Ito had been invited by the US-Japan Council and the American Jewish Committee Asia Pacific Institute to share his experience
during the liberation of Dachau as part of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The 75th Anniversary on Wednesday of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging lives and livelihoods across our world while division, hatred and authoritarianism are thriving. I often share how my father, Roman Lubetzky, Larry Lubetzky, and my grandfather, Sioma Lubetzky, survived the Holocaust thanks to the courage and kindness of others -- such as Ito. More than seven decades later, the lessons of these selfless heroes
are as relevant as ever.
was one of the only regiments composed of Japanese Americans sent to combat during World War II. As Ito, then a 26-year-old lieutenant, was risking his life to free people like my 15-year-old father and 19-year-old uncle, his own family had been uprooted and placed in internment camps
after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Ito's example can inspire us to defend our ideals, even if it takes reality longer to catch up. He risked his life in defense of freedom and the country that had turned against his family. How lucky I am that he was not brought down by the resentment he was entitled to.
One cold day in April 1945, having run short of ammunition but determined to kill every last Jew before the allies could stop them, the Nazis had resorted to marching Jewish inmates over the edges of cliffs
. My grandfather and his two sons trudged shoeless and coatless through the snow, certain they would meet their deaths along the mountain if not at the bottom of it. When an unexpected snowstorm overwhelmed all, my father burrowed underneath snow with his father and brother, trapping body heat that kept them alive. The following morning, when the storm had passed, the survivors dug themselves out to find that the Nazis had left them for dead. Hungry and cold, they started walking back.
It was then that they spotted giant tanks advancing. At first, they thought it was the Nazis. But out of the tanks came young men with facial features unlike any they had seen before. To my father, it was the most beautiful sight on earth. The kindness that the Japanese American soldiers showed him nourished him more than the first bite of food to fill his emaciated stomach. A Jewish Lithuanian torn from his home, rescued by a Japanese American, similarly relegated to the fringes of society: an unlikely, noble pair of human beings unwilling to accept the fates that society insisted should be their own.
While my dad and grandfather were sent to a sanatorium to recuperate, my uncle Larry joined the battalion as a translator
and forged a bond with Ito that lasted for many decades, even after my family moved to Mexico. But if my uncle hadn't sent that fateful postcard, perhaps my friends would not have connected me with Ito 70 years after he became my family's hero.
While I had the chance to talk to Ito
on the phone, I never got to thank him in person for saving my dad's life. My family was arranging to visit him in Boston, where he had become a renowned biologist at Harvard Medical School, when his son-in-law called to share that he had passed. I proceeded to visit with his family at his memorial, where my son Roman (named after my father) and I were able to thank his children and grandchildren. His grandson described him as a "five-foot-nothing badass" with a zest for life -- a fervor that my father also possessed. Instead of souring to the world or stewing in resentment, Ito and my father chose to see the good in humanity.
The heroes of today are not American soldiers fighting Nazis; they are health care workers and first responders fighting the novel coronavirus. To avoid exposing the people they love, some must take leave from their families as they courageously risk their lives to keep us all safe. Some of these doctors and nurses are Asian Americans and Jewish Americans who, like their predecessors, suffer discrimination. The Anti-Defamation League reports surging irrational racism
blamed for this pandemic or accused of benefiting from it.
To be clear, the Chinese government's lack of transparency, and suppression of truth and freedom should be clearly in focus. But we all need to join in protecting citizens who are suffering from hate-motivated attacks.
I admit that in a world still rife with bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and ensuing division, I did not expect that a virus of all things would be our generation's greatest challenge. But perhaps we needed an "enemy" outside ourselves to help us find the common ground -- the shared humanity -- that Ito and my father believed in against all odds. Our interconnectivity is more pronounced now than ever before.
Ito not only rescued my family. He also reminded me, as my dad did, that seeing the humanity in others and striving towards the ideals we have yet to achieve -- even under the grimmest of circumstances -- is what will save us all.