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Death Camp Survivor Reunites With Her American Rescuers

Eighteen veterans of the all-Nisei 'Go for Broke' regiment, now in their 80s, have emotional meeting with a woman they freed from Dachau.

August 17, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The scene of men liberated from American internment camps showing up to liberate civilians from Nazi concentration camps was one of World War II's oddest moments.

No wonder the reunion Friday in Los Angeles of a German death camp survivor and 18 of the former Japanese American GIs who saved her was so unusual.

"Every time I see a Japanese person I am so grateful," an emotional Yanina Cywinska told veterans from the all-Nisei combat team who swept into the Dachau concentration camps 58 years ago to rescue her.

The story of how Japanese Americans -- many of them detainees in U.S. internment camps at the start of the war -- formed the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team is well known. During the war they were among this country's most-decorated fighters.

But the role that the Nisei soldiers played in saving Nazi prisoners remained unknown until the veterans themselves sat down to record an oral history of their wartime experiences. The history was compiled by the Go for Broke Educational Foundation, which takes its name from the Army unit's wartime motto.

Portions of the old warriors' videotaped reminiscences are now being screened at the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles and on its Web site, www.goforbroke.org. Friday's reunion was organized to mark the start of the screening.

Cywinska, a 74-year-old Polish-born Catholic, is a ballet company director who lives in Suisun, Calif. She was 10 and living in Warsaw when Nazis took her family to the Auschwitz concentration camp and charged them with smuggling food to Jews in the city's ghetto.

Her parents and brother died in the gas chambers. But because she was huskier than most children, Cywinska only passed out from the gas. A German revived her and put her to work.

At the war's end she was in one of the Dachau camps. As Russian and American troops closed in, the Nazis began killing prisoners. Blindfolded, "we were waiting to be shot when the Nazis started yelling, 'Let's leave, let's go!' " she told the Nisei veterans Friday.

"All of a sudden a person was pulling on my rag on my face. He swore in English and then said something in a language we couldn't understand. I saw a skinny person in an American uniform" with Asian features. "I'd never seen anyone like that before. He got on his knees and said, 'From my God to your God, we're your liberators.' "

The Japanese American veterans said the strange language Cywinska heard was pidgin English, slang introduced to the 442nd by regiment members from Hawaii. They recalled Friday that many of the death camp survivors mistakenly thought the GIs were Japanese soldiers who had capitulated to the United States during the war.

Veteran George Oiye, an 522nd Artillery Battalion forward observer for the regiment, recounted how soldiers shot the locks off camp gates and doors to the crematoriums. They were able to free thousands of starving, skeletal prisoners.

Oiye, 81, of San Jose, said his sisters and mother were incarcerated by the U.S. in the Manzanar camp in California's Owens Valley. He was a Montana college student, and for a time he and other Japanese Americans were not allowed to enlist in the U.S. military. "It was bewildering for a 19-year-old to be a man without a country," he said.

Veteran Manabi Hirasaki, 80, of Camarillo recalled that his father was taken by the FBI to a camp in Bismark, N.D. But though discipline was strict at some American internment centers, he said, it was nothing like the horrors at Dachau.

"I couldn't believe the ovens and gas rooms, the stacks of old clothes and shoes we found," he said.

Cywinska thanked each of the veterans.

"I'm not Japanese or Jewish," she said. "But all my life I've been honorable and good, in honor of you Japanese people who saved me."

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