I’ve just finished reading my first continuing education book, called The Train to Crystal City, about family detention during World War II.
I learned much. I learned that Anne Frank and her family died because they couldn’t get a U.S. visa. Her father had applied, but the U.S. Limited the number Jews who could get visas. Racial quotas. What is it with us and race? I wonder how many Iraqis and Syrians are dead today because of our racist policies. We are so immersed in our myth of race, we think someone’s skin color determines their allegiance.
This is what led to the internment of so many Japanese, German and Italian men, women and children for years during WWII.
I learned that Roosevelt also wanted Japanese from Central and South America interned. He wanted Japanese prisoners to trade for U.S. POWs in Japan. Peru sent hundreds of Japanese to the U.S. They landed in New Orleans then were arrested for unlawful entry. Ironically, they were nisei, second generation Japanese. These Spanish-speaking Peruvians of Japanese descent spoke little if any Japanese and little if any English. After the war Peru would not take them back, so the U.S. deported them to Japan.
The first irony is that there is such historical consensus about the internment of the Japanese during World War II was an injustice. The U.S. Government even paid millions to these people in reparations. Most were US citizens. They were not told what charges, if any, were being made against them. Their crime was their ancestry. They were not given access to legal representation. No contact with the outside world. In many cases their belongings were confiscated. They lost everything they had. And of course, their families, their children were incarcerated with them. We know this was a tremendous violation of human rights, and yet we are still doing it in Dilley, Texas today. We can learn much from what the Japanese called the Crystal City Concentration Camp.
Another irony is how respectful the Japanese students were. Many of the Japanese who were detained for those years were Buddhist priests, wealthy businessman and successful farmers. These aspiring Americans taught their children to show the utmost respect to their captors. In school, the students would all stand and bow when the teacher entered the room.
As a part of the school curriculum, the students had social studies. One of the students, Sumi, now a senior citizen found this class to be bewildering. There she a learned about citizenship. She learned about the truths that we all hold the self-eviden. She learned about the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, the right to assemble, freedom from search and seizure, habeas corpus. And here they were inside these fences. Her parents taught her and that she had to learn the virtue of “gaman,” enduring with dignity under unbearable circumstances.
Most of the second-generation children or American citizens. Many of them did not know how to speak much Japanese. They listen to pop music, ate burgers and played football. The first generation Japanese immigrants consider them spoiled American brats. The towns people in Crystal City considered them “damn Japs,” and openly said they should all be hung. They became children without a country.
After school the boys would play football together. When they were tired, they would stand at the barbed wire fence and sing songs to the guards in the guard towers holding machine guns. They did nothing Japanese songs. They saying American pop songs. “Don’t fence me in” became the most popular song in camp. This was Americans detaining Americans.
The camps were not just for the Japanese. There were also Germans, Italians and others. Matthias Eiserloh was several years into the five-year process of becoming an American citizen. Neighbors wanted his property and so they reported him as a Nazi sympathizer. After he was taken away his wife was raped and beat her own home by an intruder. Unable to support herself now that her husband primary breadwinner was gone, she sold the property neighbor at a drastically reduced price.
Roosevelt wanted to incarcerate every German in the United States. Fortunately his advisers kept him from doing so. His wife Eleanor vocally opposed the interment of the Japanese, Germans, Italians and others. He also secretly wanted prisoners to exchange for American prisoners of war. Not many people are aware that Japanese were collected from all over Latin America as well. Thousands of Japanese percent from Lima Peru. When they landed in New Orleans, they were arrested for unlawful entry and taken to detention centers in Texas, Oklahoma and other places.
When will we learn? When will we learn that there is no humane way to incarcerate families? When will we learn that people who live by fear do horrible things?