In the Palm of My Hand

Photo by Dyanna Taylor, circa 1990.

Chester Aaron’s stories have appeared in two issues of MANOA: Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned and Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine. The following is his first published writing. He served in the U.S. Army’s Armored Infantry Division in Europe from 1943 to 1946 and participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Later in 1946, he enrolled at UCLA. “In the Palm of my Hand” draws on his war experience and was published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s newspaper, on page 4 of the Sept. 26, 1946, edition. Serena Enger, a friend of Aaron’s who is a librarian, asked him for a copy of his first published writing, but he had forgotten this piece and was unable to help her. Undaunted, she used her skills and tools as a librarian and found the article on microfilm. She retyped it and emailed it to Aaron on Sept. 26, 2012, sixty-six years to the day of its publication. It does not express or represent a reconciliation but reminds us of the constant need for personal reckonings with history.

I held within my hand yesterday, all the agonies and pleasures, all the heartaches and joys, all the miseries and contentments, as is possible for one being to possess.  All of the emotions ever felt, ever attained by man were here – here in the palm of my hand.  For today I held in this hand a small bar of soap made of the bones and flesh of men, women and children – victims of the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen.

Forever, I believe, I shall remember the greasy sensation as my hand clutched that bar, and as I smelled it the bitter and pungent aroma increased tenfold when I realized that I was breathing into my nostrils the marrow of our civilization.  A civilization just as surely dead and just as surely vanished as are the bodies of these peoples.

What man, what woman, what child, gave of their life so that this small bar of taunting shame might be flaunted before our eyes?  This gray by-product of a civilized era.  An era in which man advanced so rapidly in all fields, excepting the field of human relations.

As that bar rested in my palm I noticed a dark gray splotch in the middle of the top, darker gray than the bar itself.  That, perhaps, is the face of Hans Friedlow who whistled as he climbed the mountain trails in the cold mornings and who used to wonder at the edelweiss blooming on the slopes of his beautiful Bavarian Alps.  Or perhaps it is the sun-darkened back of David Meyerberg, skilled surgeon, who used to lie on the beaches of the Chiemsee on warm August Sundays, watching his curly haired children frolic in the sands.  Or perhaps it is the children themselves.  A child would not make too large an impression in all the agonies laid here to view.

There was a piece chipped from the upper corner.  Perhaps that is the throat and chest of Hildegarde Brenner who enthralled audiences throughout Europe with her ringing soprano voice, who was happiest when singing or strolling beneath the swaying trees on the Unter Den Linden.  And if it is her throat and chest or if it is any part of her, then she must be content, because she is as she was in life, withdrawn from the rest of the flock.

That choking odor – it could not be the scent of the gorgeous Martina who held breathless the audiences of Berlin and of Vienna and of Paris as she acted in the plays of the continent.  Could it be lovely Martina who now emits this odor?  She who possessed the most varied collection of perfumes in Europe?  Could it be she who lies there within that gray block and reeks late our throat?

Here within this block lies the hopes and fears of a multitude of beings.  They who died because they wished to live.  Within this block rests that farce, named humanity, called decency, called love.  Behold within my hand the utter fantasies of war.

The whippings, the starvations, the freezings, the smotherings, the miseries of separations and the screaming of farewells, the fearful knowledge of coming crematories.  The extreme end to which a body can go and then go no further.

You who scream hate, and discrimination, feel this block, press this bar into your palm and attempt to forget the pangs of hunger and thirst and cold and torture.  Close your eyes and close your nostrils.

But the Lord will not permit the closing of your conscience.  The potency of this bar of soap, the thoughts within, careen from one wall of thought to the other.  It hammers at your soul, beats at your senses, throbs with the race of blood in your temple.  “Remember me!” it screams.  And remember, I shall.  Long after that soap dwindles to invisibility, I shall remember the feeling as it lay in the palm of my hand and as I gazed at it.  I did not see the soap.  I saw in its stead, dangling arms and legs and heads of those who gave.  I held the blood and the flesh of countless numbers.  What feelings, what emotions, what memories laid there within my grasp?

Interview with Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf

The eleventh anniversary of 9/11 will be marked in myriad ways. We are choosing to do so by bringing readers’ attention to an exceptional example of using the imagination to produce a significant and lasting reconciliation. The Cats of Mirikitani, a 2006 documentary by filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, tells the powerful story of artist Jimmy Mirikitani: his internment and loss of American citizenship during World War II, his life of homelessness on the streets of New York City, and his eventual reclamation of family and country. The following interview with Hattendorf was conducted by Pat Matsueda and Nelson Rivera one day before 9/11’s eleventh anniversary.

