Thursday, 30 December 2010

Pesach in Kobe - Japan 1947 by Dr Cyril Sherer

Dr Sherer during his time in the army
Dr Sherer today
From 1946 to 1948 I was a doctor in J-Force, the New Zealand Army’s contingent in BCOF (British Commonwealth Occupation Forces) in Japan. Actually the force didn’t occupy anything at all. The Americans occupied Japan, BCOF was there largely for prestige purposes, 40,000 strong,  predominantly Australian. Their Navy and Air-force controlled smuggling, the Kiwis supervised the return of Japanese POW’s which took about 400 men, while the rest of the Brigade, 5,500 in all, gave support. Go figure! The British ran the transport services and no-one ever  knew what the Indians did. When  later on I was Staff-Captain-Medical my off-sider was an Indian Doctor and we did each other favours, like writing leave-passes. As Raja put it, quaintly, “You play balls with me, I play balls with you. 

Early in April ’47 40 BCOF Jewish personel, including 4 Kiwis (3 doctors and a nurse) were invited to Ley’l Haseder with the Americans in Kobe, doubtless arranged by the Chaplain for our area (India to Japan, inclusive) Wing-Commander Sonny Bloch, later owner of the Soncino Press.

We travelled from Kure overnight in a special sleeper coach attached to the regular Japanese train. The seder  was in a huge Armory Hall, holding 800 or more people, the organizing genius being Chaplain Major Mordechai (Max) Dana. He invited all the top brass, including General Mark Clark, MacArthur’s deputy, Commander of I Corps. The very top.

Dana couldn’t find a Jewish child to ask the four questions. There were a few American dependants, but no Jews. Dana was resourceful, he asked a Mrs MacPherson, I think, if her 5-year old Patti could do so. Mrs M. said no she didn’t think Patti could do that, but she could tap-dance or impersonate Shirley Temple singing “On the good ship lollipop”.

800 men and women sat at long tables each supplied with a can of Manischewitz chicken soup with 3 matzo balls, chicken, fruit and a BOTTLE OF WINE PER PERSON. Matzot galore, token charoset  etc per table.

We got off to a good start. We sang the “Star-Spangled Banner”
I’m not too sure about “Hatkiva”. Patti of the blonde curls said something resembling the 4 questions, Dana got under way, but after the 1st of the 4 cups of wine were drunk things slid downhill. By the 2nd to the 3rd they were out of hand. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eliezer didn’t have a chance.  The boys were roaring drunk, nothing could stop them. Dana ran from table to table, pleading “Sha, sha, sha. Fellows, behave yourself. Please, think of the General.  Guys, Shamezech fur der goyim”  “Gewalt”. Nothing helped. They were out, cold.

He kept running, pleading, Finally,  in utter  desperation he took the microphone and asked “How many of you guys are from the Bronx?” A huge cheer went up. Then he said “How many from Brooklyn?” A louder cheer. “So” said Dana hopefully, “The guys from the Bronx should show they’re better than the guys from Brooklyn Hot gornischt gehelft . Total chaos. Patti was past her bedtime; her best party frock was stained with chicken soup and she was screaming because she couldn’t do her tap dance.
Her Mom sneaked her out.  General Clark focused on a thousand miles away. The seder didn’t end, it broke up in disorder. Some of the G.I’s were rolling on the floor without their shirts on. The BCOF contingent went back to their luxury hotel.

Next morning in shul, Max Dana started his Drasha. “T’anks God, T’anks God. No Jewish boy was arrested by the M.P’s. Not one. A miracle. Baruch hashem

After shul we did what all soldiers do,  looked for souvenirs.

Now for an amazing sequel.  In a textile shop on one of the main streets of Kobe, surprisingly, the owner was definitely not Japanese. Remember, this was post-war Japan; dirty, defeated, apathetic. The shop-keeper looked at us, and we looked at him, sniffing each other out as Jews do. He was a member of the JEWISH COMMUNITY of Kobe. We hadn’t the faintest idea there were Jews there. Of all the  hundreds of shops  in town we had to pick the one with a Jewish owner! I just don’t believe in coincidence.

We spent a memorable evening at the house of Rahmo Sassoon, head of a community of several hundred Sephardim and Ashkenazim many of whom had lived there for decades. They said we were the first foreign visitors they had had since the war. Perhaps there was no US army seder before this one. The Kobe community absorbed many Jewish refugees including 400 boys of the Mir Yeshiva who arrived there after with visas issued by the famous Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Kovno. One of them is now a patient of mine in Jerusalem.

Sassoon told me how the Jews were protected by the Japanese police during the war, especially after 1942 when they knew they were losing and wanted both JDC funds, and a better reputation with the Allies. In 1943 the Gestapo sent Colonel Meisinger to Kobe with instructions to liquidate the Jews. They were to be lined up on the quay and machine-gunned down, so their bodies would fall into the sea.

The story is told that somehow the Jews got word of it. Rabbi Kalish, the aged Amshanower Rabbi, put on his best caftan and shtreimel and marched into the Kempetai HQ (Japanese secret police).  This must have been some sight in war-time Japan. He managed to convince them  of the logic that if the Germans thought the Jews, who were white, were sub-human, what could they really think of the Japanese? He literally took his life in his hands when he said it.  But the Kempetai bought it, and when Meisinger was coming  they warned the Jews to take to the hills with enough food for several days. Meisinger came, and went, mission not accomplished,

The story of the Rabbi may or may not be true, but  the Meisinger one is, because I heard it directly from Rahmo.

The BCOF group went back to Kure next night joined by  another Jew, one Marcel Lorber, a refugee European musician who’d come from Australia as pianist for a dance group. He wore bits of uniform and a black beret. We sat in the train eating matzos, drinking chicken soup, and telling Yiddish jokes, an unlikely event in post-war Japan.

The final sequel came forty years later in 1987.  My secretary showed a tourist into my consulting room in Jerusalem, announcing “Dr Sherer, Mr Lorber”. I took one look at him (I think he was wearing the same beret) and asked him if his first name was Marcel. He nearly fell over, asking me how I knew. I recalled that the last time we met was in a train in Japan in 1947, eating matzos at midnight. Like any performer his first reaction was gratitude that anyone remembered him. He had come to Jerusalem to donate his collection of Ivory Netsuke’s to the Israel  Museum. These are belt toggles of great artistry dating back to the days when Japanese men wore a gown with a black belt. They are collector’s items now, unique, as I might hope this story would be.

It’s all true. Shalom, Sayonara!