Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Topaz Internment Camps

When Andrew was in grade four, studying Utah history, he learned about the Topaz War Relocation Center and has wanted to visit ever since, so it's been on our bucket list for years. We figured it would make a good family outing because Miriam should be learning about it this year and Benjamin is obsessed with having "history time." The rest of us enjoy history, too, so it was a win for everyone.

I was rather impressed with the museum. It far exceeded my expectations and was really quite beautifully done. We first watched a few introductory movies, one of which was largely illicit home video footage taken by Dave Tatsuno, an internee at the camp, on a smuggled camera. It's one of two home videos to be accepted into the Library of Congress. Both films were interesting. 

We enjoyed wandering around the museum for a bit until we were interrupted by an employee, who asked us if we were planning on visiting the actual site because Jane Beckwith, who has been pushing for recognition of Topaz since the mid-80s and who helped found the museum, was currently giving a tour over at block 22. So we paused our museum experience and headed over to Topaz for a tour.

It was hot and miserable. But interesting. 

There is nothing to shelter you from the harsh desert climate. The brush is prickly, the ground is cracked, parched, thirsty. There are no trees, no real shade. The sun seemed intent on beating us into submission. The wind, silent and stealthy, swirled up dust devils now and again, coaxing them with some unheard melody to dance a jig at odds with the unrelentingly dismal landscape. But the music ends nearly as soon as it's begun and the dust settles back down to the earth to wait another thousand years to be asked to dance.

These were the women's shower stalls at the latrine in block 22
It's that stark out there. Alexander cried, like, the whole time.

But it was good to experience that, I guess, since that was the reality faced by so many. Understandably, there was a "city" there with electricity and running water, but the buildings were all tar-papered shacks and conditions were fairly dismal overall. My baby was so done with the place after our half-hour lecture in block 22. I can't imagine trying to live day-to-day life there without any hope of air conditioning...or even a chance to hop in the river in a desperate attempt to cool off (because rule #3: "Don't crawl under the fence").

You can see some rock garden remains in this picture
In reality, internees weren't even allowed to get close to the fence, let alone crawl under it. James Wakasa, a 63-year-old man, was shot and killed in 1943 when he got too close to the fence while walking his dog (I believe, in one of the videos we watched at the museum, that one person's account mentioned Wakasa being hard of hearing so he wouldn't have necessarily heard a verbal warning). He was a good six feet away from the fence when they recovered his body. The internees held a very large funeral in protest and later the rules regarding the fence were relaxed a bit (to prevent future killings/uprisings).

At the end of the war the camps were emptied and the buildings were auctioned off, leaving behind only cement pads and a whole bunch of nails (apparently). We also saw a few other things, like a lightbulb base, a spoke from an umbrella, and other odds and ends. Aside from those things and evidence of rock gardens, you can hardly tell that a city was once erected in the middle of the desert. And not just any city! At the time, Topaz was the fifth largest city in Utah (with a population of 8316, Topaz of 1943 was about on par with today's Park City or Mapleton or Santaquin).

Andrew, Zoë, Benjamin, Miriam, and Rachel standing in block 22
We didn't realize this until we got home and did more research, but there's actually a bike tour of Delta (population 3436) of all the buildings from the internment camp that are still in use around the community today

Here's Benjamin standing in some charcoal left over from the broiler room of the lavatory (I think that's what this is). The lavatories were kind of an H-shape, with men's facilities on one side and women's facilities on the other side and a broiler room in the middle to supply hot water. 

As hot as it gets in the summer, it gets awfully cold in the winter, so the broiler is certainly necessary. When they first designed the camp they figured people could take turns doing their laundry and hanging it to dry near the latrines. But soon they found they had to hang their laundry elsewhere (everywhere elsewhere, probably) because there wasn't room enough for everyone's laundry to dry, especially when the 400 babies born in the camp were calculated into the equation (babies generate a lot of laundry, specifically dirty diapers (even though I haven't yet put Alexander into cloth diapers (I find I'm too tired to keep up with that amount of laundry at the moment (and I have a washing machine at my disposal)) I know how long diapers take to dry)).

