The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Memory for Memorial Day: Remembering 2nd Lieutenant Louis Kastenbaum

Every year when Memorial Day rolls around, it’s easy to focus more on barbecues and sales than the real meaning of the day. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because using the day to enjoy our freedom is, in its own way, honoring the legacy of those who gave their lives to preserve it.

I am fortunate in that no one in my close family has died in war. I have uncles like Bob Resnick and Dave Kattleman who bravely fought in WWII and I am blessed that they made it home. But millions of other men (and women) did not. When you think of WWII alone, the numbers can be staggering—whether it’s 100,000 deaths at Hiroshima, 6,000,000 Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, or nearly 30 million soldiers who died for the Soviet Union alone. But there is almost a certain comfort in the anonymity of these numbers. So I ask your indulgence in taking a moment today to remember one particular individual: 2nd Lieutenant Louis Kastenbaum. He’s one of the many otherwise anonymous victims of war that has only recently become a little less anonymous to me.

Louis was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1922 to Morris and Celia Kastenbaum. He was the first member of his family to be born in the US after his two older sisters Annie and Clara had been born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from which the family had just emigrated. They came from the town of Solotwina, where my Great Grandpa Hirsch was from—hence Louis and I share an ancestral town (and it’s entirely possible that we are related somewhere in history, too!)

I only know two other things about Louis. One is that he lived at 2322 E. 24th Street in Brooklyn in the 1930s and went to James Madison High School. From their yearbook (Class of 1940, then he was headed to Brooklyn College) I know that he was a member of the Class Day Committee, his favorite song was “A Man and His Dream” by Al Bowlly, and he believed that “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” He appears by all measures to have been a handsome and smart young man.
1940 Madison High School Yearbook entry.

The other thing I know is that he enlisted in the army on July 2, 1942 and re-enlisted on October 2, 1944, prepared to risk his life fighting on the very continent his parents had fled, likely to escape anti-Semitic persecution. He went through aviation training in Greensboro NC and was sent to fight in Europe as serial number 02-073-138. He was in the 483th Bomber Group of the 816th Bomb Squad.

On April 1, 1945—a mere 38 days before the war in Europe would end—he was on a B-17 Flying Fortress mission to Maribor, Yugoslavia when enemy fire knocked out some engines, destroyed the auto pilot, and injured several crew members. The uninjured soldiers—Lt. Kastenbaum among them—had a choice: they could either bail out and save themselves, leaving the injured soldiers to certain death in an uncontrolled plane crash, or they could all remain on board and risk their own lives as well by attempting an emergency landing. They chose not to leave their brothers-in-arms behind. A fighter escort arrived to provide them with cover and they jettisoned as much weight as possible. If fact, despite the odds they were tantalizingly close to a successful emergency landing when the plane jerked, a wing struck a hillside, and they crashed and burned about three miles southeast of the town of Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia. 4 crewmembers survived, while the other 7 crewmembers—Louis Kastenbaum among them, just 22 years old—were killed. They were quickly buried near the wreck while the war raged on, their graves marked only by sticks onto which their dog tags were tied.

Although it appears to have taken a few years, Louis’ parents were able to bring his remains home and he was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens around 1950, in a section ("landsmanshaft") reserved for people who came from the town of Solotwina. Along with two other soldiers, he lies at the base of a memorial to the “Murdered Jews of Solotwina”, because any Jews who were still in Solotwina when WWII began were executed by the Nazis (undoubtedly including unknown relatives of both Louis and myself).

On a recent visit to my own family in this section of the cemetery, I happened across Lt. Kastenbaum’s grave. Time and the elements had caused his grave marker to shatter, and since anyone who knew him is likely dead by now as well, he probably has had no visitors to care or notice this sad fact. It seemed wrong to me that the last mark this brave young man had left on this earth was in such a sorry state, so I decided to do a mitzvah and see that he got a new grave marker. Doing so involved a lot of research, which is how I learned all of the information above. And in the end, the US Department of Veteran’s affairs recently provided Louis with a beautiful new grave marker, befitting the ultimate sacrifice he made for us all.

The old and the new.

So today, by all means enjoy the fun and freedom we can all treasure as Americans (at least as long as Donald Trump is not yet our president!). Eat some hot dogs, watch some baseball, and take advantage of some great sales. But also take just a minute to remember the forgotten heroes like Louis Kastenbaum. According to his own yearbook philosophy, he clearly felt that defending his country something worth doing, and he did it well—giving up his own life in an attempt to save the lives of others.

