncznik delighted in the sights with a kind of fascination. In the nearly sixty years he’d lived in Los Angeles, it was seldom that he ever ventured much farther than his own Mid City neighborhood. As a child and teenager, he’d been much more adventurous, imagining the exotic, far-off places he would one day visit.

But then the war came.

In 1939, the Nazis invaded his native Poland. Being Jewish, his family was rounded up with all the other Jews in the town of Sosnowiec and shipped off to various concentration camps in both Poland and Germany. He learned that his beloved parents had been murdered; gassed in Auschwitz, along with two of his five brothers. What horrors had befallen the rest of his family, he never knew—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings…never to be seen or heard from again. Mr. Muncznik was the sole survivor of his entire family when he was liberated from the Dachau camp at the end of the war. Needless to say, after such an atrocity, the yearning and desire for adventure was shattered. How, in all honesty, could he appreciate the wonders and beauty of a world where something as vile and evil as the Holocaust was possible? It would take time to heal.

And yet, now, as he walked the streets of Little Tokyo, that old spark returned to his heart. Indeed, it was an exciting place, filled with the smells of exotic foods and the lively chatter of people both young and old. The streets were lined with restaurants and novelty shops selling goods from Japan and the Far East. How have I never been here before? he asked himself.

Taking a seat on a stone bench near the corner of Central Avenue and 2nd Street, he removed his newsy cap to scratch his head in confusion. His concern now was to try to find a bus that would take him to Pasadena. He needed to contact his friend, Berek. He might know where Little Tokyo was. After all, his old friend used to be quite the intrepid explorer before he stopped driving and couldn’t walk so well.

Replacing the cap back on his head, Mr. Muncznik nearly jumped when he saw a man sitting next to him. “Oy,” he cried, clutching his chest, only to realize that it was not, in fact, a real man. It was a bronze statue of an Asian gentleman, presumably Japanese, with a stoic expression on his face. He held a tiny book in his right hand, which was held aloft toward an invisible recipient.

Vos in di velt…?” Mr. Muncznik asked himself in his native Yiddish. “What in the world…?” Rising from his seat, he took a good look at the sculpture. It was marvelously crafted, the intricate details making it all the more lifelike.

Beside the bench, Mr. Muncznik noticed a large rock with a plaque embedded in its face, providing passersby with some information on the man immortalized in bronze. The name was difficult for him to pronounce, but he nevertheless gave it his best shot.

“Ch—Chun—“

“Chiune Sugihara.”

Mr. Muncznik was once again startled, only this time, he didn’t let it show. Turning ever so slowly, he came face-to-face with an elderly Japanese man.

“His name is Chiune Sugihara,” the man said with a smile, pointing his cane toward the plaque. “I’m so glad they’ve put up a statue in his honor, seeing as how few people know who he is.”

Mr. Muncznik had to admit that he’d never heard of this Sugihara person himself. His curiosity piqued, he watched as the Japanese man took a seat on the edge of the bench.

With a faraway expression, as if relating the story from memory, the man continued to speak. “He was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during the war. Single-handedly, he orchestrated the escape of over six-thousand Jews from Nazi persecution by writing them exit visas. He jeopardized the safety of his life, career, and family, but in the end, when asked why he did what he did, he simply replied ‘I followed my own conscience and listened to it.’”

Mr. Muncznik could feel his eyes widen with wonder. How he had never heard of this remarkable man was beyond him, especially since Sugihara was, clearly, directly tied to the Holocaust.

“I—I never knew,” he stammered, almost sounding embarrassed. “As someone who survived the Shoah, I think everyone should know about him.”

The stranger smiled. “It’s high time he received his due, that’s for sure. Chiune Sugihara was a most selfless and courageous man. A true hero.”

A silence fell upon the two men. After a minute or so, it was broken by the Japanese man. “I’m Kenji Sata,” he said, extending his hand. “But everyone calls me Ken.”

Mr. Muncznik offered his hand in return and the two shook. “Abram Muncznik, but I also go by Abe.”

