More attention needs to to be paid to the part of American history that Jan Jarboe Russell details in her exquisitely researched and written THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY.
That Japanese, Japanese-Americans, Germans, German-Americans, Italians, and Italian-Americans were interned in camps in the United States during World War II is a generally known fact. And if you know a little bit more about it, you know that the conditions were harsh and that the government has more or less apologized for it. But Pearl Harbor had been attacked, so the Japanese on the West Coast were suspect. And Hitler was known to be trying to infiltrate America, so the Germans were suspect.
On the face of it, makes sense. The real world implications and cause and effect make sense.
Until they don’t.
Until you realize that little of it was fair, that FDR and Earl Warren and Francis Biddle – now seen as heroic paragons of American virtue and pride and civil rights – acted in ways so very much against those principles. They did it out of fear, which is ironic given that FDR is so very well-known for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was fear that led him to order everyone, based on little more than the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the spelling of their names to be rounded up and put in camps in the harshest climates in America.
All of that sounds eerily familiar if you know anything about the early days of Nazism, before the extermination.
Jan Jarboe Russell focuses on Crystal City, a Texas camp that held up to 4,000 at one time. Crystal City was special because families lived there. There were houses and there were schools and hospitals and even a camp swimming pool. But the Japanese and German families could not leave because their fathers were considered enemies of America because they had been born in Germany and Japan. Some of them were dangerous. Most were not. But the American government wanted to rescue Americans caught in Japanese and German territory and the way to do that, as they saw it, was to exchange people. So they told the men that if their wives and children, American born children who counted as citizens of the USA, volunteered to come to the camps, they could live as a family. The volunteers could not leave. The volunteers were meant to be repatriated, whether they wanted it or now, back to Germany and Japan.
Focusing on the experiences of Sumi, a Japanese teenager in Crystal City, and Ingrid, a German teenager, the book uses them as examples of how the all-American children of immigrants went from hope and happiness to internment and fear. Sumi was returned to Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ingrid was returned to Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Their fathers wanted to go, they went because their fathers said so, their fathers saw no other option, and their fathers regretted it in the end.
The heroes of this story, this particular part of American history, are not FDR and the leaders who “won” World War II. The heroes are the people who kept their dignity when others tried very hard to take it from them. The heroes are the people who were told what to be, told that they failed at it, told what to do, and still came back to be good and do good.
All of this seems even more appropriate to read today, as so many people would have us fear and exclude all Muslims because a few have been bad. It makes me wonder if this is a part of history we really want to repeat?
(I received a copy of THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)