This is the first draft of The Lost Sisters of Bataan, my dedication to the women and men who fought in the Philippines during World War Two. Your comments and criticisms are welcome.
April 1, 1942
Zorka Kiss hated her name. How flamboyant the sound when she heard someone pronounce it. Her classmates had teased her by accentuating the Z sound. Add to it the awkward last name with the final drag of the S as though she were a tempestuous snake–suddenly Zorka Kiss sounded obscene. If not a snake trying to seduce, then a secret body part with the capability of kissing. Her mother’s friends were just as bad as her peers. “Give me a Zorka Kiss! Where’s my Zorka Kiss?” When her brother Kade came to visit, he got in the habit of saying to her, “I need a kiss from the Zorka.” Her parents told her she was named after her paternal grandmother. The family name Kiss was a common Hungarian name, but Zorka knew of no other families in Minneapolis with it. Once she looked up her name in the city phone book. There were two Kiss families, a few Kissingers, and a handful of Kitzinger’s. It produced little comfort, but she understood it was not important in light of the times. It was April 1942. She was twenty, and the world had gone mad.
She finished her morning classes at the University of Minnesota, and the bus dropped her off at Penn Avenue North. She carried her viola case and walked to her rehearsal. Her heart was heavy. The war raged, and here she was, far removed from the attacks and imprisonments, pretending all was normal in her daily routine while the apprehensive eyes of her family constantly reminded her all was not well. When they attended the Sabbath, the 400 member community gathered under a shroud of anxiety. The northside neighborhood exhaled hand-wringing energy that made her insides flip.
As she walked down 14th Avenue inhaling the crisp air, Zorka pulled back dense curls the color of burnt toast. She wrapped a scarf around the mass that made her head large compared to her slender frame. Her hazel eyes looked to the sky at the globe veiled behind wispy clouds and concentrated on the tips of the trees that sprouted leaves. Zorka counted the yellow and red tulips lining a sidewalk and acknowledged the annual perfection of color and egg shape symmetry with an impulse to wack off their heads. In an ugly world, such beauty seemed rude.
Zorka picked up a branch and poked at the brick sidewalk like the hoyden from her youth. She turned the poking into a rhythm, and her feet marched to the beat. Dot dot dot dash. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Due to its morse code equivalency of the letter V, the allies adopted the opening of the symphony as their anthem. The “V is for Victory” movement began. To Zorka, there was no victory to celebrate. Discussions and discarded newspapers informed Zorka of alarming incidents as the war continued into 1942. German Luftwaffe night raids pulverized the United Kingdom. News leaked of the deportation of Austrian Jews to ghettos in Poland. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the papers reported one Japanese assault after another upon the islands of Southeast Asia. Scared of a Japanese invasion on the west coast, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 forcing Japanese Americans from their homes to detainment camps. Zorka worried for her sister Barbara stationed at Manila Bay. Barbara’s recent letter notified the family of her retreat to a jungle hospital with an indifference that belied the situation. Zorka did not trust her words. Her penmanship was too slanted like the strokes bore an inexorable weight. Zorka participated in various causes to help the war effort, but recycling rubber and using a ration book felt piddling. She visualized the woes of all who suffered, and her frustration multiplied like cysts growing on her organs, filling her, leaving little room to breathe.
Her pressing worry was the whereabouts of Aunt Lottie. At times, when Zorka’s mother volunteered at Beth El Synagogue, she snuck into her mother’s desk and read their correspondence. Tied with ribbons, in the bundle labeled “1938”, Zorka’s mother begged her sister Lottie to immigrate to Minnesota. Lottie replied it was too far away to move their bedridden mother. She would not leave Budapest. “Be patient, Margit. Hungary is allied with the Nazis. The restrictions will pass if we are patient.” In the “1939” stack, there was a tone of aggravation in Aunt Lottie’s letters as though she responded to demands made by her sister. “The war will end soon, Margit. My life is here. I did not find a good husband like you. Who will take care of Anja if I leave?”
Zorka dropped the stick and picked up her pace. Her thoughts went elsewhere, and her heart sank once more. She was embarrassed with the knowledge that she was not cut out to be a nurse. Zorka was woozy at the sight of blood. Body fluids made her gag. She did not like learning the parts of the anatomy, and she fumbled when wrapping a wound of a stranger. This was her second semester, and she hated the idea of becoming a nurse. She thought, How does Barbara stand it?
