–January 5, 2008, in an email from Mike Ramsey to the author
Mike Ramsey learned German during the war listening to Adolf Hitler’s speeches. His dad had bought him a short wave radio and he got interested in figuring out what the lunatic Führer was saying. He wanted to be in the army fighting, but he was too young. Then he enrolled in military school, did two years of pre-med, and was sent to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo about fifteen months after the occupation began. He was one of more than two thousand soldiers managing the day-to-day needs of the occupation army and the rebirth of a “democratic” Japan.
There wasn’t much left of Tokyo. From February to August 1945, B-29 bombers had pounded the city with incendiaries. The most destructive hit took place on the night of March 9-10 when 279 planes dropped 1,700 tons of bombs destroying 25% of the city. 100,000 civilians were killed. The fire-bomb raids continued until the atom bombs were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Aerial views of Tokyo and its two sister cities after the bombings look surprisingly similar. Though the residents of Tokyo were spared the effects of radiation poisoning, the saturation bombing was deadly and horrible.Even today, most Americans can only imagine what it must be like to try to survive in such a landscape. Residents of New York during 9/11 may have some idea, but even this tragic event does not compare in most significant respects. When Warrant Officer Mike Ramsey arrived in Tokyo, Japan was in famine and beggars were everywhere. The American soldiers and their Japanese employees did not starve, however. Food was flown in and the American PX was well stocked at all times.
Mike’s official title was Medical Inspector but like other soldiers in MacArthur’s army, he had authority when he was out in the field, beyond his specified duties, and beyond his assigned rank. If MacArthur was the American emperor, Mike and his fellow officers were MacArthur’s viceroys. Free-floating oversight was encouraged. If Mike didn’t like something he saw, he made a report to his commanding officer. He could even call the MPs to make an arrest. Few complained about this undemocratic arrangement at the time, least of all Members of Congress, the defeated Japanese people, or the bankrupted Allied Powers who were relieved America was taking on the job of reconstructing Japan.
Mike’s assigned task was to make sure the water supply in the city was sanitary and the buildings habitable. Electricity and much else was on strict ration and when Mike went around in a jeep with his Japanese driver/translator he made sure no one was cheating. The translator, Chui, was a former officer in the Imperial Army, wearing a haisen fuku—a “defeat suit,” stripped of its insignia. He was a graduate of the University of Tokyo and spoke four languages. When Mike asked him questions about the Japanese atrocities in Nanking and Burma, he said he knew nothing about them. Mike never believed him.
It was a beautiful late afternoon when the two men set out for a hospital. There had been reports that the building was collapsing, and Mike was instructed to verify and recommend. It was a desolate part of the city where they were headed, far away from General Headquarters which was in the once fashionable part of town. Many of the buildings there had been left standing after the bombings. Elsewhere, some construction was going on, but not much. The infrastructure of the city had to be stabilized first.
Mike spotted a strange light up ahead. It seemed unnatural, almost surreal, so he detoured towards it. The translator pointed to a partially bombed-out brick structure but did not reply when Mike asked what it was. As they drew closer, the vista beyond the brick looked flat and white. Incredibly, it was a good-sized ice rink and swirling around at the center in a graceful pirouette, there was a lone figure in a dark ice-dancing dress, the bottom flared out in a spin just above her knees.
Mike was more than perplexed, he was dumbfounded. It was summer, temperature in the mid-70s and humid, the ice of questionable consistency, and the rink was not an “approved installation.” That meant someone was using rationed electricity which gave Mike “probable cause” to ask some questions. Who was this woman for goodness sake? Even from a distance she didn’t look Japanese. She was short, true, but her hair was blond. More importantly, she looked robust. Clearly, despite the famine, she was eating well. How else would she have had the energy to skate?
Mike and the translator alighted from the jeep, stood at the barrier looking into the oasis of ice and beckoned, then shouted, to the woman. Slowly, she drifted over.
Mike’s first impression was not complimentary. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and European features, this woman could only be a “Fraulein,” the wife or girlfriend of a soldier or engineer sent to Japan to share technology and weapons. Surely the soldier or engineer was already in custody, perhaps returned to Germany for war crimes interrogation. Or—hypothesis again—he might have been hiding out and only recently arrested, his wife or girlfriend left to fare on her own. Recently, Mike and his buddies had liberated a holiday cabin on Mt. Fuji decorated with alpine scenes. A young Fraulein had appeared during their visit and asked to collect her belongings. They allowed her this privilege, but also questioned her before letting her go. There was enough to do without holding someone who would be of no use to them.