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The Cats of Mirikitani begins with shots of Jimmy on the streets. We assume that you were filming many things—Jimmy being just one—and that you were drawn to him because of how his life had been shaped by art and by loss. Then, during the filming process, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center happen. The film begins to explore the parallels between the anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII and the paranoia surrounding Middle Eastern populations in the United States after 9/11. Did you have another direction for the film before the attacks? If so, what was it?

People often ask me when I knew I was making a movie. The film started almost accidentally, and evolved organically over time. I first met Jimmy in January of 2001. He was clearly homeless, and seemingly quite old.  It was a particularly harsh winter in New York, and he was taking shelter under the awning of a deli not far from my apartment.   Despite the cold temperatures, he was energetically drawing pictures of cats late into the night. I was curious and concerned—and I like cats—so I struck up a conversation.

He gave me a drawing and asked me to take a picture of it for him. I was working as an editor of documentary film at the time, and had a small video camera. So I returned with the camera and asked him to tell me about the pictures he was drawing. It turned out he had lots of stories to tell.  All kinds of tales spilled out in a jumble and it took me a while to begin to piece together what had happened to him. So I kept visiting. And I found that if I brought the camera, he would talk to me. So at first the camera was just a tool to get him to talk, to find out why he was there, what had happened in his life.

I initially thought I would just make a short video portrait of the life of this homeless artist, and hope that someone would see it and help him.

But as I began to understand what had happened to Jimmy in the past, I realized how significant his story was historically. During WWII, not only was he forcibly removed from his sister’s home in Seattle and sent to a Japanese American internment camp, but he lost countless family members and friends in the bombing of his ancestral city of Hiroshima. I began to explore the link between losing home in such a profound way in the past and his state of homelessness sixty years later.  I thought this tale of trauma, loss, and discrimination was the story I was telling.

By 9/11, I had been documenting his life on the streets for nine months and we knew each other well.  After the fall of the World Trade Center, I couldn’t bring myself to just watch him coughing in the smoke through the lens of the camera, and I impulsively invited him home.

We were suddenly surrounded by eerie parallels to the climate of the country after Pearl Harbor—only this time a different group looked like the enemy. At that point it became clear that there was an even bigger story here, and that it urgently needed to be told.

Some people would say that your act of empathy is a gift from one artist to another. It set in motion a series of events that enabled Jimmy the individual to reconcile with America the country, to help him regain his country, his family, and so on. That act of empathy is as remarkable as Jimmy’s story. Have audiences responded to or remarked on this aspect of the film? 

Documentary filmmaking for me is a way all of us can witness the lives of others, see the world from inside the point-of-view of someone we might not otherwise understand.  I enjoy making these stories visible, giving a voice to those who don’t always have the means to tell their tales. The history of those like Jimmy is not often depicted in mainstream media. As an artist, he was drawing pictures of these events because he was determined that this Japanese American history not be ignored or forgotten.  I hope my film is an extension of his own desire to be visible.  What has been so rewarding is seeing so many audiences around the world embrace the film; people from so many different backgrounds all seem to laugh and cry in the same places in the screenings—proving to me that in the end, we are all one big family, made of the same stuff.

Putting to rest the ghost people, as Jimmy calls them, helped him to (a) bring certain life-shaping memories to a close and (b) move forward in the present. At the beginning, he has no home and is completely alone. At the end of the film, he has his own apartment, and friends are joining him for a celebratory dinner. As a result of Cats, Jimmy’s story and art have reached many people. Does he still draw cats and scenes of the internment camp? Have his drawings changed in subject matter, mood, style? What is the present like for him?

Jimmy’s art changed after we attended the pilgrimage to the Tule Lake camp. When I met him on the street, he was drawing images of the camp over and over again, obsessively sketching the barracks, the mountain, and himself trapped behind a huge fence and gate. When we went back to that same site so many years later, the bus turned a corner and suddenly there was Castle Rock Mountain, exactly as he had been drawing it from memory all these years. As soon as we got off the bus, Jimmy pulled out his sketchpad and started drawing.  From that day on, he continued to draw the mountain, but soon the barracks were replaced by tombstones for those who died in camp, and then by cheerful little houses and traffic along the formerly empty road. He drew an open gate, and then the fence disappeared altogether. And he never put himself in the picture again. I believe he literally got out of that landscape by returning there and confronting the past.

