BOSTON — Sioma Lubetzky and his teenage sons Larry and Roman huddled near the Dachau concentration camp in late April of 1945. The three Lithuanian Jewish inmates had been led on a death march into the mountains, where Nazi guards planned to push them off the edge. They were saved by a freak blizzard. In the morning, the guards had disappeared — but when the abandoned survivors made their way to a nearby village, soldiers approached on tanks.
The soldiers were from a unique American unit — the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It was the only unit in the US armed forces during World War II whose enlisted men were all of Japanese ancestry.
“They had never seen what a Japanese-American person looked like,” said Roman Lubetzky’s son, Daniel Lubetzky, whose late father had shared memories of the rescue. “They showed a kindness, love, tenderness that had not been seen in 1945.”
Events across the US are honoring the Japanese-Americans of the 522nd who rescued Jewish survivors of a Dachau subcamp and death marches. The brave soldiers’ recognition is tied to another observance of sorts: This year marks 75 years since Executive Order 9066, under which a suspicious US government at war with Japan relocated Japanese-Americans — citizens and non-citizens alike — to sites now called “internment camps.” In an ironic twist, Japanese-Americans who rescued Jews from Dachau often had family members in US “concentration camps,” as they were called back then.
There is no doubt the 650 men of the 522nd proved their loyalty. In 1944, members helped rescue the “Lost Battalion” — the 36th Infantry Battalion of the Texas National Guard, which had been surrounded in the Vosges Mountains. The entire 442nd became part of the most highly decorated unit of its size and duration of service in American wartime history — including over 9,000 Purple Hearts for wounds in combat.
Detached from the 442nd, the 522nd was sent to Germany — the only Japanese-Americans to fight there. In the Densho Encyclopedia on Japanese-American treatment during WWII, Abbie Salyers Grubb of San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas, described its “single most infamous engagement.”
In the spring of 1945, the unit “stumbled upon roughly 5,000 prisoners marching through the countryside,” Grubb wrote. “Their initial encounter with these thousands of emaciated and mistreated victims of Nazi concentration camps was followed by the discovery and assisted liberation of the Kaufering and Landsberg sub-camps of Dachau.”
Organizers and participants in recent events honoring the 522nd told The Times of Israel that the unit liberated a subcamp of Dachau, although it was not specified which one.
At a May 18 panel at Harvard Medical School, Daniel Lubetzky praised the men who saved his grandfather Sioma, father Roman and uncle Larry from a death march.
“They traveled thousands of miles with their brethren to liberate people they did not know and saved the world from who knows what could have been,” said Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND Snacks.
The panel honored 522nd veteran and former Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Susumu Ito, who died in 2015 at age 96. Ito had received the Congressional Gold Medal with the 442nd and was commended personally by then-president Barack Obama.
With the 522nd, Ito was promoted to lieutenant, won a Bronze Star directing artillery, and took thousands of photos with a 35mm Agfa camera — all while his family was interned at the Rohwer, Arkansas, concentration camp.
Ito’s photos form an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles entitled “Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images.” A traveling version is at Harvard Medical School through June 26.
Some photos show “men younger than I am enjoying themselves,” Ito’s grandson Justin Ito-Adler said. “There’s a lot of down time in war.” Others show “gruesome, terrible parts.”
On April 30 in Seattle, the 522nd was the subject of “Japanese American Soldiers and the Liberation of Dachau,” the culminating event of a three-part series, “The Holocaust and Japanese American Connections,” initiated by 442nd veteran Tosh Okamoto. Partners included Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity, the Nisei Veterans Committee, the University of Washington Department of American Ethnic Studies, and the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle.
“Being a community activist, many of our fellow Americans know about the Holocaust, but few know about the Japanese and [Japanese Americans’] relatively small part in the Holocaust [narrative],” Okamoto, 90, wrote in an email. “[It] seemed to me that the Holocaust horrible story is not getting the interest it should, therefore adding the Japanese part could add to the Holocaust [narrative], in some shape or form.”
Okamoto, who did not serve with the 522nd, was a late replacement with the 442nd in war-ravaged Italy in 1945, after the conflict had ended.
“I wanted to volunteer, but [my] mother [told] not me to do so,” he wrote. “[My] father had a severe heart attack while we were in what our [government] called ‘relocation centers’ but really were concentration camps. So after Dad recovered [somewhat], I was drafted. Dad was disabled for [the] rest of his life.”
The first two events in the Seattle program addressed concentration camps in Europe and the US, as well as Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews from the Holocaust.
The concluding event coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day. The master of ceremonies was Ken Mochizuki, author of the children’s book “Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story.” He was a featured speaker at the Sugihara event.
“Amazingly, the [522nd] event became like a confluence of history, with those in the audience including a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a woman raised in Amsterdam who knew Anne Frank’s family, and a veteran of the US 42nd Rainbow Division which liberated Dachau’s main camp,” Mochizuki wrote in an email.
Historian Eric Saul, whose research areas include the Holocaust and Japanese-American soldiers during World War II, addressed an audience of 250. Attendees watched a 1993 documentary, “From Hawaii to the Holocaust: A Shared Moment in History.”
The film mixed interviews with Japanese-American veterans with intense images, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the US into World War II; Japanese-American soldiers training while visiting family members interned nearby; and emaciated corpses and survivors from Dachau.
