THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Elisabeth Karash, born Chaya Zissel Karash in 1908 in what is now Bialystok, Poland, traveled the perilous journey to the New World, known to penniless Jewish immigrants as ‘die goldener medina’ - the Golden Land. She made the trek with her mother Celia, sister Rayzela (Rose) and brother Laybel (Lewis) to escape the overwhelming anti-semitism of Eastern Europe. My grandfather Charles had preceded them and the family settled in Philadelphia after successfully passing through the immigration rigors of Ellis Island, New York – many arrivals were turned back or placed in quarantine for future deportation because they were thought to have diseases or were too ‘weak-framed’ to be of use to industry.
The ocean crossing had been a horrific experience for all steerage passengers and I remember my Aunt Rose describing the pecking order of even the most impoverished of the passengers: those of other nationalities taunting the ‘kike’ and ‘cheap mockey’ - i.e. Jewish – immigrants, frightening their mother, my grandmother Celia, as much as she had feared the marauding Cossacks and local Bialystok peasants who had periodically embarked on murderous pogroms and rape-fests. During pogroms, Rose and Betty hid under my grandmother’s skirts and Aunt Betty described to me the terrifying sights and sounds of crazed, drunken thugs beating Jews to death. My Aunt Betty was fair, and there is an accepted theory that so many Ashkenazi Jews around the world are blonde and blue-eyed because of their female ancestors being raped by the locals while their husbands were davening in cheder – praying and teaching in the synagogue school – all day. Jewish Americans joke that they would be speaking with a British accent had their ancestors given in to charlatans running shipping companies at the turn of the twentieth century: many paid full price for the voyage to the ‘goldener medina’ but ended up in Liverpool, never to reach the United States. My grandmother Celia was no shrinking violet and would have seen through charlatan ship owners.
My Aunt Bealka – Bert – and my mother, Chaya Gittel – Kay, were born respectively in 1911 and 1914 at home at 312 Porter Street, South Philadelphia. As the children registered for school their Yiddish names were Americanized but it didn’t help them being chased, harassed and in Uncle Lew’s case, beaten up on a regular basis by the Irish, Italian and Christian Eastern European children as well as by native-born Americans.
Did the Karash children regard this as an obstacle? No. Grandpa Charles worked in a brush factory but was a highly-regarded cantor at the local synagogue. Whenever he had an extra nickel he would give it to a beggar and, to my grandmother’s perennial fury, would invite an impoverished, homeless vagrant in for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Aunt Bert once told me, barely able to control her giggles, that ‘Pop’ invited a truly stinky tramp for dinner and grandma’s response was to go after Pop with a rolling pin. He survived the assault. Sadly Charles died in 1936 at age 56 after reading a postcard from our relatives left behind in Poland – the extreme Right had formed a party modeled after Hitler’s National Socialists and pogroms against Jews were becoming more and more frequent. Relatives had been telling him about Jewish men being marched off to Dachau as early as 1934; his shock at the content of their postcards resulted in heart failure.
Uncle Lew went to dental school and qualified, running a thriving practice for many decades. He was greatly loved by the African-American community of West Philadelphia and when he died there was a large outpouring of the community’s grief at his funeral. Likewise my mother, who attended the legendary Philadelphia Normal School to qualify as an elementary school teacher, also gave much time to the impoverished black community as a social worker, arguing with local butchers who kept the rotting meat for her caseload. She vividly remembered the butchers saying “They won’t know the difference – they’re all animals”.
Aunt Rose trained as a bookkeeper and Aunt Bert helped her new husband Charles Goldschneider with his candy business.
And then there was Aunt Betty. Gorgeous, adored by every man she met and a brilliant copywriter for a fledgling company, IBM.
All of the Karash children had one thing in common, including my American-born mother and Aunt Bert. They did not speak a word of English – only Yiddish – until they went to school. Their command of English was soon impeccable; my mother could have been mistaken for a Briton as could Aunt Betty.