Being reunited with a community of people who had experienced what he went through, and wanted to hear about it, was incredibly healing for him.  The Tule Lake Committee organizers do an amazing job of creating a safe environment where former internees and their families can talk about that trauma, often for the first time.

At ninety-two, Jimmy shows no sign of slowing down.  He recently had a one-man show in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wanted to travel the west coast beforehand. So Masa Yoshikawa [her co-producer] and I took him to another Tule Lake pilgrimage, then to a screening and exhibit in Denver, then to the show in Santa Fe. Jimmy is like a rock star, surrounded by fans wherever he goes. He loves the attention.

Roger Shimomura, the Japanese American artist who is shown in Cats visiting Jimmy on the streets, curated an exhibit of Jimmy’s work which originated at the Wing Luke Museum and now continues to travel around the country.  Masa had a book published in Japan depicting Jimmy’s life and art (Peacecats). Several museums carry reproductions of Jimmy’s artwork as well as the Cats DVD, and there is now a children’s book in development using his art as illustrations.

And yes, Jimmy still draws cats. I don’t think that will change. The cats are always popular. I had no idea how many cat lovers there are out there. People from all over the world send us pictures of their cats!

Have there been attempts to connect with Jimmy’s family in Japan? What is his relationship with his American family like now? 

Ruth Addeo née Mirikitani is a cousin who discovered Jimmy when she saw the film playing in a cinema. A music teacher living on Long Island, she baked this cake for him.

Jimmy and I have now met many Mirikitanis, both in the U.S. and Japan.  Masa helped me to take Jimmy back to Hiroshima for the August 6 Peace Ceremony in 2007.  That was a powerful trip for all of us.  The family there unfurled a scroll with the family history that does indeed go back to Samurai times.  And we are so glad Jimmy was able to reconnect with his sister Kazuko in Seattle before she passed away this year. We have met Mirikitanis from Hawaii, California, and a cousin right here on Long Island who discovered Jimmy through the film! She visits regularly and baked him a special cake for his birthday last year!

You and Jimmy developed a powerful bond. The scene in which he expresses his worry about your returning late is very touching. Did you ever discuss working on film or art projects together? 

Well, yes, sharing a one-room apartment with an eighty-year-old stranger for almost six months was certainly a bonding experience. We had our ups and downs, but in the end, we became like family.  It’s been more than ten years since we met, and to this day I still visit Jimmy weekly. He introduces me to people as his granddaughter.  We understand each other as artists, and as human beings.  I credit him with the idea of making the film, since it was his initial request of “take a picture” that got me started on this adventure! He taught me a lot about the daily process of making art.  After 9/11, it was such a scary time, especially here in New York, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. But no matter what was happening, Jimmy just kept drawing.  And so I just kept shooting video.  I believe making art is how Jimmy processed the many traumas in his life. That has been a good lesson for me.

What films are you working on? How did The Cats of Mirikitani change your life, your ideas about filmmaking? What did it reaffirm about the way you understand and treat people?

Screening Cats around the world has really reaffirmed my deep belief in our common humanity. As a result, I’m currently developing a film called Picturing Peace. It’s a look at cultures of peace around the world, past and present. We know plenty about the history of war. I think it’s time we started seeing what peace looks like, and learning how to speak that  language as well. I visited the University of Peace in Costa Rica earlier this year—a country that abolished its army in 1948 and put those funds into education instead! Imagine that! I hope to raise funding for more travel and interviews in the coming year. Meanwhile, I continue to edit and consult on documentary films for others, teach at the New York Film Academy, and occasionally appear at screenings of The Cats of Mirikitani.
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Related pages:

Father Damien

The Manoa Readers/Theatre Ensemble production of Aldyth Morris’s play was presented this past weekend at Kennedy Theatre, on the UH-Manoa campus. The play was directed by Tim Slaughter, of Outreach College, and starred veteran actor Dann Seki as Damien. John Keawe sang and provided background music, and Nyla Fujii-Babb performed the opening chant in both Hawaiian and English.

Damien is printed in its entirety in MANOA’s winter 2011 issue, Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine, which may be purchased at our website. In his editor’s note, Frank Stewart explained the context in which the play was being published:

We…wished to reconsider, in a volume of Manoa, responses by writers to the notion of “exceptional individuals,” people who are regarded as models of compassion. As Joseph Dutton noted, the world may be too impatient to bother with daily heroes, but this is more likely the result of our frantic busyness than evidence that the world lacks persons who are striving to lead ethical, empathic, and self-transcending lives. Whether such individuals are religious or even concerned with spirituality is not the point. Nor is it important what cultural or religious heritage they come from, or from what nation or era. They may influence only one other person or many—what matters to us in Almost Heaven is what the poet Rilke called “heart-work.”

