Church Camp? No, Not Exactly
by Linda Okazaki
Most Americans know something about the internment of Japanese (immigrants and Americans) during World War II. Most of those incarcerated during this time were held first at Assembly Centers (primarily animal quarters at racetracks) and then sent to one of ten camps run by the War Relocation Authority. Few people know about the camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Fewer still realize that those camps also held Germans and Italians, their American families, and Japanese Latin Americans who were predominately from Peru. Crystal City was one of those camps. Located in south central Texas not far from the Mexican border, it was chosen for its distance from either coast. Created as a way to reunite enemy aliens with their families, the camp also served as part of an exchange program to bring Americans back to the United States. [i]
On 8 March 2014 I had the pleasure of attending a presentation and book signing by author Jan Jarboe Russell whose book, “The Train to Crystal City”, was published by Scribner in January of this year. She has toured the U.S. promoting this book. I was delighted to know that Northern California and Honolulu were on her schedule. Russell’s non-fiction book is noteworthy because in it she included all ethnic groups incarcerated in the U.S. during WWII. She not only described the events leading up to the detention of individuals, but she focused on the lives of two American girls, one of German ancestry and one of Japanese. Russell conducted many interviews in her research, but the lives of Sumi and Ingrid took center stage in the book. Russell also brought to light a different side of the prisoner of war exchange as she described the family of Irene Hasenburg, a Jewish woman who survived the horrors of Bergen-Belsen entirely because of this prisoner of war exchange program.
I was intrigued as Russell described her research to the audience of mostly Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Russell explained how, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, she met architecture professor, Alan Taniguchi. He was the first Asian person she had ever met. When she asked him how his family came to Texas, he said they were “in camp”. Anyone familiar with Japanese American history knows the meaning of “camp”, but she innocently asked if he meant church camp? No, it wasn’t exactly church camp.
This early encounter with Taniguchi set the stage for what would eventually become a book about Crystal City. The events Russell wrote about are historically accurate, but the author created a work that also captivated me. As Russell described her book that sunny afternoon in March, her voice faltered, her emotions were palpable. This project touched Jan Jarboe Russell in unimaginable ways; she explained that during the writing process she found herself “weeping at the terrible injustice.”
Following Russell’s presentation of the book, two former internees participated in a panel discussion. Americans by birth, Nob Fukuda and Sumi Shimatsu both were detained at Crystal City; they and their families were featured prominently in the book. In addition, Irene Hasenburg’s son (she of Bergen-Belsen) was in the audience. There were 18 former Crystal City internees in attendance, all Nikkei, though Germans have attended other book signings. For many, it had been decades since they had seen one another. The passage of time made it difficult for some to recognize one another, but as the conversations bloomed, so did old friendships. Sumi has been instrumental in maintaining communication among these people. She has published a newsletter for Crystal City detainees for decades. For the Germans, there is a website that promotes communication about the experience: http://www.gaic.info/camp_doj.html.
Unfortunately, Crystal City did not close her doors until 1948, a concept difficult for many of us to imagine, considering that the war “ended” in August 1945.
From the perspective of a book lover, this was an interesting read. From the perspective of a genealogist, I found Russell’s method of citations to be interesting and unconventional. She chose to annotate her sources and notes at the end of the book, divided by chapter. Though unusual, I found this format to be academically useful; I can look back to her sources quickly and easily. As a genealogist, the first part of a book that I generally review is the index; I was not disappointed.
My ties to Crystal City are personal. My father-in-law was detained there, along with his siblings, parents, aunt and uncle. Except for one sibling, the family was repatriated to Japan at the end of the war. The consequences of this matter have impacted the family for decades. Due to laws of the time, my husband and his sibling were born stateless. The “Train to Crystal City” helps to explain this tragic time in our history.
This book is a must read for those who have ties to Crystal City, but also for anyone researching Alien Enemy records in the United States. Be prepared to weep at the injustice, just as the author did.
[i] Texas Historical Commission, Crystal City Family Internment Camp: Enemy Alien Internment in Texas during World War II, 2011, (http://thc.state.tx.us/public/upload/crystal-city.pdf : accessed 16 March 2015); The Texas Observer, The Legacy of Crystal City, 14 January 2014, (www.texasobserver.org/otherness-among-us/ : accessed 16 March 2015); Denshō: The Japanese American Legacy Project, (www.densho.org: accessed 16 March 2015).