May he rest in peace.
.עליו השלום

Louis' grave in front of the monument to the "martyred kinsmen" of Solotwina

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Lost in Translation, Part 7: Hiroshima & Miyajima

A surprisingly common question I’ve gotten is, “why did you go to Hiroshima?” to which my response is always, “how could I not?!” For better or worse, the city of Hiroshima has a solid if unfortunate place in history—Japanese history, American history, and world history. There are few places in the world that have a sense of “living history”. When you visit ancient sights, they can feel just that: ancient and distant. But it is simultaneously chilling and enthralling to visit a place where history is more palpable. Places I have experienced this unique energy include Pearl Harbor, The Kremlin,  Berlin, Westminster Abbey, and Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Now I would add Hiroshima to this list: how often can you stand in a spot where the history of the world changed in an instant with the flash of the first—and worst—of only two nuclear bombs ever used in war?

The other, more expected question I get is, “did it feel weird to be there as an American?” The answer to that one is definitely not. I suppose the answer to that lies somewhat in the mind of any American visitor, based on whether they believe the bombing of Hiroshima was justified…but there is nothing about the place or the people that is anti-American. The Japanese have generally acknowledged their own aggression and acts of war that led up to Hiroshima, and as one of only two cities to know first-hand the horror that comes from nuclear warfare, the loud and clear statement of the memorials is a purely nation-agnostic one: nuclear weapons should cease to exist, period. Especially when you consider that today’s nuclear warheads are nearly one thousand times more powerful than the ones that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, when any nation performs a nuclear test, the sitting mayor of Hiroshima sends the leader of that nation a letter reminding them of the destruction and asking them to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Other than the memorials, there’s not much to see or do in Hiroshima. It’s a thoroughly modern city rebuilt on the ashes of the old. For me there was a peculiar strangeness to that; I guess because we only associate Hiroshima with the bombing and nothing else, it seemed surreal to me to stay at the Sheraton Hiroshima or to grab a cheeseburger at a Hiroshima McDonald’s.

Of course our first day was spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Most of the park is on an island in the Ōta River. A T-shaped bridge connecting this island with the mainland on both sides (the Aioi Bridge) was the visual target for the atomic bomb because it was easily recognized from the air. Hence this area is “Ground zero” and was completely obliterated.

Well, almost completely— the first thing you see are the ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, now called the Genbaku Dōmu (A-bomb Dome). This was the only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocenter, owing to combination of good construction (stone versus wood, as was used for most traditional Japanese buildings) as well as the fact that the force of the bomb came from overhead instead of from the side, which would have knocked it down. Anyone inside the building, however, was killed instantly. The decaying shell has been left standing as a reminder of the bomb’s destruction.

Crossing over to the island portion of the Peace Park, you find a number of monuments and memorials as well as the museum. The Children's Peace Monument features a girl with outstretched arms and an origami crane. It was inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old girl who died from leukemia attributed to the atomic bomb. According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes will be granted a wish or recovery from illness. So Sadako began to fold cranes shortly before her death. To this day, the statue is surrounded by cases of paper cranes containing a continuously replenished collection made and sent by children around the world. Although inspired by Sadako, the monument is dedicated to all children who died in the blast.

Among the dozens of other memorials that dot the park are the Peace Bells which visitors are encouraged to ring, and the Memorial Mound—a grassy knoll that contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb. But the main ones are the Memorial Cenotaph and the Flame of Peace. The cenotaph sits under a concrete arch that contains the names of all of the bomb’s victims and frames a view of the flame and the A-Bomb Dome. An epitaph reads, “Please rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated”; it is deliberately ambiguous so as to be apolitical. The flame is also dedicated to the memory of the bombing’s victims. Although it has burned continuously since being lit in 1964, it is not an “eternal flame”: the intention is that it will be extinguished when all atomic weapons are earth are destroyed and the planet is free from the threat of nuclear destruction.

Ultimately this all leads to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It covers everything from the buildup to and destruction from the bombing of Hiroshima to the current threat of nuclear arms. Most affecting are the personal belongings and stories of some of the victims.

This striking diorama shows the city’s center before and after the bombing.

This pocket watch stopped at 8:15AM, the exact moment that the bomb exploded.

These shorts belonged to a 12-year-old boy named Jiro Mitsuda. They were all that was left on his body when the rest of his clothes—and much of his flesh—were seared off by the blast. He made it home to help his mother and put out the flames that were engulfing his house. He died 5 days later after deliriously asking for money to buy an ice pop.

This drawing was made by his father and shows him cremating his son’s body.

