Manzanar. Its word would we should all know. None of us do.
Manzanar…short for Manzanar War Relocation Center. It was a concentration camp. Not in Germany or Russia. It was a concentration camp in California. Manzanar was one of many such camps in the United States, during World War II, in which we forcibly detained all Japanese people within our borders.
School books like to show us the horrors of Dachau & Belsen. That’s important. Things like that should not be forgotten. But they do not teach about Manzanar. They don’t make History Channel specials about Manzanar. Is it shame or a false sense of superiority that keep us quiet? When we see pictures of Auschwitz, something in our brain shrieks, “It could happen here!”. But, it did happen here. It happened here while the dead were still being piled up at Buchenwald.
That false sense of superiority manifests itself when people say things like “It was different. We didn’t kill the Japanese.” If you think that the worst thing that was done to the Jews was murder, then you truly don’t understand any of it. The ‘final solution’ was but a symptom of something much more evil. The Nazi’s true crime was to rob the Jews of their humanity; to rob them of their freedom. Nothing worse can be done to a human being. The degradation of another human is itself the great leap over the line. Once you have decided someone is an animal and not a human, the idea of butchery is easy within stumbling distance. So in that, it must be understood that the imprisonment of the Japanese was not less disgusting than that of the Jews.
In reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell To Manzanar, I was reminded of an experience that I had years ago. I was working at an insurance company in Santa Clara, handing out maps. One day an older Japanese man came in for a map. I opened up a map & traced out his route for him. I did the same thing 20-30 times day, but something in our exchange blossomed. It blossomed into the rare transformation of inane interaction into true communication.
He told me about his wife & his kids. He told me how he had been to India & had ridden on the back of an elephant. Then he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He told me about how he had been interned during the war. He told me (without saying the name) about Manzanar. He kept it brief & light but it affected me. I remember feeling shame & rage. He must have seen it in my eyes, because he told me something else. He told me that he joined the army and served ‘his country’.
I remember how shocked I was. I still feel it now. ”How could you serve a country that had done that to you?” I asked. He smiled. ”Because it’s my country.” I don’t remember anything after that. Probably because the conversation didn’t last much longer. I was probably called away to some other task. The conversation had only lasted about ten minutes in all, but I believe it burned itself permanently into me.
So when, Houston tells of how her brother had done the same thing, I instantly remembered that man, that wonderful man. And at the end of the book I was completely frozen when Houston told how, after the war & their return to Los Angeles, her family moved to Santa Clara. The reality that man very well could have been Woodrow Wakatsuki moved me in ways that I can’t truly express. It all came alive. The whole damn thing came to life in one moment. History is not dead. It is not words on a page. It is living all around us. We are in it. We are not separated from Manzanar. When I read about slavery in this country, I want to believe that I would have been different than all the others who accepted it. I want to believe that I would have recognized the humanity of all people. I want to believe that I would have refused to accept the excuses of “they’re animals” & “they’re property”. When I read about Auschwitz I want to scream out. I want to believe I would not have been another apathetic or fearful German. I want to believe great things of myself. I want to believe that my principles have meaning. Don’t you? Don’t you want to believe that you would have known what was right at the time? Don’t you want to believe that things could have been different?
But where we when the Hutu were exterminating the Tutsi “cockroaches”? We were on the sidelines. Somehow we forget that history is now. So ask yourself how we allow Joseph Kony to create his own holocaust. Why do we silently accept the passing of the NDAA? Ask yourself why we turn a blind eye to Shirley Phelps-Roper’s “God Hates Faggots” signs & Pat Robertson’s televised daily preaching that homosexuals are animals. If we want history to be better then we must be the ones to change it. Someday we will be nothing but words on a page as well. How do we want to be remembered?