Monday, March 30, 2015

"The Train to Crystal City" by Jan Jarboe Russell (2015) A Review/Commentary

This is a very well written book. It takes on a very emotional topic. Therefore, this is not an ordinary review. But before I begin I want to say that; with the exception of the chapters dealing with the treatment of the Internees in America; I found this book to be very informative. 

The American policy at the end of the Second World War in regards to Displaced Persons has not been explored enough by past authors. Ms. Russell has done an excellent job in reporting on that aspect of our history. The apologist’s portions of this book are what made it difficult for me to do a "straight" review of it, without commenting on that aspect of the work. 

Note:  This paragraph is from a Wikipedia page about the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in the Philippines.  It is important that you read this paragraph before reading this book.

“Santo Tomas Internment Camp was the largest of several camps in the Philippines in which the Japanese interned enemy civilians, mostly Americans, in World War II. The campus of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila was utilized for the camp which housed more than 4,000 internees from January 1942 until February 1945. Conditions for the internees deteriorated during the war and by the time of the liberation of the camp by the U.S. Army many of the internees were near death from lack of food.”

Contrast the former description of Santo Tomas with the conditions, as described by the author, of the conditions in the Crystal City Internment Camp;

“In Crystal City the weather was sultry and hot and life settled into endeavors at normalcy. Eb and his crew worked overtime to keep iceboxes full. At Federal High School, fourteen students in the freshman class organized the Service Club. They worked in the library, distributed school supplies, cleaned blackboards and repaired desks.”

In addition, I have searched high and low for the death rates due to starvation and disease related to poor health and sanitary conditions in the Internment Camps in the United States. I have come away from that search empty handed. It is important to know these things before reading this book.

The story of the American internment camps of World War Two was not something openly explored in school when I was a kid. We had heard about the Japanese camps; which seemed somehow acceptable on two levels. The first was obvious; the Japanese had attacked us. The second was a bit more subtle. They were Asian. They were different. So, we put them in internment camps; interrupting lives, and in a way betraying our own beliefs.

But there is more to that neatly filed away story; the story of the Germans and Italians who were rounded up as well; even though their homelands had not attacked us. Even though; in many cases; their homeland was the same as ours. In this finely written book author Jan Russell opens that old sore and takes us for a look inside a darker chapter of our own history not often lit.

To begin with, let us agree that the internment camps in the United States were not the type of camps used by any of our enemies during the war. These were, for the most part, well thought out places that were even built with the advice and council of some of the leading citizens of the ethnicities who would be living in them. They were equipped with schools, hospitals, beauty parlors and athletic facilities.

They grew their own food and used the surplus to supply the nation’s war effort. Photographs taken by the inmates themselves bear all this out. Dorothea Lange photographed the Japanese aliens at the point of embarkation in San Francisco. The guards do not have weapons trained on the women and children; or the men. This was not Germany. And, neither were we the Japanese.

The memory of the Black Tom explosion of 1916 during the 3 years prior to our entry into World War One was still fresh in the minds of most Americans. Even today it still stands as one of the biggest disasters in American history. The ships were being loaded with ammunition bound for England and France. That explosion was the work of saboteurs working for Germany.

The Zimmerman telegram was still also at the forefront of many people’s minds. That was the telegram between the Germans and the Mexicans exploring the possibility of having Mexico stage an incursion on our southern border; drawing our attention away from the War in Europe and leading the way for a possible German invasion. Mexico would receive the return of the territories lost in the War with Mexico in the 1840”s.

When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, it was considered to be an extension of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles had left Germany reeling under an agreement to pay back the damages the war had inflicted on the European continent. It was believed that such a hard treaty would make it financially impossible for Germany to ever re-arm herself for a war of aggression.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor prematurely, she awakened the United States to the dual dangers facing the world. One in the Pacific; the other across the Atlantic in Europe; where we had been supplying the British with the materials of war for about 2 years under the Lend-Lease program. 
The author concentrates on the memories of the children from several displaced families in making her case against the United States and the Internment program. Two particular examples offer an insight into the experiences of a German family; while the other is Japanese.  The German family was headed by Mathias Eiserloh, who was married and had 3 children. He appears to have been a hardworking man who was trying to build a life for his family here in America. He emigrated here from Germany to live in the Cleveland area, where his sister had already begun a family.