In the film, several 522nd veterans, and Dachau survivor Fred Gilbert, said the unit liberated Dachau itself. Different units have claimed credit for the liberation. Narrator Ed Asner said footage indicates the 45th and 42nd infantry divisions entered first.
“The US Army and the Holocaust Museum officially credit the 42nd Infantry Division, the 45th Infantry Division and the 20th Armored Division with liberating Dachau, the main camp,” John McManus, a professor of military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and the author of “Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945,” wrote in an email.
Liberation “means being part of the first units to enter a camp and free the prisoners, not follow-on units,” he wrote.
“[There] was still a lingering question about who actually liberated Dachau, the 522nd, or another unit?” Mochizuki wrote. “Eric Saul cleared that up for the Japanese American community. Previously unknown was the fact that there were numerous subcamps located in towns surrounding Dachau, and that the [522nd] was more involved with rescuing Dachau inmates who were forced on a march as the Nazis fled in the face of the Allied advance.”
Dachau operated for 12 years before its liberation on April 29, 1945. Over 200,000 people were held at the main camp and subsidiary camps; 41,500 were slain.
Its subcamps numbered “at least 90,” McManus wrote. (The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site cites 140.)
And, McManus added, “the Holocaust Museum in DC is still documenting evidence of obscure labor camps.”
“The Holocaust was really every bit as much about slave labor as it was about genocide,” noted McManus. “The main way that Germany maintained war production and a reasonable standard of living for its civilian population, even after six hard years of war, was through slave labor. Dachau was like many other longstanding concentration camps within Germany, in that prisoners were parceled out to work as slaves in nearby factories, workshops, construction sites and the like.”
Subcamps “account for some of the latter year confusion over liberation,” McManus wrote. “For instance, the 4th Infantry Division and the 99th Infantry Division both liberated subcamps. It was fairly common for veterans in these and other subcamp-liberating divisions to claim they liberated Dachau. Technically that was true, but they did not liberate the main camp north of Munich which is what we all think of when we hear the name Dachau.”
The 522nd “likely played a role in liberating a subcamp,” he wrote, although he could not recall which one, “but they were not in on the liberation of Dachau, the main camp.”
‘They saw many people who had all been left to starve to death’
James Ito-Adler — Ito’s son-in-law and Justin Ito-Adler’s father — told The Times of Israel that Ito “was very, very, very modest about ‘liberating’ Dachau… They went through a subcamp. They saw many people who had all been left to starve to death. They would give them K rations.”
Ito-Adler said his father-in-law “insisted he would not make a false claim. It was not like, ‘I fought my way in with a tank.’ The Germans were in full retreat. Sus’ group was out front.”
“We saw a lot of dead Dachau prisoners, dead along the road,” Ito said in a 1998 C-SPAN interview. “The gates would be open and they were heading south into Bavaria. It snowed a day or two after. There would be lumps in the snow.”
Of fellow soldiers who claimed they liberated Dachau, he said, “I didn’t experience any of this, but there were many small subcamps.”
‘We were not told that there were these concentration camps where they gassed people and cremated them’
They encountered “something we were totally unprepared for,” he said. “We were not told that there were these concentration camps where they gassed people and cremated them. I went to see the [crematoriums] later and you kick around in the ashes and there’s still bone and so forth coming up. The gas chambers were a small room where they crowded people and gassed them before they cremated them.
“But I think it was really shocking to have these walking skeletons come by. And even worse to see them trying to salvage food that we would throw in a mess area, garbage pits and stuff.”
“My husband was six feet tall and weighed 37 kilos,” Roman Lubetzky’s widow, Sonia, told The Times of Israel. “Roughly 75, 80 pounds.”
His older brother, Larry, “attached himself to Sus’ unit as an interpreter,” Ito-Adler said. “He traveled with Sus in Germany several months. He spoke three, four languages.”
The Lubetzkys eventually immigrated to Mexico. Larry Lubetzky and Ito stayed in touch “for many years,” Ito-Adler said, but lost contact.
In September 2015, Ito screened his photos for the American Jewish Committee.
“There was a picture of Larry Lubetzky,” Daniel Lubetzky recalled. “[Former AJC chairman Stan Bregman] texted me. ‘Do you know Larry Lubetzky?’ He was my uncle, who had just passed away recently. By September 12, I connected with Dr. Ito.”
Then, on September 17, “enter Lubetzky’s zillions and zillions of descendants, who would try to come out for Ito,” Daniel Lubetzky said. He recalled being “excited to come look Dr. Ito in the eyes.
“On September 30, [Ito’s daughter] Celia and James emailed me. He passed away two short weeks after [the] blessing to hear his voice. At least I got to say thank you to Celia, [Ito’s daughter] Linda and the Ito family.”
At Harvard, the next generation connected: Justin Ito-Adler and Daniel Lubetzky’s 8-year-old son Roman.
“He has the name of my father,” Lubetzky said. “For me, it’s very important he connect with his grandfather, like Justin… I hope my children bond with the Ito grandchildren and make sure we don’t take anything for granted.”
And one day he too will thank the Japanese-Americans who, with families interned at home, rescued other families abroad.