Study of Japanese-Americans' plight in World War II helps student win prize Hiroshima visit fueled curiosity

February 21, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Standing in a Hiroshima park in 1989 trying to picture the devastation and the horror of nearly a half-century ago, Kathryn M. Stahl's quest to unravel the past began.

The 17-year-old, whose mother is Japanese, set out to quench her thirst for knowledge of her heritage. Now, her extensive study of how Japanese-Americans fared during World War II has helped earn her Harford County's outstanding history student award.

"When you learn about U.S. history, there's not a lot about what happened to Japanese-Americans," she says. "In my eighth-grade history class, there was just this one paragraph about how Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps during World War II.

"And the book never said why. That became something I was interested in. I wanted to know what happened."

Her chance came during an advanced-placement history class last year at Aberdeen High School. The classes, smaller and more difficult than regular ones, give students the opportunity to pick some of the study topics. Kathryn's term paper helped win her the outstanding history student award, said her history teacher, Thomas R. Baine.

The award is sponsored by the U.S. Capital History Society, a nonprofit Washington organization that promotes study of U.S. history. A local panel of retired history teachers and administrators selected Kathryn, a senior.

"I think it's no accident that the student who won is a

Japanese-American. Coming from two different cultures, Kathryn has learned to look at history two different ways," says Anne D. Sterling, the school board president.

In addition to her straight A's in history classes, Kathryn's other accomplishments were taken into consideration, says Albert F. Seymour, school system spokesman. She is a member of the National Honor Society and has been on the honor roll for three years. She is also a Maryland Distinguished Scholar, a National Merit semifinalist and has a grade-point average of about 3.8.

Standing in Mr. Baine's history room, Kathryn says she became interested in Japanese history and culture while a student at Aberdeen Middle School.

"At that age, a lot of kids want to be like everybody else, and they'll do whatever they can to try and fit in," she says. "And I felt that way too. But there was no way I was going to be able to turn myself into a blue-eyed blond, and I had to learn to accept that, think of myself as being an original."

Her mother, Motoko Stahl, was born in Korea when it was under Japanese rule, she says. Her mother is a maintenance worker at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and her father, Ronald Stahl, is a lawyer in Bel Air.

Kathryn, an only child, says family trips to Europe and Japan each summer from 1988 to 1991 heightened her interest in history.

"Visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima was very disturbing and very sobering," she says. "I stood there and realized that could have been my mother, my grandparents who were killed."

About 90 percent of the city was destroyed and 140,000 people were killed by a U.S. nuclear bomb in August 1945.

"We study World War II today and we are horrified that Hitler was putting people in concentration camps," Kathryn says. "But it's mentioned only briefly that the United States was doing the same thing, interning Japanese in concentration camps."

People of German ancestry -- her father's maternal grandparents came from Germany -- were not interned.

"How can you tell a German person from a French person or an Italian person? Japanese people lost everything they had [when they were interned] because they couldn't change the way they looked," she says.

Though history remains a calling, Kathryn plans a career in medicine and says her study of history has helped teach her the value of helping others.

She has been accepted into the premed program at the Johns Hopkins University and has participated in the school's summer pre-college program.

Whatever her career path, she plans to continue her study of history.

"The past doesn't change, but our perspective of it does," she says. "It's important to remember that."

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