His mind clicking over with all the possibilities, Mike said, in English: “Fraulein, who the hell are you?”
He purposely did not speak in German at first, though this would have been easy for him. He wanted the message to be: I am a representative of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and you must obey my orders.
The woman clearly understood what Mike had said, but remained mute. When he spoke in German, however, she looked alarmed. Then she turned towards the translator and stared knowingly at him, waiting for him to speak. What was going on? Mike had no idea but he asked the translator to tell him. “And that’s an order,” he said impatiently. Reluctantly, it seemed, the translator said, “Mikimoto,” but that was all.
The pearls were valuable commodities, easily transportable, and there was concern in the early days of the occupation that they would find their way onto the black market. Memorandums went out to all occupation personnel alerting then to this possibility. New regulations had made it clear that all pearls could only be bought and sold through the newly-established Army Exchange Service. Proceeds of all sales were used as reparations.
“She’s an Olympic ice skating champion,” the translator continued and then, in Japanese, he asked the little Fraulein to identify herself to the American officer. Finally, she did so—in fluent, impeccable Japanese.
“My name is Fritzi Burger,” she said.
“You are using rationed electricity, shut the rink down,” he said. “You will be hearing from us.”
Back at General Headquarters, Mike reported the incident to Lt. Colonel Schellenberger, his commanding officer, and was told to leave the matter alone, he knew who the woman was, and would take care of it. Mike was a bit annoyed. Why was this Fraulein on the loose? He felt like a fool when he recalled what he had said to her: “You’ll be hearing from us.” Obviously, this wasn’t going to happen.
On June 1, 1947 Fritzi Burger’s photograph had appeared in Pacific Stars & Stripes, the army newspaper, with the caption: “World Famous Stars to Perform in Ice Capades. Associated Press photo of Fritzi Burger who has married and taken up residence in Japan.” Mike had missed it. And even if he had seen it, there was no way he could have known then that the caption was wrong, the facts deliberately manipulated by the army censors. Fritzi Burger, my mother’s cousin, a silver medalist in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, had been in Japan since the 1930s.
On August 19, 1935: “Married. Fritzi Burger, Austrian ice-skating champion; and Shinkiki [Shinichi] Nishikawa, grandson of Japanese Pearl Tycoon Kokichi Mikimoto; in Vienna.” Time Magazine.
My mother did not attend the wedding, but she remembers a celebration at her grandmother’s house with kimonos on display. Soon after, Fritzi left Vienna with her new, handsome Japanese husband, returning briefly in 1938 to give birth to her son, Yoshi, just before Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Then she disappeared, but not to the gas chambers.
By the time Mike Ramsey met Fritzi Burger just seven years later, she had escaped the Nazi genocide, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the post-war famine, and the interrogation of General Douglas MacArthur’s investigators preparing for the war crimes tribunal.
Mike Ramsey is in his eighties now and living in Abilene, Texas. Like many former WW II soldiers, the history of the war has become his hobby. He has an archive of information about the American occupation of Japan from 1945-1952 but it is full of holes as most of the documentation is only now being de-classified by The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Record Interagency Working Group set up by President Bill Clinton by Executive Order in 1999. Nonetheless, Mike Ramsey takes pride in his ability to root out scamps and scoundrels wherever he may find them. Musing about his year working for General MacArthur, he remembered the defiant Fraulein he’d encountered in the summer of 1947. What had happened to her? He went onto the internet, found my book with the title, “Searching for Fritzi,”and emailed me. Thus began our correspondence.
