Redemption Stories and Why We Tell Them

5.25.2015 – Shavuot/Yizkor

Janine has a close friend named Debbie Kashino who she has known since elementary school. They grew up around the corner from each other in Seward Park, and they walked to school together every day. Debbie’s father Shiro Kashino was a hero of the 442’s, a Japanese-American combat unit that fought in World War 2. Recently, Debbie presented Janine with a graphic novel which tells her father’s story. I’d like to share it with you briefly.

Shiro was born in Seattle in 1922. He was a star quarterback at Garfield High School, and he was offered a football scholarship to Willamette University. But, his plans were disrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent incarceration of Japanese Americans. Shiro was incarcerated in Puyallup and later in Twin Falls, Idaho.

In 1943, when the opportunity to serve in the US army opened up, Shiro volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He fought in all the major battles of the European campaign. And, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Six Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, and one Silver Star. All of this while Shiro’s family was incarcerated at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho.

Shiro became a sergeant. The army gave the 442’s many dangerous missions. In October of 1944, the 442’s were assigned to save the Texas Lost Battalion who were trapped by the Germans. All previous rescue attempts had failed. Shiro led the charge against a German machine gun nest that had the Americans pinned down. They freed the 212 Texans and the Movietone news that week called them heroes.

But, not long after that, one of the men in Shiro’s group punched a white American officer at a French tavern. Shiro was busted to the rank of private and placed in the stockade with three other men. He didn’t stay long because the army was desparate for soldiers. In April, 1945, the 442’s broke the German Gothic Line of defense, scaling a 3000 foot cliff of granite in full gear in the middle of the night.

When the war was over, Shiro was court marshalled for the tavern fight without any representation and sentenced to six months in the stockade, but his sentenced was reduced because of his war record. The Japanese Americans in the Minidoka Camp were allowed to return home. The army gave them $25 each and a train ticket.

Shiro married Louise and they returned to Seattle. He studied refrigeration and air conditioning, but he could not get a job in his field because of union discrimination against Japanese Americans. He found a job as a car salesman, and he worked for Ford for 44 years.

In 1983, the veterans of the 442’s started a campaign to restore Shiro’s rank to sergeant. In 1997, six months after Shiro’s death, the army sent a letter to his family:  Sergeant Shiro Kashino is a hero and should always be remembered as such. His rank has been reinstated.

Janine’s friend, Debbie Kashino, one of Shiro’s daughters recently retired from teaching over 40 years in the Lake Washington School District. Her daughter Marissa is currently a journalist in Washington, D.C.

This is a story of redemption on so many levels. It is the story of one man who proved himself worthy in spite of the many barriers of discrimination that stood in his path. It’s the story of an entire community of Japanese-Americans that proved its worth and overcame injustice.

It’s the story of America overcoming prejudice. It’s about a different kind of America that emerged in the next generations. The easy friendship between Janine and Debbie that started in the 1950’s would have been far less likely in the 1920’s when Shiro was a child.

And, it’s about the loyalty of the younger generation to their parents and grandparents, and their appreciation of the sacrifices made by them that created the possibility of a country without discrimination. The author of the book on Shiro Kashino is Lawrence Matsuda, who himself was born in the Minidoka, Idaho concentration camp.

Our Tradition is filled with stories like this. We read one on Shavuot. It’s called the Book of Ruth. Ruth is the story of two women, Ruth and Naomi, who lost everything that was dear to them. Ruth lost her husband. Naomi lost her husband, her two sons, and her position of prominence in society.

When Ruth made the courageous decision to return with Naomi to the Land of Israel, her husband’s home, she had almost nothing. She was destitute. She was a Moabite woman in a country which despised Moabites. Her only family was her mother in law, Naomi, who was deeply depressed. But, Ruth’s kindness, her modesty and her loyalty to Naomi, to her husband’s memory and to the Jewish people inspired those around her.

These qualities attracted Boaz, a leader of Bethlehem. Ruth and Boaz married, they had a child. And, the Tanach tells us at the end of the story, that the great grandson of Ruth and Boaz was King David, the progenitor of the Messiah.

Ruth, too, is a story of redemption on many levels. It’s about two women who take destiny into their own hands in spite of great odds against them and prove themselves worthy. But, it’s also about the redemption of our community. It’s about a community that overcomes its prejudice. It’s about a community that makes it possible for a person at the bottom to rise to the top.

It’s about a community that through the actions of righteous individuals overcomes its own depression. At the beginning of the story, there was a famine in the land. By the story’s end, the birth of David is a harbinger of a renaissance period for the entire Jewish people.

And, like the story of Shiro Kashino, the story of Ruth is about a community that sees valuing the past as the key to its future. It’s about a community that teaches respect for parents and grandparents, and sees that respect as the very ground of rebirth and renewal. Like the story of Shiro, the Ruth story is about an intergenerational community that sees itself bound by memory and by hopes for the future.

That’s a value that is not so obvious in a society that places so much emphasis on the merits of the individual and on breaking with precedent to make our own path in life. I am currently reading another intergenerational story. It’s called: “God, Faith and Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.”

I want to share just one brief vingnette from the book. Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004, the first Jewish woman to reach that position. She is married to a Canadian historian, Irving Abella, and their two sons Jacob and Zachary are both lawyers.

Justice Silberman was born in a Displaced Persons camp to parents who had married in Poland in 1939, spent almost four years in concentration camps, and lost everything and everyone, including a two year old son. Then, says Silberman, in an act of almost incomprehensible optimism, they transcended the inhumanity they had experienced and, like thousands of other survivors, decided to have children.

Silberman says she has never been able to understand how her parents were able to live such normal and joyous lives after what they had been through. But, they did. And, so did thousands of other survivors who rebuked the indignity they suffered as Jews by living lives of dignity and pride in who they were.

And, Silberman traces her own passion for justice to her parents’ courage. She and her children are like the children of grandchildren of Ruth, weaving a beautiful future out of the memory of the courage of their parents and grandparents.

And, so are we.  We can be the David to the Ruth and Naomi of our parents and husbands and wives, our sisters and brothers and our children who are no longer with us. We can be the seed of renewal they planted with the love they gave to us. We can be the vehicle through which their goodness continues to transform the world.

And, maybe most important of all, we can provide hope to all people by telling their story. There was a study done recently which showed that people who received a helping hand out of poverty flourished in unexpected ways. It wasn’t just the economic boost that made the difference. It was hope. Because they now had hope, these men and women worked harder. They took more odd jobs. Their mental health improved.

It turns out that hope itself is a precious resource. And, it’s transferable. That’s the message of Ruth. That’s the message we all send when we share stories of lives well lived and hopes and dreams realized. Let’s share those stories with each other today and give each other the gift of hope.