Here are the kids back at the museum by a reconstructed apartment, as it would have been in the camp:

And here they are inside:

The cabins were sparsely furnished, so the internees used scrap wood to build things like tables and chairs, dressers and shelves. They made some very beautiful things, considering the lack of supplies they had to work with. In addition to making every day necessities, they also sought to beautify their surroundings. Using shells collected around the camp (the Topaz desert was once an ancient lakebed so there are many shells to be found), people would make beautiful shell art creations:

Miriam found these monkey carvings made from peach pits quite fascinating (there was also a belt made from walnut shells):

Artists painted hauntingly beautiful images of life around the camp—dust storms, guard towers, rows of tar-paper huts. I can't remember the quote now that it's been over a week since we've been there (so obviously I should have taken a picture of it) but I really liked what one person said about how as bad as their circumstances were they had the choice to make the best of it (but they, of course, said it beautifully). And it really seems like they did try to make the best of things, even after being stripped of their livelihoods and dignity.

We were trying to imagine figuring out what to pack for life in the camp. Usually they were given about a week to get their affairs in order (we talked about how frantic our family gets just packing up to go camping or to visit family), but not always. I'm positive I would have packed poorly, especially since they often didn't know where they were being sent.

Out of all the thousands of detainees, only between 200 and 300 had solid agricultural experience. Most people were from cities—doctors, teachers, even an animator for Disney—so I imagine that the camp's mandated self-sufficiency was difficult (they had to grow vegetables and raise pigs and things like that). Farming experience aside, they were thrown into a completely foreign environment! But, farm they did. They also ran schools for the children, published a newspaper, and held other classes.

Benjamin really enjoyed the newspaper exhibits and kept waving around the display copies like flags (they're printed on some sort of plastic/canvas material (vinyl—that's the word I'm looking for)):

Some of these classes were designed by authorities and attendance at civic activities was somewhat mandated (see rule #4), but still, it was rather inspiring to see everything the internees managed to accomplish while being, essentially, incarcerated.

Here are the "Don't" rules, in case you were curious about them. We thought rule #2 was particularly poignant considering our own president recently advised us to "just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening."

There was a line in one of the introduction videos we watched that said something like, "Life at camp seemed almost normal, until you looked at the rules..."

I had not realized, prior to seeing this picture, that we also arrested German and Italian nationals and placed them in internment camps during the war:

The biggest difference, I suppose, is that because this country was founded by European immigrants, we're rather flooded by Germans and Italians, so only those individuals who hadn't yet been able to obtain citizenship were detained. Everyone else was free to keep living their lives.

It was more difficult for people from Japan to get citizenship in the first place, but even if they did manage to obtain citizenship it didn't matter because they were rounded up into camps anyway. After all, it's much easier to tell if someone's ancestors hailed from Japan than from Germany just by looking at them (not that these internment camps were at all racist...oh, wait...), so the Japanese internment camps were filled with American citizens (as well as Japanese nationals who hadn't gotten American citizenship). What a crazy, mixed-up world.

We didn't have ancestors at Topaz, but we do know people who did. How chilling to imagine one's ancestors (from the not-so-distant past...) being treated so poorly. Surely we're above such things now (ha). Many in our society seem to almost idolize the 1950s poster family: the wife who stays home and cooks dinner for the husband who works, children who are respectful and obedient, and so on. They talk about how good things used to be (and often desire to make things "great again" by echoing the past). I think, however, that we forget that this image of perfection is just that: an image. It's veneer, a mask, a cover up.

When we sweep the ugly parts of history under the rug and hold it up as the golden standard, those dust bunnies are sure to come back to haunt us. And, indeed, they are coming back to haunt us.

So instead of making this country great again, instead of going back to a standard that once was acceptable, I feel we should be asking how we can make our country better. How can we ensure that we never repeat the atrocities of internment camp (separating families at the border, anyone?) or whatever unseemly event you can think of?

I don't have an answer to that, necessarily, but I do think exposing these mistakes (learning about them and growing from them) is a start. Teaching empathy to our children is another good place to begin, and so, for my children, I will share this little story that Aunt Stacey wrote up in response to another comment by a certain president of ours about illegal immigrants "infesting" the country:

Grandpa Ted, age 51
This is Grandpa Ted. He also has a Hebrew name, Israel Tevya Roosevelt Weiner. Born in Pennsylvania to two Lithuanian immigrants—Miriam (Minnie) and Joseph. Like many coming through Ellis Island, immigration officers asked for family names, and subsequently changed them. Joseph’s family name was Preppitovski, but he came through Vienna to the United States, and was provided a new identity—Weiner (from Vienna). 
My grandfather’s life was difficult and not very happy—he did not talk a lot about his past (unlike my paternal grandparents). His father abandoned the family—three children—after they migrated West. We don’t know the hardships the family faced, but can certainly imagine being a single mother in the early 1900s could not have been easy for my great grandmother. They eventually settled in Oakland, California where my grandfather and his two sisters grew up and completed high school. 
After graduating my grandfather moved to San Francisco where he found work at a car dealership on Geary Street and later in real estate. He had few successes during his business career, but always tried to better himself. This was difficult in the 20s and 30s as anti-Semitism was rampant. San Francisco had a prominent Jewish community, but if you were not wealthy, you faced discrimination. It was important for my grandfather to know “people” and to be known, however, there were few options for him as many restaurants, bars, and golf and social clubs were closed to Jews. He eventually joined the Masons and Shriners and rose through the ranks. This was one of the few organizations that accepted Jews.  
Grandpa Ted as a shriner
I remember my grandfather as a very quiet man. He was gentle and kind, but he didn’t share a lot of stories from his past. My memories of him are sweet—he loved ham, and his wife would never prepare it at home. When they visited our home, my mother always had ham for dinner. As children, we thought this was funny, because we knew Jews did not eat pork. He would also give us of money—a silver dollar or a $2 bill. We thought this was the best! 
It is my grandfather’s family that really shapes this story—so we delve into the past to Jewish immigration in Europe. This started before the rise of the Roman Empire in 63 BC. Their mass immigration is calculated at nine million pre-WWII (six million were exterminated). Throughout history, Jews had faced persecution— particularly the immigrants to Europe. They looked for friendly climes only to be driven, massacred, or separated from their communities through brutal pogroms lead by what we would consider “gangs.” During the crusades and Spanish Inquisition, many converted to Christianity to save their lives. 
The pogroms forced mass movement of immigrants to other boarders…and still the gangs came. Some leaders created friendlier laws for Jews, and they flocked to these areas. King Wenceslas (yes, Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol) of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) welcomed the Jews, and they had a thriving community, which was decimated during Nazi occupation. The Hapsburgs eventually accepted the Jews, and communities rose in Hungary and Austria. 
While many Jews assimilated, others did not feel comfortable being in the “Gentile” world. So they created their own communities. Throughout Europe, you’ll find Jewish Quarters in many large cities. They spoke Yiddish, only had business dealings with other Jews, attended services at the Synagogue, and cared for their people. Others migrated to small villages or towns known as Shtetls where they felt safe being who they were.
My grandfather’s family came from the Shtetl of Eishyshok where Jews were on equal terms with the rest of the population. They traded freely with the Gentiles and lived in relative harmony. This life is chronicled in Professor Yaffa Elliach’s book “There Once Was A World” and photos can be seen in two large rooms (floor to ceiling) in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. 
Eastern European Jews started mass immigration to the US in 1880s, so many escaped the atrocities that would occur (like my great grandparents). However, they left extended families behind. After WWI, Europe faced widespread inflation and civil unrest. The time was ripe for the rise of an evil power—the Nazis. They needed a scapegoat for the loss of land and the economic crisis. The Jews became the target. History is clear about what happened…needless to say, Jews became persona non grata. They were declared an enemy of the state, rapists, murderers, rats, dirty, uneducated, criminals, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS (including those that had been in their respective countries for generations). 
What happened to my ancestors in Eishyshok? In June 1941, the Wehrmacht roared into the Shtetl. The villagers remained inside behind locked doors, peering out from behind closed shutters and curtains to see endless columns of the German army marching down the street. At first they seemed friendly; they reassured their “hosts” they would only be there a short while. In September, during Rosh Hashanah, the streets filled with Jews on their way to Synagogue and 3,500 were rounded up and locked up for three nights without food and water. They were then separated, taken to a pit in the Horse Market, and slaughtered (first the men, then women, then children). Few survived. 
I am a third generation infestation on my mother’s side. I understand my legacy and how easy (and quickly) people can lose compassion, start to believe untruths, and blame former leaders. I honor my ancestors, and thank my grandfather and great grandparents.
It really shouldn't take anyone very long to find a story of immigration in their family tree, to find a story of fleeing persecution, to find a story of seeking refuge or a better life. Should anyone be condemned for wanting that?

Anyway, we ended up driving home a completely different way than we did on the way there when we passed by some pioneer charcoal kilns just off the side of the road...unless we just missed them on the way back (because this website says they should be just outside of Eureka)?

Maybe we'll have to go back to look at them some day because we drove through Eureka on the way home and didn't notice any kilns. We did, however, notice this old LDS church (its windows were beautiful):

Eureka seems like an interesting old mining community. It was fun to do a little drive-by tour:

So now you finally know what we did for Labour Day (not that I'm behind or anything).

No comments:

Post a Comment