When you hear that a member of your family, long thought dead, is still alive, it is easy to celebrate their escape from a war zone, and genocide. This is how I felt in the mid- 1990s when my mother had first mentioned Fritzi Burger during an oral history session. She asked the same question as Mike Ramsey asked: What ever happened to Fritzi? I began my search for her and found her living in Gorham, Maine as Fritzi Burger Russell. Divorced from Nishikawa and remarried to an employee of Citibank in the 1960s, her Japanese name had been expunged from her biography. We were so happy to find her that I never thought to ask what she’d been doing during the war years and the occupation years in Japan. During telephone conversations with me and with my mother, she mostly wanted to reiterate her skating triumphs. Despite the distortion—taking us for adoring fans instead of family—Fritzi invited us to visit her in Maine. Then, just weeks later, she withdrew the invitation. I had sent her a family tree and a photograph of my mother; the two women had the same grandmother and looked like sisters. Irrespective of the evidence, and her name on every data base of Jewish Olympians, Fritzi wanted to make it clear that we were not her family and, most importantly, that she was not Jewish, and had never been Jewish. Contradicting her own assertion, she threatened me with legal action if I exposed her.
That’s where the first quest ended: with Fritzi’s adamant denials, her rejection of her family, and her death in 1999, the year “Searching for Fritzi” was published.
On February 14, 1935, after her wedding in Vienna, Fritzi Burger was back in Tokyo. On that day, she met Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist reporting on the rising militarism and nationalism in Japan. In notes, transcribed by Margaret Colley, Jones wrote:
Was interviewed by the Japanese Advertiser Shimanochi. Believes changes in Jap. policy to moderation, away from militarism. He introduced me to Fraulein Burger (Fritzi), the Austrian skater (Vienna). He described the return of the Japanese to the old culture. Reaction against the west.
Why was Fritzi at this meeting? Although there is no definitive answer, we can surmise that Fritzi was invited to attend as a celebrity and a representative of the Mikimoto family. Taking this supposition a step further, why would the Mikimoto family have allowed her to be present if not to represent the family—and the government the family supported—in the best possible light?
What was it like for Fritzi Burger to marry into the wealthy, prominent Mikimoto-Nishikawa clan? She probably lived in a well-appointed house, either in the fashionable section of Tokyo or on the Mikimoto estate near the pearl farms of Argo Bay south of Toba. Perhaps she traveled from one to the other. Certainly, as the bombing of Japan’s cities intensified, she would have found safe haven at the family estate. In 1935, she was probably living in Tokyo and pursuing her professional ice dancing career while, at the same time making herself available, whenever asked, to act as hostess to foreign visitors and dignitaries. Eventually, as the war progressed and German and Austrians arrived in Japan on business, she probably would have been called upon to entertain them at a dinner party, for example, or at the ice rink to display her great gifts. We do not know if the irony of her position in Japanese society troubled her in any way, or if she understood that the dignitaries and officers she entertained were the same individuals who were perpetrating the genocide against her own family in Austria. There is no evidence to suggest she tried to save anyone in her immediate or her extended family, though she would have been well placed to do so. There is no evidence to suggest she made use of the Mikimoto pearls as currency, though she would have been well placed to do so. Protected by her Japanese family, she might, at the very least, have made inquiries at the German Embassy in Tokyo or the Japanese Embassy in Vienna. It is unlikely, given her international celebrity and the alliance between the Reich and Imperial Japan, that they would have harmed her.
I have asked myself often how I might have behaved during the Nazi reign of terror. And though it is impossible for any of us, I feel, to answer this question, I always come back to the available facts: Fritzi Burger was not like others in my family; she was privileged; she was rich; she lived in luxury and relative safety; she showed no remorse about the loss of family when we talked to her in America. The vehemence of her denial that we were family is easily explained if one considers her life in Japan during the war, ignored by the fawning press until I published my book.
Most of my mother’s immediate family were murdered, except for a handful, including my mother, who escaped to Paris and then to America. Unlike Fritzi who showed no courage other than her feats on the ice, my mother was courageous. She traveled to Berlin on her own, and at great risk, to obtain visas from a sympathetic French consul for herself, my father, and all his siblings.
If more evidence surfaces in the coming years, beyond what I have learned and deduced, I will happily take back my judgment of Fritzi’s collaborative actions or inactions during the war. Yes, happily will I do so, and embrace Fritzi Burger into our extended family.
Although only 25 Class-A criminals were tried, every prominent Japanese person—politicians, industrialists, elite families, famous sports figures, and officers in the Imperial Army—was interviewed by MacArthur’s investigators. Fritzi probably was also, and then left alone to skate. Sports were encouraged by MacArthur, not just as diversion for the American troops, but as salve for the depressed Japanese people. The country would be “bright” again and what could be brighter than Fritzi Burger ice dancing in Tokyo.
[The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]