“Nice to meet you, Abe,” Mr. Sata replied.

“Likewise.”

“You said you’re a Holocaust survivor, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Muncznik answered, launching into his story. For some reason, he felt comfortable talking to this stranger. He couldn’t quite explain it. “I’m from a town called Sosnowiec, in Southern Poland. I was nineteen when Hitler invaded. Every Jew, my friends and family, were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Six years, I suffered. Everything I knew was gone just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. “To make matters worse, the Nazis kept moving us from labor camp to labor camp. I watched my family disappear, wondering in desperation what would become of them. What would become of me? Would we eventually be reunited? Would we even survive this hell on Earth? I wondered, I hoped, I prayed…until there was no one left but me. To this day, I can’t understand how I managed to survive, especially without them. It is a miracle.”

“Wow.” Mr. Sata shook his head. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be fenced in, to be a prisoner in your own country, although my experience cannot compare to yours.”

That distant look returned to his eyes as he told another story, his story. “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese Americans from their homes and communities to secluded relocation camps along the West Coast and Midwest. My family and I lived right here in Little Tokyo, until they told us we had to leave. We packed up our belongings and were sent by train to a place called Heart Mountain in Wyoming.”

Mr. Muncznik nodded, hanging on his every word. After coming to America, he’d heard stories about the relocation of the Japanese during the war, but had never heard a first-person account before.

“Life in the camp took some getting used to,” he continued. “Not only were we segregated from the rest of society, but we were monitored day and night by armed guards in watch towers. Our lives were shattered. We lost our homes and businesses. Many who had planned to continue their education were unable to follow their dream. We tried to go about our daily business, and for the most part, we did. We knew we had to have the ganbatte, that’s ‘hang in there,’ spirit that our ancestors had instilled in us. The injustice that had been done was grave, to say the least. We were citizens of the United States, many of us Nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans. We wanted to prove our loyalty to our country.”

The elderly Jewish man gave a resigned sigh. “It is cruel how unjust life can be…”

Mr. Sata shook his head in agreement. “What the U.S. Government did was wrong; what the Nazis did was incomprehensible. It can never be understood. It can never be justified.”

The two gentlemen paused for a moment, no doubt reflecting on their respective plights during the war. By now, Mr. Muncznik had all but forgotten about being lost.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what camps did you go through?” Mr. Sata asked, suddenly.

Mr. Muncznik took his cap off again, scratching his head. “There were many, and despite the fact that my memory these days is not so good, the names of the camps, and what I witnessed and endured, is something I will never forget. The first camp I was taken to was called Fort VII. After that, I was sent to Gross-Rosen, then Warsaw, Bergen-Belsen, and finally, Dachau, where I was liberated on April 29, 1945. I remember that day well.”

His eyes seemed to wax over as he conjured the memory in his mind’s eye. For a moment, it looked as if Mr. Sata was about to say something, but he let the man speak. “That morning, we woke up wondering why the guards weren’t barking orders and forcing us to work. Stepping out of our barracks, we realized that, save for the prisoners, the place was deserted. It seemed the Nazis had fled, yet none of us rejoiced. We thought it could be a trap of some sort, a trick. That’s when the first cars and tanks arrived at the gates, each with a big white star on their sides.

“But when we saw the first soldiers, we were worried. Not knowing any better, we thought they might be Japanese troops. However, they spoke English, and with an American accent. I learned later that they were an infantry made up entirely of Japanese American soldiers. Some of them wept upon seeing us in such a terrible state. We were grateful, and they were so kind to us. One of them gave me a chocolate bar. I never knew who he was, but I wish I could thank him once more.”

Upon finishing his recollection, Mr. Muncznik realized that Mr. Sata had removed his glasses, wiping away the stray tears that had fallen down his face. “I’m sorry,” the Jewish man said, regrettably.

“Is everything alright?”

“I’ll be damned,” Mr. Sata answered, sniffling, with a broad smile on his face.

