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Funny. You Don't Look Jewish

Kuniko Katz


Kuniko Katz was born and grew up in Japan. She left her hometown at age fifteen to support herself and to receive higher education. After working in a hospital in Nagoya for 10 years, she was sent to New York where she met her future husband. She raised two children with him. In her memoir, she describes her life, beginning when she ran from the air raids at age three to the time she converted to Judaism. This piece is about her childhood experience during the air raids.

Kumamoto, July, 1945.

The air raid sirens break the stillness of the night. I jump out from under our futon. I’m not yet three years old but I know what the sound means. It’s a warning that the Americans are coming to kill us in planes called B29s. We have to run for safety. I dash to Mother who quickly covers my head with a padded hood. She puts on her own and ties a small bag containing our valuables — money, bank notes, and family seals - to her neck. Then she asks my twelve year old sister, Chiyoko, and my nine year old brother, Shigeru, if they are ready. They give affirmative nods while tying the strings of their hoods.

Mother picks me up in her arms and runs to our backyard. My siblings follow right behind us. As the door and the windows are all covered by thick black cloths during the night to avoid the house’s becoming a target of night raids, there is no light escaping to the outside. In complete darkness, Mother leads us with a dim flashlight to the shelter in the backyard. It is a small hole in the ground, about three by three by four feet deep, dug by Mother with the help of our neighbors.

After locating the shelter, Mother carefully jumps in and helps us to get in. We crouch on the ground while she pulls the wooden cover over from inside. The cover has a few small holes to give us air but it is stifling inside and I hate to be here. I’m frightened by the darkness, too. Knowing how scary the B29s are, though, I don’t complain. I cling to Mother’s neck quietly. Then, in a deathly hush, we wait.

"They’re coming!" Shigeru whispers. I hear the planes in the distance. They sound like a massive swarm of bees. Then in no time, the noise becomes so fierce that my body trembles with fear even though Mother covers my ears and holds me tightly. I know I mustn’t cry no matter how scared I am. Mother tells me that Americans can hear me from the sky. Having heard this so many times, I imagine that they look like the devils that I see in the wall paintings in the nearby temple. They look at us from high above with their sharp, mean eyes and huge pointed ears. I fear that Americans will detect us with those eyes and ears from far away in the sky. I don’t want to be spotted by them. I keep myself absolutely still.

The B 29s are now flying overhead. Anticipating the bombs momentarily, my teeth chatter and my body shakes uncontrollably. Clinging to each other, I feel Mother and my siblings’ trembling, too.

I don’t know how long we wait this way, but after a while we realize that the planes are leaving our area without dropping any bombs. As soon as we heave a sigh of relief, though, we hear strong successive explosions in the distance. "The downtown area!" my sister whispers. Mother climbs out of the shelter carefully and a few minutes later, she lets us out.

We look at up the sky and see numerous lights blinking downtown. They are so bright and beautiful they look like fireworks. Then something pops out from each light and in an instant, flames burst from the houses below. The sky quickly becomes red. Everybody stands there without a word. On a hot summer night, our bodies shiver with horror.

"Let’s go inside." Mother says when the attacks die down, "At least we’re safe for the night."

The second massive air raid comes to our city on August 10, 1945, a day after Nagasaki was destroyed by an atomic bomb. This time there is no warning. An army of planes suddenly appears in the sky in the late morning and begins randomly dropping incendiary bombs.

"B 29s!" neighbors scream. They shout at each other to run. Mother quickly soaks our padded hoods and a blanket in a bucket and douses our clothes with the rest of the water. She tells us she doesn’t want our clothes to catch fire from sparks while we run. Japanese houses, made mainly from wood and paper, easily ignite. I see the roof of the house next door already in flames.

Mother tells my brother and sister not to forget to carry the rucksack that contains first aid and our emergency food — a small bagful of roasted beans - and to follow directly behind her. She covers my head with a padded hood and wraps me with a wet blanket. Then she ties me tightly on her back.

The planes fly extremely low with a tremendous roar. They keep dropping bombs and shooting people. Some neighbors run, covering their heads with wet futons and others hold tatami to protect themselves. But these things make them easier targets and after a few people fall, the others abandon the idea and just run. People collapse one after another but nobody stops to help them.

Following the crowd, Mother shouts to my siblings to be careful not to stumble over fallen people and not to lose sight of her. Then she almost bumps into an old woman who is adamantly refusing to run with her family.

"Please let me stay here," she begs, "I don’t want to be a burden." A middle aged man yells at her, "No mother, you will come with us." He forces her to climb on his back and he starts running with the rest of the families. We hear the woman chanting a Buddhist sutra, "Nammaida, nammaida, nammaida."

