I am an American, wrapping up a weekend of celebrating Thanksgiving, spending time with family, eating turkey, pie and a little bit more pie, and preparing for the festive holiday season ahead. Yesterday was my eldest son’s birthday. Instead of participating in Black Friday shopping (which I avoid every year in any case), I took my kids on a drive 132 miles from our home, out to the deserts of central Utah, to teach them about the horrors of hate, hysteria and racism. I took my children to visit the Topaz Internment Camp, where more than 11,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them American citizens, were imprisoned during World War II. All of you know this story. It is shameful, and it was not a ‘fun and exciting’ day trip we took yesterday. I would like to share this story with you, through pictures I took of something that happened in my very own backyard, and in 9 other camps across 7 states.
These people, of all ages, sexes and economic status, were kept behind barbed wire, surveyed by guards with guns, and allowed to bring only what they could carry in a single suitcase. They lived in barracks of wallboard covered in tar paper and were provided with cots and a single coal burning stove. Any furniture they had had to be made with what they could scavenge.
They were taken, mainly from the mild and temperate west coast of America, into the heart of the alpine desert - with temperatures over 100F in the summers and well below freezing in the winters. There was little water, sparse vegetation and they were provided with no resources to supplement the meals they were fed in communal mess halls. There was literally nothing for miles around them in every direction. How terrified, lonely, and angry they must have been.
Very little remains from the camps today. Cement foundations, rotting wood planks, broken terracotta pipes, and the dregs of their coal piles dot the blocks where they were housed, row upon row. The roads that joined each block remain allowing visitors to drive through the camp.
From this vantage point, it is possible to see the sites of guard towers, post office, fire station, administrative buildings and other ‘civic’ buildings. There were schools, churches, medical buildings and communal latrines. At it height, it was the 5th largest city in Utah.
An oven from one of the mess halls, a broken piece of milk glass, a crushed and rusting tin cup, shards of glazed terracotta pottery - people lived here, loved here, raised families here, and died here.
To my eternal sorrow, we saw a picture of Gold Star Mothers, welcoming home sons who fought bravely with their countrymen, and mourned the loss of sons killed in action. They celebrated and mourned behind barbed wire.
There is tremendous sorrow and shame in this story, but we also found incredible hope, beauty and love. Many people were professionals. There were highly educated, intelligent, creative souls, who refused to allow the hate thrown at them destroy them. People practiced their professions, taught school and continued to live life. An art professor from UCBerkely opened an art school and taught pupils ranging in age from 5 to mid-70s to express their experience through art. The results were stunning. There were too many pieces to photograph them all, but here are a few of my favorites.
Over time, the internees were allowed to leave the confines of the camp, though there wasn’t much to do outside the barbed wire. A few got jobs in nearby Delta, others took school children on ‘field trips’ and gathered thousands of tiny shells, remnants of the great prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which once covered much of Utah. With these shells they created tiny art pieces, reminiscent of their culture, their homes, and the beauty of their souls. (my finger is there to provide perspective on HOW TINY these things are).
Chiura Obata, distinguished professor of fine art, and founder of the Topaz art school had this to say:
“Even though we must spend our days in the middle of a desert, each day is a precious day that contributes to our life and will never return. Half a year or a year can go by as quickly as a dream. If we spend our time listening to rumors or indulging in gossip at a time like now, what can we achieve? Have we noticed the beautiful mountains surrounding us that have existed for thousands of years? They show heaven and earth their greatness. They can’t be moved no matter how many people try. The sun and the moon have been shining for tens of thousands of years blessing the world. The mountains, moon, and sun never try to explain. Whenever dark clouds hide the sun, the clouds will shine with the golden color of sunlight. At night they will be blessed by the moonlight decorating their edges with a silver line. We only hope that our art school will follow the teaching of this Great Nature, that it will strengthen itself to endure like the mountains and like the sun and the moon, will emit it’s own light, teach the people, benefit the people and encourage itself.”
Friends, this happened here, in the home of the free and the land of the brave. Much worse has happened across the globe. Horrors beyond our imagining are occurring right now. We owe a sacred debt. It is our obligation to never allow such hate to have similar expression ever again. We must stand up for our fellow people. Those who are privileged must stand with those who are not. Those who are secure must offer security to those who have none. Those who enjoy acceptance must accept those who are ‘outside’. We are one people. We are brothers and sisters. Let us take our example from these brave people, who, when ripped away from their homes by their own government, repaid their country with service, courage, honor, love and beauty. People who did not allow the hate to damage their souls or ruin their inner peace. Be brave. Be strong. Be vocal. Say what you know to be true. Act in a way you know to be right. Spread peace, love and joy.
“In any circumstance, anywhere and anytime, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting your time and energy complaining and crying out.” - Chiura Obata 1946
Topaz Internment Camp was closed 70 years ago, in October 1946. May we never see it’s like again. This is my prayer.