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Liberated by a Segregated Battalion

Lawrence Bush
April 28, 2017

The U.S. Army's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans and Japanese Hawaiians, liberated 3,000 prisoners, most of them Jews, in the Kaufering Lager IV, a slave-labor camp that was a satellite of Dachau, on this date in 1945. "While the 522nd FAB covered 1,100 miles in their movement through Germany," notes Densho Encyclopedia, "their single most infamous engagement occurred in southern Germany around Munich when the men stumbled upon roughly 5,000 prisoners marching through the countryside. Their initial encounter with these thousands of emaciated and mistreated victims of Nazi concentration camps was followed by the discovery and assisted liberation of the Kaufering and Landsberg sub-camps of Dachau. For these men whose artillery service had often kept them behind the front lines and away from the harshest experiences of combat, the site of such suffering had a lasting impact." Kaufering consisted of eleven labor camps. "Inmates were forced to hollow out the sides of mountains or caves for immense systems of tunnels and factories that would be secure from Allied bombs," writes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Those who survived these tasks were often used to build new weaponry, such as the Messerschmitt 262 (ME-262) jet-fighter or V-2 rockets. . . . [P]risoners often slept in poorly heated and badly provisioned earthen huts, which were partially submerged in the soil and covered with earth to disguise them from the air. . . . [E]ach camp contained several thousand prisoners, the vast majority of whom were Jews. Disease, malnutrition, and the brutal conditions in the workplace and in the camps took its toll on the inmates, resulting in a high mortality rate."

"The irony of the liberation of German concentration camps by Japanese Americans, many of whom had families who were persecuted and imprisoned in the United States, was not lost on the men of the 552nd. As artilleryman Hideo Nakamine put it, 'It is ironic that members of one persecuted minority were liberating those of another minority.'" --Densho Encyclopedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.