Zorka arrived at 14th and Penn Avenue. She climbed the steps and entered the grand semi-circle arch of Beth El Synagogue. She met the other musicians of the quartet in the social hall and sat next to her friend, Panna. They rehearsed Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. During the fifth movement, Leib, the first violinist, let the tempo drag which caused the second violinist to stray. Zorka wanted to hit Leib’s pimply face over the head with her bow. Finally, the rehearsal was over. By holding her hand and pulling, she rushed Panna out of the building. Panna adjusted her glasses and almost lost a loafer as they raced down the front steps.
“Where’s the fire, Z?”
Zorka puffed out her indignance. “I’m too old to be playing with kids.”
“Don’t let Leib get to you. He’s trying.”
“How many times have we gone over movement five? Twenty? Forty times? He still
can’t get it right.”
“It’s his first time as the lead.”
They had practiced for almost a year. Zorka memorized her part of the viola months ago and longed for next week’s Minneapolis Spring Festival concert to hurry up and be over. She had outgrown adolescent rehearsals and parent-audience recitals. There had to be something more–adult–to do with her instrument. She did not have a plan, however, and quitting was not an option. Her bow was an extension of her arm, and the viola was her second heart. The viola selected the girl at a young age. Her natural ability delighted her parents and Rabbi David Aronson made a point of praising her abilities. Such reinforcement helped her motivation. Throughout her young life, she aspired to master difficult pieces until she became one of the best musicians in the twin cities.
The two friends walked down St. Paul Street together. The sun disappeared behind treetops, and their shadows grew long. Zorka sniffed the perfume of Lily of the Valley. It meant she reached the corner flower bed at her home. Panna accepted the invitation to dine with the Kiss family; she followed Zorka up the front steps past the porch swing, and they entered the two-story craftsman, careful not to slam the door. The runner absorbed their steps past the dining room to the kitchen at the back of the house. The light was on. Zorka’s mother had bread baking in the oven. It was a large room with tall cupboards and in the center was a metal dinette set. The meal plan was Rakott Krumpli, a potato-egg casserole. Zorka guessed her mother was upstairs freshening up before her father returned from working at his dentist practice. Panna was petite, and the apron she wrapped around her hips overlapped. She giggled at herself. She helped Zorka by peeling and slicing the potatoes. Zorka heated the water to boil eggs and then chopped and sauteed onions in butter.
Zorka blurted, “I’m thinking I ought to enlist as a WAC and serve like Barbara. Or go to Budapest and find Aunt Lottie.”
Panna grabbed the casserole dish from a cupboard and handed it to Zorka. “Don’t be ridiculous. They’d arrest you, and you’d be a goner like your Aunt.” Panna smacked her tiny palm to her forehead. “Slica, Zorka! That came out terribly.” Her dark eyes watered. “Please, forgive me.”
Zorka was quiet. She ran cold water over the boiled eggs and peeled them on the front page of the Star Tribune. She responded, “I know something bad has happened. My mother won’t accept it. We haven’t heard from Aunt Lottie for months.” Zorka sliced up the boiled eggs. She grabbed sour cream and a block of cheddar from the icebox. “You know what I heard the other day? The Germans have built several hundred ghettos throughout Eastern Europe. What if they make a ghetto in Budapest?”
Panna’s expression hardened. She sprinkled pepper and salt on top of the layers. “My cousins are from Erd. That’s only ten miles outside of Budapest. I didn’t know them, but it is sad to think they are in the path of that megalomaniac. My mother hasn’t heard from our cousins in ages.”
Zorka looked out the window to the backyard where a few chickens picked at the grass. She needed to put them in their hutch for the night. Zorka tried to think of different news. New news. “The Star Tribune reported that there is a new Japanese military language school starting up at Camp Savage.”
Panna followed Zorka out back and helped her chase the chickens into their coop. “Why on earth in Minnesota?”
“Since Roosevelt issued the order to gather up Japanese Americans in detention centers out west, no state wants to house a spy school for the Nisei —”
Zorka smoothed her skirt and reentered the house. “Their parents are Japanese who immigrated to the states and had children. The Nisei are U.S. citizens.” Zorka stopped at the herb garden on the enclosed porch. She pinched off some parsley and reentered the kitchen. “Since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese aren’t much liked.”
Panna joined Zorka at the sink to wash her hands. “But they are Japs, right? I mean, their parents live here, but in their hearts, are they Japanese?”
Zorka thought about it. “Well, what are we? Are we Hungarians, or Americans? Or worse–Bohunks?”
Panna looked into a mirror in the hallway and smoothed her straight hair. “Tsuris. I’m American! Our parents speak Yiddish, but I rarely do unless at home. I’ve been told my whole life to act American and to fit in at the public school. I speak English. Buy Christmas presents for friends. Go to baseball games. Just like you, behind closed doors, we are Hungarian Jews honoring the traditions.”