The FBI had begun an investigation of him in 1941 before the war began at Pearl Harbor. A co-worker had given his name to the FBI based on the hysteria of the times; news columnists were already talking about the presence of “Fifth Columnists” in America. Indeed, one of the best movies of the year was about that very subject. It was called “All Through the Night” and starred Humphrey Bogart.

But, beyond that hysteria there were some facts that are still troubling, and no doubt contributed to the FBI’s interest in Mathias. Prior to the attack on Pearl, as well as the actual implementation of any Internment plans. Mathias was a former German officer in World War one; and this new war was nothing but the unfinished business of the first one. In 1935 a German official had traveled to the home of Mathias and presented him with the Iron Cross; which he had earned in the war.

And, in addition to this, Mathias was a vocal Anti Semite who railed against Roosevelt because he was really a secret Jew named Rosenfeld. He also expressed his support for Germany as she advanced across Europe in the early days of the war. He was visibly; and vocally; pro-Nazi.  Not the best example to have used in trying to engender sympathy for the subject at hand. While none of these things justify the abuses of the laws which took place; they do help in seeing why he was under suspicion to begin with.

Another German internee was Fritz Kuhn, who was the head of the Nazi Party in the United States. With over 100,000 members, this group paraded in uniform in NYC, and had collected money which Kuhn presented to Adolph Hitler in a visit to Germany in 1936 Olympics. These are hardly the actions of an innocent immigrant; to be sure. 

Then there was also Karl Kolb, who organized the prisoners and had the American flag torn down in the cafeteria and inside the compound. Much to the credit of the American in charge of the camp, the flag was removed to placate the radical Germans.

Some of the other examples used by the author are of Japanese families, and Italians; all of which contained something that compromised their “innocence.” One Japanese man used as an example of our “barbarism” was a member of the Konkokyo Federation of North America, which was a Shinto cult. They believed in the dogma of the militant leaders in Japan who launched the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The author claims to have interviewed over 50 former internees in writing this book and I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that claim. What puzzles me is why she chose to use the examples she did; which did nothing to gain my empathy.

But the book does work very well on the level of giving a good insight into just how the various camps came about and how they were organized. Particularly of interest is the main camp; Crystal City; located in Texas. The history of the area, and the site itself, make this book worth reading for that alone. These portions of the book; those without an agenda; were a pleasure to read. And, the book is carefully researched and contains a good index of the author’s sources. I just have a problem with the revisionist history concerning the camps themselves.

As for the subtitle of this book; "FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange"; Towards the end of the war and right after, some of the Internees were repatriated back to their homelands at the invitation of our government. But others, like Kolb, were sent whether they wanted to go or not.

The ones selected had all failed the test of democracy. Kuhn had even tried to blackmail Helena Rubinstein in 1939, just 3 years after giving Hitler that check. His ruse with Ms. Rubinstein was that she was to give him $5000,000 or her sister in Poland would be killed by the Nazi's. He was the leader of the American Bund at the time. He was arrested later for other crimes. He, along with other undesirables, was traded for American fighting men and barred from returning to the United States. Although the author may be troubled by this, I have no problem with it, whatsoever.

In short, while I agree that the steps taken to place Japanese, Italian and German immigrants in detention camps was not our finest hour; I do have to look at this subject in the context of the times in which it occurred. We were expecting war when the plans were formulated. And we had been viciously attacked when those plans were then put into motion.

Even as we buried our dead, we continued to do everything reasonable to protect ourselves and the immigrants. We continued the education of their children; and we saw to it that they were fed and clothed properly. We did all that we could to make life as normal as possible for the people who were related to the very people who were torturing and killing our sons and daughters in a bid for the conquest of the world.

The public sentiment in the hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked lent itself to vigilante actions. Conversely, there was also tremendous concern for the safety of the immigrants. It is always easy to play Monday morning quarterback; it requires little imagination to see the “could’ve; would’ve; should’ve” of history. But that’s all folly.

You see, in the end I just re-read the description of the Civilian Internment Camps run by the Japanese; and then I look at the Concentration Camps of the Nazi’s; and then comparing them to our own, I don’t feel bad about anything. As a matter of fact, I’m proud of the actions which my country took to save the world. 

Note: For a far more sympathetic picture of the Japanese Internment question, you could do no better than to see the film "Bad Day at Black Rock" with Spencer Tracy. Although it is fiction, it makes the same point as the author is trying to impart; in a far more sympathetic way.

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