Betty earned a decent salary in a company and a country in which Jews – let alone Jewish girls – did not progress with ease. (My father wanted so much to join the Navy or at the very least work as a civilian naval employee but it was only when he changed his name from Gold to Gould that his job applications were acknowledged.) Betty’s great love in the 1930s was her work in the chorus of the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company. Like her father the cantor, Betty had a beautiful voice and wanted to make opera a full-time career but she and her siblings had to have day jobs to survive in a post-Depression era world. She had a romance with the then-superstar singer Wilbur Evans; in the 1970s she told me vivid tales of her love affairs but there was no doubt Wilbur had been the love of her life.
In the late 1930s Betty joined the elite Signal Corps in a unit that was gathering and disseminating intelligence for the military. When she and her sister Kay, my mother, saw young Americans enjoying evenings out in Philadelphia whilst Britain was being decimated in the Blitz and Europe was engulfed in a hideous conflict perpetrated by Adolf Hitler, they decided they would join the army as soon as the United States entered the war. They had to wait until after Pearl Harbor, indeed for another year after the Japanese assault, and in 1943, much to the horror of my grandmother Celia, they both enlisted. Jewish girls didn’t do such things, but like all of the women in my family, we are strong-willed and do what suits us.
My mother graduated from the Adjutant General’s School at Fort Washington, Maryland and went on to travel the country as a Recruiting Officer. She was assigned to Camp Pickett, Virginia, a holding camp for Italian and German POWs which also served as a training camp for GIs who would eventually be part of Operation Overlord on D-Day 1944. Also based there were several thousand black GIs and WACs; they were treated miserably, unlike the enemy POWs. Kay vociferously objected to this and her Commanding Officer warned her she could suffer a Dishonorable Discharge if she carried on registering complaints about, for example, the white GIs shouting ‘Hey, waccoons!’ when the black soldiers marched.
Like Aunt Betty, my mother sang and also played the piano. The war department allowed her to requisition a building to establish a Music Room for the GIs; when she went home on leave she would plunder her father’s extensive collection of 78s and take them back to Camp Pickett. When she was allowed a piano, several German POWs were assigned to carry it into her music room but struggled. Her black assistant shouted to them ‘Well, so who’s the Master Race now?’. Like Aunt Betty, my mother was a striking woman and a German POW, an officer assigned to paint her building, befriended her and would steal chats with her about opera through the open windows. When Betty and Kay went home on leave from their respective army camps they had to face the wrath of their mother, who wanted them home and married. My grandmother was particularly enraged by my mother’s fondness for her German POW and by Betty’s tales of romance with non-Jewish military men.
Like my mother, Betty was always given front-row marching position as both women were so glamorous. I recall as a child thinking my aunt looked exactly like Marlene Dietrich. Even when I went out with her in the 1970s when she was in her 60s the hard-hats on construction sites in center-city Philadelphia would wolf-whistle.
When World War Two ended, Betty was asked by the Signal Corps to sail to Japan with General MacArthur’s Army of Occupation. Thus began what she later told me was "the most remarkable chapter of my life".
The massive American occupation force began to arrive at Atsugi Naval Air Base, twenty miles west of Tokyo, on August 28, 1945. What historians later described as the ‘mightiest armada in history’ included four hundred warships, carrying a formidable cargo of airplanes, augmented by twelve battleships, seventeen aircraft carriers and a British contingent of eighteen warships and two battleships. The official armistice was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on the morning of September 2 in the presence of representatives of all Allied powers. Supreme Commander for the Allies Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke: “It is my earnest hope – indeed the hope of all mankind – that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice”.
Aunt Betty joined the huge contingent of American military and civilian personnel entering Japan and was assigned to Signal Corps offices, moving around the country as the occupation proliferated into every area of postwar Japanese life. It was the goal of the Allies to bring Japan into the postwar modernity and rid the culture of blind allegiance to Emperor and kamikaze devotion to the nation.