Panna returned to the kitchen to help clean up. She lifted the newspaper holding the potato peels. “Do you suppose the grown children of the Japanese–Nisei–think of themselves as American?”
Zorka shrugged. “How would I know?”
Panna blinked away the topic. “Let’s go downtown tomorrow night.”
“To do what?”
Panna inhaled sharply. “Let’s go dancing.”
“How can you think of dancing? There’s a war on, you know. Besides, the pickings are thin.”
Panna held the entertainment section. She bent her head sideways to decipher the page and said, “I’m tired of thinking about the war. Let’s go to the World to see a movie, then.”
“Fine by me. I’m tired of studying the Endocrine system. Big test on Monday.”
“Bambi is playing.”
A cartoon for children. Zorka rolled her eyes. “Bambi. Oi vey.”
* * * * *
At The World Theater, Zorka and Panna sat at the back of the lower level. From there, they admired the pretty hats and slicked-back hair of the couples in front of them. The theater filled quickly. A female usher wearing a blue suit and a pillbox hat walked down the aisle. She carried a tray of candies, popcorn, and cigarettes. They paid for a bag of popcorn. When the film began, Zorka felt exasperated. It’s Thursday night. I’m twenty. The best I can think to do is to watch a movie for children? When the scene came to when Bambi’s mother was shot, Panna started to cry. Zorka suggested they step outside. The lights from window displays and the steady line of cars passing by suggested possibilities; it was not long before Panna recomposed. They walked in silence at a loss of anything important to say.
Zorka and Panna turned down a side street to where a diner’s neon lights pulsated at them. They entered, slid into a booth, and ordered french fries and a Coke to share. A Johnny Mercer tune played on the jukebox. In a booth next to them were two Japanese men in Army uniforms each drinking a cup of coffee. Zorka tried not to look, but she kept stealing glances at their mannerisms. When Zorka heard them speaking English, she leaned toward them and asked if they were associated with the new intelligence base. Panna’s eyebrows raised in shock.
The soldier nearest to Zorka surveyed her face and smiled. She said a silent prayer of thanks that tonight she remembered to apply fuschia lipstick.
The soldier’s eyes were the color of roasted almonds. “I’m Joe and this is Sam.”
Zorka rolled her eyes. “Stop it. I’m not stupid.”
He laughed at her. “Sorry, pretty girl. Really, it’s Ken. This is Frank.” His companion had narrow shoulders and bony facial features. He looked as though he had eaten bad oysters.
Zorka wasn’t sure if she should believe they had American names, but she let it go. “Are you two stationed at Camp Savage?”
“Yes, we sure are. We have R&R tonight. Want to join us?”
Panna frowned. Zorka ignored her and moved across the aisle to sit next to Ken. Panna had no choice but to join them in the booth and distanced herself from Frank.
Zorka asked, “Tell us about the intelligence base. What do you do there?”
The skinny man called Frank leered at her and over-enunciated, “It’s top-secret.”
Zorka tried again, softening her voice. “What can you share that won’t compromise your position?”
Frank lit a cigarette. Ken took Zorka’s hand and examined it. “Come on, Frank, ease up. Do these look like the hands of a spy?”
Frank was smug. “That’s what we are, ladies, spies for the U.S.A.”
Panna turned in her seat to face them, her curiosity getting the better of her. “You enlisted, then, to come here? What about those new Jap camps in California?”
Ken winced. “Please, that’s harsh, eh? They are Japanese Internment Camps. The Army asked me to recruit at Manzanar. I convinced Frank to enlist.”
Zorka blurted, “Why would you join the Army when the government put your people in camps?”
“Wow, you sure get to the point.” Ken wiped his face pretending she had thrown a glass of water at him.
Zorka blushed. “I’m sorry–not very lady-like, I get it.”
Panna added, “We don’t see many Japanese in Minneapolis. You are an anomaly.”
Ken shrugged off his irritation and laughed. “That’s a new one. I like it. Hey, Frank, we’re anomalies.”
Panna scooted out of the booth. “This was a bad idea.”
Ken tried to stop her by placing his hand on her forearm. Panna raised her eyebrows, and he removed his hand. He returned his gaze to Zorka and admired her dainty nose and lips like a Japanese flower in bloom. “We don’t get out much. It’s very nice to sit across the table with pretty girls. There’s only a few at the school.”
“What do you do there?”
Ken took a drag from his cigarette considering the question. He exhaled above their heads. Zorka appreciated the courtesy and liked how his expressive mouth made his words more lively. “We’re linguists. We’re learning how to read and decipher Japanese. We will be assigned as interpreters and shipped somewhere where there’s a need.”