In any case, few would argue against the need to recognize courageous ethical actions, regardless of how local or humble. Wherever and whenever they appear, such acts create in the world what religious thinker Thomas Merton termed “a saner climate of thought.” We can’t achieve much by ourselves, Merton wrote. “We need the help of articulate voices, themselves taught and inspired by love. This is the mission of the poet, the artist, the prophet. Unfortunately, the confusion of our world has made the message of our poets obscure and our prophets seem to be altogether silent.”

A saner world would be a version of heaven. If we didn’t feel ourselves capable of being almost there, through words and action, the world’s heart would always be breaking. In Almost Heaven we’ve brought together writers from past volumes—along with some new to our pages—who believe that the function of art, individuals, and communities is to create Merton’s saner climate of thought. Among these writers, we’re proud to include Aldyth Morris, whose play Damien is the centerpiece.

Dann Seki as Father Damien

Various ethical conflicts shape Damien, the most significant being Damien’s struggle with his notion of what is right and good in the eyes of God. The play ends with him addressing God and asking for a divine sign of acceptance of his faith and actions. The kind of reconciliation we are accustomed to—in which forgiveness is awarded or acceptance clearly voiced—is not found in Damien. However, the play poses a series of questions and shows us, powerfully and memorably, how essential they are to people of conscience. Only at the end of life, the play seems to suggest, are the questions resolved.

The eight-page program guide developed for the play contains information on the production, Father Damien, and playwright Morris, as well as a timeline and a list of selected readings. A medium-resolution PDF version of it is available.

Manoa Readers / Theatre Ensemble presents performances of literature and drama for university, community, and statewide audiences. MR / TE is a collaborative, cross-disciplinary initiative of UHM Outreach College, Community Services Division, and UHM College of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature. MR/TE’s co-directors are Tim Slaughter and Frank Stewart.

A Peaceful Power

This past weekend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at two events at the Stan Sheriff Center on the UH-Mānoa campus. He addressed high school and college students at the first event, “Educating the Heart.” At the second, “Advancing Peace through the Power of Aloha,” he addressed the general public. The two talks were part of a series of events planned by a Hawai‘i-based initiative called Pillars of Peace. Mānoa interns Megan Oshiro and Nelson Rivera attended the Saturday event, and Pat Matsueda the Sunday one.

The Dalai Lama spoke extemporaneously, drawing on the more than fifty years he has tried to lead the Tibetan people while exiled from his homeland. He characterized the PRC’s takeover of Tibet as a tragedy, but one that “woke” Tibetans and united them in a way they had not been before.

Having accepted that Tibet is a part of the PRC, he exemplified two of the principles he was trying to express: being realistic, and using one’s intelligence to understand situations, particularly the elements that appear to be in conflict. He also drew connections between valuing education and using one’s native intelligence to solve problems and stressed the importance of approaching people on a personal level, without bias and judgement. When we do that, he said, we open ourselves to the possibility of empathy and compassion. And when we do that with our enemies, we make forgiveness possible. Forgiving, he stressed, does not mean accepting wrongful deeds.

Related issues of Mānoa:

Song of the Snow Lion: New Writing from Tibet (vol. 12, no. 2); purchasing information. Excerpts:

Chinese rule had an immediate and striking impact on the Tibetan language at every level—because it was initially used as the means for the Communists to convey their message. At this stage, Tibetan intellectuals were recruited as “important patriotic personages”—a class that would mediate between the past and the present. Because many of the early literary elite came from monasteries and the religious community, the Chinese assumed that they would be trusted by the masses.—from “The Waterfall and Fragrant Flowers: The Development of Tibetan Literature Since 1950” by Tsering Shakya

He crawled to her side and marked a bloody cross on their son’s pure-white forehead. With a laugh, he spoke these last words: “Damn. Killing everywhere. With knives. With guns. That’s life.” Ugyen watched his mother pull his father’s knife from his belt and solemnly lay it on him there inside her robe, passing on the legacy to him. The icy blade on his face made him shudder as if he’d gotten an electric shock. The cold steel of the knife pressed against his chest so heavy he couldn’t breathe. His father stroked his face, laughed contentedly, then died.–from “The Glory of the Wind Horse” by Tashi Dawa