The streets of burning houses and the racing crowds terrify me. I hold Mother’s neck tightly so that I won’t part from her.

By the time the attacks die down, we, along with our many neighbors, are in the middle of a rice field at the edge of Mount Tatsuda, about three miles from the house. When people begin to rest in the field, Mother takes me off her back and flops on the ground as if she has suddenly lost the bones that support her. Although my legs hurt from being carried on Mother’s back so long, I’m glad. I’m finally free. I run around near Mother until I realize how utterly exhausted she looks. She just sits there in a stupor.

After a while, a woman sitting on the ground next to us says to Mother quietly, "I wonder if Japan is losing. Otherwise, how could the Japanese air force allow these massive attacks during the day? Why haven’t we seen any Japanese fighters?"

"Of course Japan is winning! Don’t you read the papers?" an elderly woman answers. "Our soldiers are busy fighting overseas to protect us. That’s all. You should be more careful what you say in public," she chides. "Japan may be losing! You’re lucky we don’t have any military police around here."

Afterwards, everyone falls into silence. Suddenly, I realize how hungry I am. I ask Mother for food. She whispers to Chiyoko and Chigeru to share the beans they’re carrying. She tells me to eat them very quietly because some people don’t have anything to eat and we don’t have enough to share. So I eat them trying not to make any sound while being watched by other hungry looking children. The amount of beans is so little that I finish them in no time. I ask Mother for more but she says there are none left.

. No more food? But I’m still hungry! All the fear that I’ve endured now bursts out. I wail until I get so tired that I can no longer stay awake.

We spend a hot and humid summer night in the middle of that rice field with many other people. The ground is very uncomfortable to sleep on, and this time, instead of bombs, an army of hungry mosquitoes torments us.

The next day, Mother takes us home. I see from her back what the bombs have done. They’ve created a vast burnt field! There are no houses to be seen. Only smoke hovers near the ground. Mother walks though the field with my siblings, trying to find our house. It isn’t an easy task because there are no landmarks left to help locate our old neighborhood easily. Eventually they find the area where our house used to stand.

"Look," Shigeru shouts excitedly after digging through the debris for a long time with a piece of roof tile, "Our rice bowls!" There are pieces of familiar looking bowls scattered around. Nearby, Chiyoko digs up an iron kettle. It is still hot, she says. A few feet away, Mother picks up a blackened brace handle. It used to be a part of our dresser.

"Well," she says with a sigh after a while, "It seems that what we are wearing is all we have."

Everybody stands in a daze. Smoke, and the combined smell of burnt wood, clothes and all our household goods sting our eyes and noses.

"Don’t cry," Mother says to my siblings. Her hair is unkempt and covered with ashes. Her body has soot and bite marks all over from the mosquitoes. "We‘re lucky. We are all alive," she says, as if to assure herself. Chiyoko and Shigeru nod while they wipe their tears with their sooty hands. They look equally miserable with their dirty, partially burnt clothes and mosquito bites. On our way, they talk with Mother about all the people who’ve been killed. Chiyoko says that she heard from her friends that a bomb hit the house of one of her classmates and the whole family died instantly.

How can she say we are lucky when we lost everything? I ask myself. What is so lucky about this? I don’t understand how my entire world can vanish so easily. I’m frightened and miserable. I wail again not knowing how to articulate my feeling. My stomach hurts, too, from hunger. We haven’t had anything to eat since the beans yesterday.

"I’m hungry," I say.

"Shut up!" Shigeru shouts at me. He looks so angry I get scared. I start crying harder. I rub my wet, dirty face into Mother’s monpe, the work pants gathered at the ankles, which were worn by Japanese women during the war.

"Shut up, you fool," Chiyoko shouts at Shigeru, poking his head, "Just because you’re hungry, you don’t have to be mean to Kuniko."

"I’m not hungry," Shigeru says and he tries to push Chiyoko back.

"That’s a lie." Chiyoko sneers.

"Stop that, both of you," Mother says quietly. She looks so tired she doesn’t seem to have any energy left to scold us. She stands as if she has lost herself. After a while, she puts me on her back again. She tells us we are going to Auntie Otama’s house.

"Do you think her house was spared?" Chiyoko asks nervously.

"I don’t know," Mother says, "but we’ll find out."

We trudge through the burned out streets toward the Hirocho area where Mother’s sister lives. On our way there, I fall asleep on Mother’s back. Hunger and fatigue deprive me of the energy to stay awake for long.

After walking heavily for a little more than three miles through burnt fields, we finally arrive at Auntie Otama’s street. I wake up when Shigeru shouts, "The house is still here!" He sounds as if he’s suddenly recovered his energy. I remember how hungry I am and begin whining again.