Betty told me she “hated the Japs” first and foremost because of the brutal and sadistic treatment of Allied POWs. She said that as the years passed she began to love the people and their culture; likewise the American occupying forces were astonished by the passivity of the population. They had expected a violent insurgency but this never materialized. Japanese historians have since noted that had their side won they would not have heaped kindness upon an occupied United States. (In the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War former American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said he and Gen. Curtis LeMay, who masterminded the carpet-bombing of Japan, would have been executed as war criminals had Japan won the war.)
Aunt Betty observed that in the first three years of her time there the American authorities brought in tons of food for its occupying force, a move that endeared itself to the Japanese people because it meant their food supplies would not be plundered by the occupiers. She said her five years flew by as her work was endlessly fascinating and, as she reminded me ‘mostly Top Secret’, but what she said was so profoundly moving to her was being part of an historic transformation of a beaten nation into a people with hope and dignity.
Aunt Betty loved to talk about ‘the other Jewish gal’ in the occupation force, Beate Sirota, a brilliant linguist who was instrumental in drafting a new Japanese constitution to supplant the existing ‘Meiji Constitution’. Gen MacArthur had assigned twenty-one Americans including four women to construct a document that would establish an Equal Rights Amendment even before the United States had one. Postwar Japan would renounce war and the right to maintain a standing army, navy and air force. Aunt Betty remembered the talk of the American contingent in that historic week in 1947, that the former warlike empire would become ‘the Switzerland of the Far East’.
I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with Aunt Betty in my high school and college years; she told me the American women – civilians like her in intelligence work or wives of personnel – did as much as they could in leisure hours to meet and befriend the local population. Ellen Allen, a general’s wife, founded Ikebana International, now with branches all over the world bringing Japanese flower arranging to western florists. Aunt Betty was proudest of the efforts by American women’s groups including the College Women’s Club in Tokyo to raise funds for Japanese students to attend university in the United States and to provide clothing and pocket money for students not wishing to travel abroad.
When we went to lunch or dinner at her favorite Philadelphia haunt, the Alpha Club, Betty would tell me a narrative that sometimes seemed fanciful. One was the overhaul of the Japanese educational structure. She said a small contingent of Occupation personnel transformed an antiquated system that would positively affect millions of children and their descendants in perpetuity. She said the biggest hurdle was an attempt to convince the nation that the infernally complex script be ‘romanized.’ (In his memoirs David Ben-Gurion discussed the effort to make English the language of the new nation of Israel instead of Hebrew. He hoped Americans, Britons and other English-speaking immigrants would enhance the country’s future but Hebrew it remained.) Indeed, as Betty pointed out, two dozen Americans would be successful in removing militant nationalism, militarism, worship of the imperial image and antidemocratic tenets wrapped in religious observance but changing the written language would be rejected. According to historians – and Aunt Betty – the twenty-four members of the Occupation education committee were successful, without coercion, in bringing an enlightened curriculum to eighteen million students and one million teachers in fifty thousand schools – a curriculum of which the Founding Fathers would have been proud.
Aunt Betty left Japan in 1950, as she put it, "in love with the people and their beautiful land". She continued to work for the Signal Corps in Philadelphia until her retirement. When this glamorous lady took me out she introduced me to whiskey sours, Martinis and Dubonnet. She had invested in Xerox and IBM in the 1930s and this had left her a wealthy retiree. (She left her shrewd investments to my mother and her two sisters.) No matter how many tales she told that captivated me, none were more remarkable than her stories of the transformation of Japan by the Americans, one of the only truly successful military occupation projects of the past one hundred years.
Philadelphia-born Carol Gould is a BBC broadcaster and author of Spitfire Girls and Don’t Tread on me – anti-Americanism Abroad. Her next book is about her mother’s experiences at Camp Pickett, Virginia, fighting racial prejudice in the US armed forces.