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Tuesday, August 2, 2016


      Imagine this nightmare happening to you. Government officials tack up posters that say, "Everyone in your neighborhood will be relocated. You have three weeks to dispose of everything except what you can carry". 
    Buses arrive. You, your wife and kids, and even grandma, are forced to climb aboard. You are driven away from the home you will probably never see again.

     Two days later you are rolling through a desolate, sun-scorched desert. In the distance you  see the guard towers of a prison. Your bus passes through a barbed-wire fence that surrounds 430 tar-papered barracks. This is your new home. 
    You will live here for years. You and thousands of others endure this because your ancestors came from an unpopular country. 

     This nightmare came true for 110,000 Japanese- Americans in 1942, at the beginning of World War II.


   I knew about it and knew it was wrong but never gave it much thought. This ended when we discovered the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah last week.

Camp map

  The Topaz Japanese-American internment camp was one of ten  spread across desolate places throughout the      United States.
     For three and a half years, 11,000 people lived in the camp located a few miles northwest of Delta, Utah, a rural Mormon town. It is far from everything, 125 miles south of Salt Lake City. Most of Topaz's internees came from the San Francisco Bay area. Forty-five percent had lived in my wife's hometown, Berkeley, California.
   Museum sign
     This sad part of our country's history was slowly being forgotten when a local high school English teacher, Jane Beckwith, took up the cause.  In 1982 she had her journalism students do research and write about the camp that closed thirty-six years earlier. They soon recognized that this was an important part of their own history and rallied to preserve it.
     Ms. Beckwith led a thirty-three year effort to create one of the most outstanding small, historical museums in the country. Francesca and I got to meet Jane and thank her for all she has done.
     Through decades of pleading, begging, and generally espousing, "We have to do this!",  Ms. Beckwith and her crew cobbled together nearly $3 million in grants, gifts, and donations. They were able to preserve 630 acres of the camp's remains and build the Topaz Museum on Main Street in Delta. 
    As you can see, the building and its interior are magnificent designs. After the three-decade effort, it opened last year.


   It's inaugural exhibit is "When Words Weren't Enough", art created by people who were imprisoned there. 
    Many of the people interned were professional artists and art instructors such as Mine Okuba and Suiko Hikami. They created a body of work that told Topaz's story. Here are a few of the 125 pieces of art on paper that make up the museum's current exhibit.

                                                                 Two Coyotes


  Camp Topaz's Japanese-Americans artists, led by UC Berkeley instructor Churu Obata, created an art school for the internees' benefit. 
 Many of Delta's citizen's came to the shows.  A year after the camp opened, it became apparent that the new guests were not a threat and were in fact, good neighbors. The guard towers came down and the internees were allowed to visit the town.

 Part of one of the barracks has been re-created in the back of the building.  

   A real one was moved to the garden at the end of the property.


  Imagine living in this room. You are one of three families. The only privacy is afforded by sheets hanging down between the metal cots. There is no furniture other than what you can make from wood scraps.

      The art exhibit will end in September when the permanent collection will be installed. It will focus on the camp's history. The collection will include a dozen art pieces chosen from the current show.
    Delta is far from any interstate highway but when people learn about the Topaz, a rare desert gem, they will come.
     We all need to learn the lessons that Topaz teaches. In these challenging times it is not hard to imagine it happening again.

 Close to Home
 -A couple of days after our Topaz visit we stopped by to see our niece and her husband, Daniel Bissonnette. We learned that Daniel's grandmother, her parents, and many of his other Bay Area relatives were imprisoned at Camp Topaz during WW II.  

-473 of the incarcerated Japanese Americans were allowed to leave to join the US Army. They formed a highly effective combat team that fought in Europe. Their unit was one of the most highly decorated in WW II. Fifteen of them were killed fighting for our country.
                         Gold star mothers incarcerated     at Camp Topaz

-Not a single Japanese American was prosecuted or convicted for espionage against the U.S.

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