Zorka concentrated on his lips, but Ken’s friend interpreted something different. Frank’s scowl reappeared as he studied Zorka’s mystified expression. “We’re Americans, dammit. I grew up in Seattle. He’s from Kansas City. Our parents wanted us to enlist to demonstrate our loyalty because they were upset by how many white people think we aren’t American.” He inhaled his cigarette deeply and exhaled. “We went to American schools. We watch American movies.” He leaned back in the booth and closed his eyes until they were slits on his face.
The waitress set the plate of fries and a glass of Coke with two straws at their table. She plopped down the red ketchup dispenser. Frank’s eyes opened and stared hard at Zorka. He reached over and grabbed a crinkled french fry and blew on it. “We went to college before the war broke out. I studied accounting, and Ken is an architect.”
Panna looked at Zorka with impatience. Annoyed eyes behind her glasses said, Are you satisfied? Can we go?
Zorka looked at Ken. She wished he’d pick up her hand again. Instead, he looked at her fingers, noticing the depressions in the digits of her index finger, and the way the tips of her fingers curled gracefully on the table. “Ah, you are a musician. Violin?”
Zorka smiled brightly. “Viola.”
Resigned, Panna added after a moment, “I play the cello.”
Frank ate their fries one by one without apology. Ken volunteered, “I like to play the piano.” He wrote down the name Ken Suzuki with his phone number on a napkin and passed it to Zorka. His eyes shone as if they had been dipped in chocolate. “Your name?”
She thought of saying, Sue or Jane. Something American. “Zorka. Zorka Kiss.”
Ken’s grin revealed a perfect line of white teeth. “You are a killer-diller.” He rubbed the back of Zorka’s hand with his index finger. “Next time we have the day off, Zorka and–”
Ken’s voice was energetic. “There’s a jazz bar a few blocks away. The place will be empty, and we could play together? Have our own jam session? Are you free on Friday or Saturday?”
Zorka said, “Better make it a different day. We observe the Sabbath.”
“Oh, Jews.” He said it like he had found a unique shell on a beach. “I’ve never met Jewish girls before. What do you do during Sabbath? Wait! Nevermind. Tell me all about it next time we see each other.” He smacked the table with confirmation. “Alright, I’ll put in a request chit for a Monday or Tuesday off. The bus ride isn’t long from MISLS.”
Panna took a polite sip of the Coke. “What’s that stand for?”
“Military Intelligence Service Language School.”
Zorka tried to be friendly to Frank. “What do you play?”
Panna’s round eyes pleaded to Ken. “Maybe you have another friend who plays an instrument?”
“Sure, sure. I got friends. Don’t mind Frank. He doesn’t like anything.” Ken twisted his torso to look for the waitress. She stood at the cash register skimming through a magazine. He set two quarters on the table to cover the tab. “Nice to meet you, Zorka and Panna. Call that number soon. Ask for me. We’ll set it up.”
Later that night in bed, Zorka recreated Ken’s face in the dark. She liked his friendly demeanor. She liked his muscled arms. His big hands. She imagined him touching the keys on the piano. She imagined his hands touching her body with the same sensitivity. It would be a long few weeks, but she was glad there was something to think about other than the war.
* * * * *
Zorka skipped her classes on Monday. Instead, she reported to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Red Cross center and volunteered to fill care packages for the Europe Production Corps. Second Lieutenant Mary Stone was a silver-haired, WWI veteran in charge of the local chapter. Every time Zorka volunteered, Stone’s sales pitch was only a matter of time. “There are eleven branches of the Red Cross, Zorka. Why don’t you pick one and sign up to be a leader? You can make a big difference in the war effort. How about working for the USO?
“Can you get me a job and send me to the Pacific?”
“Wouldn’t you rather work in Europe at an allied base for the USO?”
“I’m not interested in serving coffee and donuts, Lt. Stone.”
“How about the administrative corp?”
“I can’t type.”
“Nurses assistant? Blood donor program? Aren’t you studying to be a nurse?”
“Turns out I’m squeamish about blood.”
“What about the Motor Corp? You’d be transporting the sick and wounded and delivering supplies. It’s a crucial part of the war. Much more interesting than passing out donuts.”
Zorka bit her lips in consideration. The pause was enough for Lt. Stone to proceed. “Of course, as a part of the Motor Corp, you’d receive training in auto mechanics as it would be expected you’d fix your vehicle if it broke down. We could send you on a troopship to the Pacific. Where did you say you wanted to go?”
“Okay. Let me see what I can find out. Can you volunteer this Wednesday or Thursday? We’re packing comfort kits.”
