WWII: The Japanese, the Atomic Bomb, and Topaz Relocation Camp

I remember being in public school as a child and a teacher telling us how ashamed we should be over the treatment of the Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII.

I agree with that teacher, but as a child I really didn’t see how it was relevant to me, the United States today (or back in the 80s), and why I should feel ashamed for something awful that people I never knew did to other people I never knew “so long ago.”

So I get it now. And I realize it wasn’t that long ago. But I hate having things pushed on me (like guilt and shame) and I didn’t want to push that on to my children, especially because just like I didn’t, they probably wouldn’t really grasp and feel the violations as children as much as they will as adults, or even youth when we come back to this topic. They will “get it,” just like I get it now.

Still, I really knew nothing of the Japanese internment camps (or even why the Japanese were in WWII to begin with), so it was very interesting for me, and hopefully for them, to see how the Pacific Theatre was related to the European Theatre and what went on there (and here.)

Our first introduction to why the Japanese were even in WWII came with our study of the causes of WWII. This was all news to me.

Then we really started getting into things when we looked more at the battles of WWII, especially the attack on Pearl Harbor. (I highly recommend this book – though it may be a little long for smaller children. I suppose you cold read it over multiple days.)51YJR9hbM2L._SX444_BO1,204,203,200_

We didn’t cover much of the other Pacific battles, except for short chapters or paragraphs in other books.

But we did spend quite a bit of time learning about (and visiting) internment and relocation camps.

DSC07826The book on the top left is a “You Choose” choose your own adventure book. We got to pick 3 different relocation camps to be a part of and experience life in them. We learned all about the Issei and the Nisei, we learned about Yes-Yes’s and No-No’s, and a lot more. We really enjoy this series, and this particular book did not disappoint in factual information and entertainment as well. (If a book doesn’t interest your kids, it doesn’t matter how true it is.) My kids are so funny about it, though. They always choose the “safe” option because they don’t want to die or go to prison. (As far as we got through the book, you can’t die or go to prison anyway.)

The top left is a picture book of a little boy from the Pacific Northwest who gets sent with his family to Minidoka, up in Idaho. There is absolutely nothing for the internees to do, and tensions are rising between generations, so one day his father decides to build a baseball field. The story follows the little boy home, back to Seattle (?) where he faces prejudice after the war. But once again, baseball saves him.

Minidoka is relatively close to us, but too far away to take a day trip. However, we found a relocation camp a little closer and decided to end our WWII unit with a major field trip!

But before we were done, we had to finish the war.

The third book in that photo is actually about the Japanese ambassador in Lithuania, who saved the lives of thousands of Polish refugees fleeing the Nazis in Poland. Despite orders, and at risk to himself and his family, he wrote visas day after day so the Jews who flocked to him could escape into Russia. It is a very touching story, and especially the follow up.

We had already covered the end of the European Theatre, but of course the Pacific had much different ending.

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This book was fascinating. It is FULL of very good (sad and terrifying) information. It is a little intense for small children, and is kind of intense even for medium aged children (which I consider my older to be) so I read it and edited out parts as I went. The pictures were not graphic, although they do show a few people with burns. However, because of our Holocaust experience/mistake (preview your youtube movies!!) I didn’t want to take chances. I told the kids what was in the photo before I showed it to them, and I actually didn’t let them look at a few of the pictures if I thought it would upset them.

The raw information in this book – and I’m sure they only skimmed the surface – is powerful. I do recommend it, but encourage you to read it first to see if it is too much for the younger kids to handle. (Because some of it certainly is.)

With the war and unit over we were ready to hit the road… out into the middle of nowhere!! (And my kid’s learned a new phrase: “smack dab” as in the middle of nowhere.) Although depending on what you are looking for, there is actually a lot of history and neat things to see out there. Well, kind of.

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The first stop was the Topaz Museum.DSC08105

We got to town an hour before it opened so we had to play in the (awesome!!) park across the street, but it was well worth the wait – and well worth going to the museum BEFORE going out to the actual site of the camp. This museum, although small, is excellent. There were two short films to watch before heading into the galleries. The first film shows artwork the internees made while they were at the camp (they had an art school there), and the second film contains clips from a silent film made with a smuggled video camera by one of the internees of the people in camp, with a voice over narration by the cameraman. It was so powerful and gave meaning to everything else we saw in the museum.

Although there was much to see, and even original artwork from the artists who lived and studied there, the most meaningful to me was the replica of a barracks room, filled (as much as they really were) with actual items used during those years at the camp. Family members in California have donated the items to the museum, so everything you see is authentic and original, down to the clothes and boots in the closet!

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There is an actual building in the back, once a recreation hall, that you can go in and that they are restoring to look more authentic. It’s been through a lot and needs a little work, as you can imagine.

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This is just one piece of artwork on display. Our tour guide told us that even though there were barbed wire fences and guards on towers with guns, the people could leave anytime they wanted. Very often the people would just climb through the fence and head out into the mountains to gather supplies for their artwork or for their buildings. One man, however, did get shot and killed doing this, but other than that it was a very normal and acceptable thing.

In fact, she said, the officials at the camp were encouraging people to leave. They were free to go whenever they wanted, with the catch that they had to move east, not west back to California, which is where the vast majority of the internees at this camp had come from, the Bay Area in particular. The ledgers and books are all there on display and you can see that many of the internees left and relocated themselves to Chicago. However, our guide noted, that often meant splitting up families and heading off into the unknown into a nation at war with their home country. Many of them stayed and just waited out the war, even though things were very difficult in the camps.

Which brings us to the camp.

There isn’t much left.

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They had had schools and baseball fields (yes, more than one) and churches and temples.

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In fact, Topaz was (what did she call it?) the headquarters of the Buddhist church in north America. Something like that. This is what is left of the temple and garden. Just some stone pavers in the sand and a few larger rocks they had to bring down by hand from the mountains to beautify the garden.

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And there are some monuments right next door, surrounded by a chain link fence.

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This is the original fence, from inside next to block 1 (of 42) looking to the road on the north side.

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So, if you happen to live not too far from smack dab in the middle of nowhere (you can easily see why they chose this site for a camp), this is a great field trip idea to supplement your WWII study.

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