Holly Richardson: Topaz has a lesson for today's internment camps

May we learn the lessons of history before we repeat the worst of history.

(Photo by Holly Richardson)

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fear and suspicion were at a fever pitch. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the War Department to create “military zones” which would prevent people of certain ethnic descent from entering “sensitive” areas. In March, Congress passed a law codifying the Executive Order and in May, people of Japanese descent were being put in concentration (or more nicely called, relocation or internment) camps.

Tens of thousands of West Coast residents were given almost no warning and only a week to ready themselves to be shipped off to points unknown. Many of them lost everything — their homes, their business, their bank accounts and almost all of their worldly possessions.

One internee, Himeo Tsumori, said “We knew something bad was coming but we had no idea we would be sent to concentration camps ... One Saturday afternoon I broke the wire at a track meet ... The next Saturday, I was behind barbed wire.”

West of Delta, Utah, lies a testament to a time when white Americans were driven by fear and racial prejudice. The Topaz Internment Site housed over 11,000 people in the three years of its existence out of the 120,000 total internees. About one-third were not U.S. citizens, while two-thirds were.

Walking through the barren landscape out in the west desert, one can see personal details in the detritus left behind. A broken make-up jar, remnants of plates, carpentry nails, tiny shells from the old inland sea, swept outside what used to be a front door and the haunting memory of how easy it was to turn an entire group of people into “them.”

Incredibly, some 500 young men interned in the camps volunteered or were drafted to go fight for the country that feared and spurned them. A couple of young men refused to go and were charged with draft-dodging. What an odd dichotomy: You can’t live among us but you can go die for us. Indeed, the 442 RCT and 100th Battalion, composed entirely of young Japanese-American boys suffered major war casualties — and also went on to become the U.S. Army’s most decorated unit in its history.

In 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians released its report on that dark period in our country’s history. The report, titled “Personal Justice Denied,” found “the broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership.” A fourth has been listed as a failure of the populace to speak up.

There was one exception to this “failure of political leadership” and that was in the state of Hawaii. Approximately 40 percent of the 500,000 residents of the island state were of Japanese descent. Gov. Delos Edmond prevented the forced removal of 160,000 Japanese Americans living in his state, declaring “This is America and we must do things the American way.” Still, the Army and FBI removed approximately 2,000 Hawaiians on suspicion of “disloyalty.” Later investigations could not find a single case of sabotage by a Japanese-American before or during World War II.

The Topaz Museum in Delta is a decades-long labor of love by Jane Beckwith, current president of the Topaz Museum board and former high school English teacher who sent her students in Delta out into the community to start collecting stories in the early 1980’s.

The similarities between the internment camps of the 1940’s and today’s camps on our southern border are hard to miss. I asked Jane what lessons she thinks we should learn from the Topaz Internment Site. She listed four things. Be kind. Don’t give in to fear and don’t let others whip up fear. Third, we need leaders who will stand up and say “No,” just like the governor of Hawaii and, finally, we the people need to speak up for the underdog and the oppressed.

On the wall of the Topaz Museum hangs this quote from Dr. Maya Angelou:

“History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.”

May we learn the lessons of history before we repeat the worst of history.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson, a contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is grateful for people like Jane Beckwith who have preserved our history so we may remember and learn. And, if you haven’t taken the trip to Delta to visit the Topaz Museum, do it. It’s well worth the drive.