Zorka stopped going to classes. She avoided Panna. On Thursday, Zorka arrived at the Red Cross station and packed various items in goodwill boxes heading to Europe. This week the station packed raisins, coffee, corned beef, sugar, dried milk, biscuits, orange concentrate, chocolate bars, and cigarettes. Other packages contained medical supplies, clothing, toilet articles, seeds, and gardening materials. At the end of her shift, Lt. Stone requested Zorka to come to her office. “There’s a spot needed in the Motor Corp in the Philippines. The steamer Orinoco is leaving San Francisco in a week. After an introductory session of what to expect, the Red Cross will send you to the Philippines. We will pay for your tickets to get to San Francisco.”
Lt. Stone’s expression clouded over. “Zorka, I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that what you’re requesting is a danger zone. The Japanese have taken control of Manila. I can’t guarantee your safety. We’ve heard of evacuations and quite honestly, there’s been reports of the Japanese not allowing Red Cross packages through to U.S. soldiers.”
Zorka thought of Barbara. Backed into a corner in the jungle of Bataan. Was she even alive?
* * * * *
Zorka and Panna took a cab to the address of the jazz club Ken suggested. It was three in the afternoon, and they entered the club carrying their instruments. Panna whispered to Zorka, “I don’t know how to play jazz. Are there jazz cellists?” Zorka sighed. “Who cares? We’ll improvise.” On the small stage, Ken played the piano while another Japanese American soldier improvised playing the drums. The owner was away from the bar, so Zorka helped herself to a rum and Coke. Panna had a Coke minus the alcohol. The music was soothing as they positioned themselves on the bar stools. When Ken turned his head and recognized them, he waved them over with that boyish enthusiasm that appealed to Zorka. Zorka took out her viola and jumped on stage, the white horse hairs of her bow finding the pure notes on the strings. Panna joined in, too. After a bit, she grew awkward and the notes stumbled. She could not break free from structure or maybe she did not want to be a part of the loose, improvisational experience. She retreated from the stage and hid in the shadows to watch.
Zorka let Ken kiss her cheek. After two stiff drinks, she relaxed and wanted to dance. They started dancing. Zorka told Panna to stop pouting and play something on her cello. Ken pulled her close and put his cheek on hers. How wonderful to smell his aftershave. How wonderful to have a handsome man have his hand on her back. She was sitting on a cloud of delight and decided to ruin it.
“I’m leaving next week.”
Ken pulled back and then closed his eyes and swung her around. “Oh, yeah? Where you going?”
“I signed up with the Red Cross. I volunteered to go to Manila. My sister is there.”
“Umm. Not a good idea, you know. The Japanese Imperial Army took over the city.”
“How do you feel about that? Ach, sorry. How strange to be you!”
Ken chuckled. “I don’t want to think about how strange I am.” He dipped her and looked into her eyes. “I keep telling you, I consider myself American. I think the Japanese Imperial Army is evil and God Bless America.” He twirled her some more and brought his hand over her tailbone. Ken whispered, “I think you’re perfect. For a Bohunk.” He winked at her.
Zorka acted offended and excused herself. After more music and alcohol, Zorka was jubilant. Even Panna had one Coke with rum and talked to Ken’s buddy. Zorka felt an emotional tug about saying goodbye. Ken gave her a salute. “Long live the brave Zorka who is leaving us to fly to the Philippines. Who knows what will happen. May she return to Minneapolis older and wiser. What do you say? Let’s agree after the war we meet back here and have a reunion party. We have to keep in touch, okay?”
Panna sat down. Zorka was tipsy and felt her face flush.
Panna said loudly, “Brave? You coward! I’m your best friend! How could you not tell me?” She put her violin in its case and marched out of the club sniffling. Chagrined, Zorka did not go after her. She looked at Ken and put her arms around his neck and asked, “Don’t you have some Japanese girl at home?”
He pushed aside a section of hair that fell in front of her nose. “Nope.” Ken kissed her lips, then whispered, “Wanna be my pen pal?”
Zorka smiled. “You bet.” She wrote down her address on a cocktail napkin. “In case, after the war, you want to look me up.”
Ken grabbed another napkin and scribbled down an address. “I can do one better. Write to me at the intelligence school. They will forward any letter you write to my future assignment.”
“Oh, what if we never see each other? Ouch!”
He kissed her hard. “Bye, pretty girl.”
Zorka put away her viola and waved goodbye. As she left, she hoped the smile she placed on her face covered the conflicted emotions of sadness, regret, and happiness.
Thank you for taking the time to read Chapter 2.
In case you would like to peruse a past post about the research, I invite you to check out the following link. https://wordpress.com/post/cindybruchman.com/18646