There are some of the actual cranes made by Sadako Sasaki. They are tiny because she didn’t have much paper and made them out of whatever scraps she could find in the hospital, including medicine labels.

These are the steps from a bank near the hypocenter. Someone was sitting on them, waiting for the bank to open when the bomb struck. The person was vaporized, but the flash of radiation from the bomb seared their shadow on these steps for all eternity.

An evening view over the Peace Park.

That night we decided to hit another cuisine we hadn’t yet sampled in Japan, a steakhouse. Yum!

Walking around Hiroshima by night, we came upon a pageant of Christmas lights (again, I found this somewhat surreal)…

…and a store where I began to feel a little crabby.

All that walking made us hungry again, so we went to the famous Okonomi-mura or “Okonomiyaki Village”. It features 3 floors containing no less than 26 okonomiyaki stands, each serving their own style of okonomiyaki. For a newfound okonomiyaki lover, this was like Disneyland!  All of the okonomiyaki here are generally of the Hiroshima style, which is a layered variation heavy on cabbage that’s served over noodles. We randomly picked this place because there seemed to be a few natives there and we liked the no-nonsense older lady who worked there.

The next day—our last full one in Japan—we headed off to Miyajima (“Shrine Island”), the popular name for the island officially known as Itsukushima. A short ferry ride from the mainland, about an hour from Hiroshima, it is considered one of the 3 most beautiful places and Japan—and you’ll get no argument from me. This small, mountainous island is sparsely populated and covered with shrines, including the famous and eponymous Itsukushima Shrine, all of which—especially its bright red torii gate—appears to float on water during high tide.

We walked around the perimeter of the island a bit, taking in the sights.

Among the sights are wild deer that live on the island and don’t seem to care a whit about the humans there. Any why should they? Shinto consider them to be sacred messengers of the gods so they live the life of Riley. The walk and sleep wherever they want.

I particularly enjoyed watching this photographer who offered photos in front of the floating torii. He had an assistant whose Sisyphean task was to try to wrangle one or two deer to be in the picture with you and then shoo away any other deer that tried to get in on the act.

At the heart of the island is Mount Misen, rising to 535 meters. You can hike to the top or take a cable car—although even the cable car involves a little hiking at the bottom and at the top. Karen opted for the full hike experience while I enjoyed the cable car. This sign directing you to the cable car (ropeway) station was perhaps my favorite one in all of Japan:

Either way, the views from the top are impressive. We had beautiful weather and a clear view over the Seto Inland Sea and as far as Hiroshima.

For our last dinner in Japan, we went to a kaiseki restaurant high atop a hotel in Hiroshima. A view over the Memorial Park makes for an odd dining ambiance but the food was of course served with flair.

We strolled around a bit, had drinks, and visited our last Lawson’s Station. That was particularly bittersweet, as this omnipresent chain of convenience stores became practically a daily ritual for us. No matter where you are in Japan, there seems to be a Lawson’s right there. They’re everywhere! And the perfect place to stock up on snacks and other essentials. Technically it turned out that this was NOT the last one we went to, because of course there were multiple locations right in Haneda Airport…but I digress.

Actually our evening ended on a slightly more mundane note. Returning to our hotel we decided to check out the gym, since we would have some free time in the morning. We ended up finding ourselves locked inside the gym for a good 20 minutes before help arrived! Here's Karen trying to make the best of the situation...

The next day involved a loooong train trip back up to Tokyo—maybe 5 or 6 hours, thanks to the Shinkansen—for our evening flights back to the US. We were flying separately so after a few final moments together in an airport hotel where you pay by the hour to sleep in a box (ah, Japan) we bade each other—and our Japanese hosts—a fond sayonara.

So like I said up front, Japan was amazing. I have never been to a country where the culture was so fundamentally different and the people so overwhelmingly caring and welcoming. This is definitely one where my most outstanding memories will not be of the sights—though there were plenty of beautiful ones—but of the experiences I had and the kindhearted people I encountered.

And in the interest of kindness, I’d like to issue a public apology to Karen for making her nights miserable. Apparently I’ve become a snorer in my old age! So it was a journey of self-discovery too. On to the next one!

With the gems of Kyoto but a recent memory, we headed to our next and final destination, Hiroshima. BUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

Momiji manjū (little maple-leaf–shaped cakes) are a specialty of the region, and for some reason it seems to have an association with loving relationships. But the description in small type below just sounds so dirty (click to enlarge):

Karen found her ideal boyfriend on this vending machine.

We found a clothing store called "Womb" that had freaky cryptic signs like this on the clothing...

And the last few funny signs...

(I know that last one was a repeat, but again it was my favorite!)