During college, I had the opportunity to pursue a Masters in Asian American Studies. Being Hapa, it was a time to learn about family history and the larger Nikkei experience in America.
The issues that interested me the most were the examples of courage and vision displayed whenever people got together, united, and fought to improve their situation.
It made me proud to learn about the Issei - who like todays strawberry workers - fought for better working conditions on West Coast farms. I was inspired to hear about Kibei and Nisei confronting internment Camp authorities who were stealing and selling off our meat and sugar supplies. And I find guidance by speaking with Sansei of the 60s and 70s who counseled Asian American GIs and marched against the greed and power driving the war in Vietnam.
What Ive come to learn is that while tens of thousands of people took part in these social movements, they are at the same time made up of individuals. Regular folks like you and me. Men and women of all ages who decided to make the sometimes difficult decision to follow their conscience and stand up for what they felt was right.
Contrary to popular belief, weve always been more than "Quiet Americans."
Recently, I was further inspired by another example of courage. But this time it didnt come from the JA side of my family--but my mothers.
To better understand my Jewish background, Im currently taking an introduction to Judaism class at Temple Akiba in Culver City. Last week our class discussed the Holocaust. Our group leader, Rabbi Maller, shared a story about two special heroes.
During W.W.II, Carolina Taitz lost her brother and father to a Nazi massacre outside of Riga, Latvia. Imprisoned with her mother and sister in the Riga ghetto, Carolina decided to escape. She hoped to find her old nursemaid, a Baptist woman and hide with her.
Dressing as a man, she left the ghetto on a work detail. Once outside the ghetto, she removed the yellow star on her jacket required for identification. Looking for a place to hide, she found a pile of firewood in front of a house .
She hid between the logs and finally got the courage to knock on the door. A man opened it and Carolina told him that she had run away from Riga ghetto and was trying to find her nursemaid.
The man said, "Come in my child. Last night I had a vision. God came to me and said, "You will save someone who will come to you in need."
The mans name was Vladimir Micko and the woman, his sister, Olga Kateneva. The whole family, including Vladimirs parents accepted Carolina. Vladimir dug a secret bunker beneath the floorboards. The hole was 3 feet deep, 6 feet long, and 6 feet wide.
The Germans had a built an auto garage on his property and were watching his activities. So Vladimir disposed of the dirt he had dug out by carrying it out in small amounts hidden in specially made inner pockets in his clothing.
Vladimir even volunteered to take food to Carolinas mother and sister in the ghetto. He went often, sewing on a yellow star in order to gain entry.
Even though the Nazis raided Vladimirs home several times looking for Jews, he was never caught. Carolina remained hidden in the home of the Micko family for three years, until liberation in 1944. Today these heroes are still alive. Vladimir is 82 and Olga is 89 and they continue to live in Riga.
The Rabbi explained that for several years the Temple has raised funds for Vladimir and Olga. Because of the economic turmoil in Eastern Europe, many seniors find it difficult to make ends meet, so the temple sends $1000 a year to sponsor these courageous freedom fighters.
I decided to bring this issue to Rafu readers not only to help raise funds for Mr. Micko and Mrs. Kateneva, but to ask our community to remember the non-Nikkei who lent us a hand during our Camp experience.
Ive heard about Mexican American neighbors who took care of our houses and property, Quakers who helped us find work outside of Camp, African American folks who sold us groceries when no one else would, and solid European Americans like attorney Wayne Collins and librarian, Clara Breed.
Examples of groups and individuals who resisted the racist scapegoating and landgrabbing during World War II should be shared. Even better, they should be documented and published in community forums like the Rafu.
Of course we cant live in the past. So I challenge us to seek out the freedom fighters of today. To align ourselves with everyone seeking fairness and justice.
May it be the thousands still seeking Redress, the Asian Americans recently denied service and physically beat at a Dennys Restaurant, or lifelong, dedicated Rafu Shimpo employees callously fired without notice.
Like the Issei farmworkers, Camp resistors, peace activists, and Vladimir and Olga, everytime we say no to injustice, we carry on a long tradition. We too become freedom fighters.
Donations for Vladimir Micko and Olga Kateneva can be sent to: Temple Akiba 5249 South Sepulveda Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230 c/o Rabbi Allen S. Maller. For further information about more W.W.II heroes, contact: the Braun Center, the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, or The Courage to Care award, at ADL Braun Center for Holocaust Studies, 823 U.N. Plaza, NY, NY 10017.