“What is it?”

He grinned in response. “You know that Japanese American infantry you mentioned?”

Mr. Muncznik nodded.

“They were called the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and they were stationed in the European theater during the war. The unit included Japanese Americans from Hawaii and others from various internment camps. They ended up being the most highly decorated unit in the whole of American military history. I know all of this because I fought in the 442nd.”

The elderly Jewish man’s eyes widened once again. The thought that he could very well have seen this man and not even known was exciting, especially given the amount of time that had elapsed.

“To be specific, I was assigned to the 442nd’s Field Artillery Battalion, also known as the 522nd,” Mr. Sata continued. “In the waning days of the war in Europe, our job was to assist other army units in fighting and chasing retreating Nazis toward Munich. We were a little bit ahead of the rest of the other forces, and on the morning of April 29th, 1945, we stumbled upon the concentration camp at Dachau.”

He audibly gulped, the memories of that terrible place forever etched upon his brain. “It was awful. There were dead bodies all around. The prisoners who were still barely alive were so thin, they looked like walking corpses. Their eyes were hollow, too, as if they could see right through us. They were so malnourished and traumatized that they probably didn’t even realize who we were until we broke down the gate to let them out. I will never forget the stench of burning flesh, the decay surrounding me so overwhelming that some of my fellow troops were sick right on the spot.

“One of the prisoners, I remember, approached me. Like the others, his eyes had that same hollowness to them, and yet, there was still a faint trace of light, as if the last shred of hope had clung to his consciousness. He’d been through a lot, anyone could see that. Feeling a combination of pity, sorrow, and compassion, I handed him a chocolate bar.”

The two exchanged a glance, their minds, as well as their stories, on the same wavelength. When he finally found the courage to speak, Mr. Muncznik could barely get the words out.

“It was you,” he whispered, barely audible. His eyes welled up with grateful tears of joy.

Mr. Sata offered a small smile. “I didn’t realize it was you until you told me that bit about the chocolate bar. I noticed that your eyes look the same, albeit there’s a little more light in them now.”

His vision blurred by tears of joy, Mr. Muncznik embraced Mr. Sata. He was grateful, after all these years, to be reunited with the soldier who had showed him so much compassion after the dark days of the Holocaust.

“I’m glad we’ve gotten to know each other,” the elderly Japanese man said with a grin. “And I think it’d be nice for us to remain friends.”

“That would be wonderful,” Mr. Muncznik replied with a warm smile.

Without warning, he clapped a hand to his forehead. “Speaking of friends, I’m due at my friend, Berek’s house in Pasadena! I was on my way over there earlier, but I got off on the wrong bus stop.”

Mr. Sata laughed as he rose to his feet. Offering his hand, he helped his new friend up as well. “Let’s get ahold of Berek. He must be worried about you by now.”

The two began to walk up Central Avenue, toward First Street. “Before I go,” Mr. Muncznik said. “I think you could use a chocolate bar.”

Both men shared a laugh as they headed toward the bus stop.

  

*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II.

 

© 2015 Chester Sakamoto

442nd 522nd camps chiune sugihara Dachau fiction holocaust Jewish little tokyo short story World War II

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society conducted its second annual short story (fiction) writing contest which concluded on April 22, 2015 at a reception in Little Tokyo in which the winners and finalists were announced. Last year's contest was entirely in English whereas this year's contest also had a youth category and a Japanese-language category, with cash prizes awarded for each category. The only requirement (other than the story could not exceed 2,500 words or 5,000 Japanese characters) was that the story had to involve Little Tokyo in some creative manner.

  • First Place English: “Fish Market in Little Tokyo” by Nathaniel J. Campbell from Fairfield, Iowa
  • First Place Japanese: “Mitate Club” by Miyuki Sato from Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese only)
  • First Place Youth: “Kazuo Alone” by Linda Toch from Corona, California

Some of the Finalists to be featured are:

      English:

      Japanese (Japanese only)

      Youth:

 


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest I >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III >>