"You’re alive!" Auntie Otama screams when she come out from the house. "I was just about going to look for you." Without responding to her warm welcome, Mother asks her sister to give us a glass of water. After walking on the smoldering streets, our throats are terribly dry and we are on the verge of collapsing. Auntie Otama immediately takes us to the well behind her house and draws water from it. The fresh water tastes so good.

"You all look like bums," she says smiling and suggests that we will bathe there. Mother helps me wash in the tub while Auntie Otama looks for some family clothes to let us use. She and Uncle Manjiro have two teenage daughters and two sons who are six and four years old. After we all wash ourselves and put on the fresh clothes, we are invited into their kitchen. Then she gives each of us a boiled sweet potato to eat. Those potatoes were obviously prepared for the family because as soon as we begin eating, our two boy cousins dash into the kitchen. "We’re hungry!" they say in unison after saying hello to us. "Sorry, you have to wait for a while," Auntie Otama says to them, "because your cousins need to eat something now."

"We need to eat now, too!" they shout. "Yoshinobu! Taketomo!" She throws them a fierce look one at a time.

"I’m glad that the girls are away in the weapons factory," Antie Otama says to Mother. "so I don’t have to feed them."

My cousins become quiet but keep staring wistfully at our mouths. I feel sorry for them but my empty stomach doesn’t care. I devour the potato in no time.

Uncle Manjiro comes in to greet us. "You had a terrible time, I hear," he says bending his long skinny body to sit on the tatami. As usual, his face is so pale he looks sick. Mother has told us that he suffers from a stomach ailment. Looking at the empty dish on the table, Uncle Manjiro seems to figure out that he has to skip his meal, too.

"I told Okoto that she can use your storage room," Auntie Otama says to her husband, "you don’t need that room now, do you?"

"I guess not," he says quietly. "I guess I won’t need it anytime soon. You know, I’m working at military police headquarters as a part timer to help soldiers train German Shepherds."

Uncle Manjiro is a lacquer artisan. Mother has told us that he used to varnish various household utensils, but decided to specialize in sword scabbards when he failed his physical to become a soldier. Believing strongly that it was his duty as a man to serve his country by going to war, he was terribly disappointed when he couldn’t be a part of it. By devoting his lacquer business to sword scabbards, he felt he was helping the country’s war efforts. He had been busy for many years because all the officers who went to the war needed swords. To meet the demand, he used to keep lots of materials in the storage room he’d built behind their house.

But now his business isn’t doing well. "Swords are no longer in demand now that we don’t seem to have any soldiers left to send." Auntie Otama says sarcastically. "We can move all the materials under the floor for now."

"I hope you don’t mind a room that smells like lacquer and has no window," Uncle Manjiro says to Mother.

"Of course not," she says. "Anything with a roof will do." She thanks him and tells us to do the same to our uncle and aunt for their help.

"We may lose our house, too," he says, "We never know when those merciless Americans are coming back. But in the mean time, you can wait here for Katsuji-san (our father) ‘til he comes back from the war.

Uncle doesn’t have to lose his house after all. On August 15, 1945, five days after our house burnt down, the war suddenly ends. Auntie Otama tells Mother that they have to go to the house of the president of their neighborhood association. At noon, she is told, the emperor will deliver an important message to the nation. Mother and Auntie Otama ask each other why the emperor will suddenly speak to the people directly. Until today, he has been revered as a living god and nobody has ever heard his voice.

The entire neighborhood stands in front of the radio to listen to the emperor. He begins speaking, but the radio has too much static and he has such a unique way of speaking that Mother doesn’t understand at all what is being said. "What is he saying?" she asks her sister. Auntie Otama doesn’t understand, either. The crowd eventually figures out that the emperor told them that Japan has surrendered. "He is asking us to endure the unendurable," an old man in the crowd says sadly.

"How can it be?" Mother whispers to Auntie Otama. "Didn’t the government say we were winning?" Auntie Otama doesn’t say anything. Nobody is saying anything, either. Then, some people begin crying while others just stand there as if they’ve completely lost themselves. Covering their eyes with their hands, some squat down

Looking at Mother sob, I worry. "Okaachan." She doesn’t respond. "Okaachan!" I say again and pull her monpe, trying to draw her attention. No use. She doesn’t even look at me. I’m terribly alarmed.

Then I hear Shigeru asking Uncle Manjiro if losing the war means there will be no more air raids. Uncle answers him, "That’s right. We don’t have to run for our lives any more."

"Really?" Shigeru says excitedly and pulls my hands. "Come on Kuniko, no more B29s! Let’s go tell everybody," he says with a huge smile. I follow him as he begins running around the streets. "No more war, no more B29s!" he shouts. I’m so thrilled to follow my happy brother I repeat what he says as loudly as I can. For a while, I even forget that I have an empty stomach.