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A Family Interrupted

No one among his wife's Japanese American relatives talked about their time in the camps. His family's own travails, on the other hand, were an open book. But silence has its ultimate reward.

November 27, 2005|Matt Bai | Matt Bai is a Washington-based writer for the New York Times Magazine. This essay was adapted from the anthology "I Married My Mother-In-Law," edited by Ilena Silverman, to be published in January. Copyright 2005 by Matt Bai. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books.

Some Japanese Americans fled inland to states they had never before seen, but more than 120,000 of them reported to a series of concentration camps--that is, by definition, what they were--in seven states. These families sold their homes and businesses for next to nothing, or simply left them behind for others to claim. The reasoning behind the internment was nicely summarized by Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt, who carried out the relocation, in a letter he wrote to the Army's chief of staff in 1943: "The continued presence of a large, unassimilated, tightly knit and racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion along a frontier vulnerable to attack constituted a menace which had to be dealt with."

George had already enlisted in the Army by the time Roosevelt's order was handed down. While his parents and siblings lived behind barbed wire in North Dakota and Arizona, George fought alongside other Japanese Americans in a segregated regiment, the legendary 442nd. Somewhere in that house, probably in a dusty box, he kept a cluster of Purple Hearts.

Ellen's mother, meanwhile, went to high school in the notorious camp at Manzanar. "The Manzanar reception center will be a self-sufficient community, with a 150-bed hospital staffed by Japanese doctors and nurses, community kitchens, a library, motion-picture theater and houses of worship for all denominations, including Buddhism," a wire service reported cheerily as the first prisoners arrived in the spring of 1942. "From this elevation of 3,700 feet, the Japanese evacuees will enjoy, if they feel that way, some of the most magnificent scenery in the United States."

In fact, these lucky internees lived in barracks, most without plumbing or stoves, where two families were often crammed into a 24-by-20 room. They were encouraged to foster an environment of normalcy, working low-wage jobs and electing representatives of a camp government. The photographer Ansel Adams shot sparse, haunting portraits at Manzanar, where he captured the surreal quality of its small-town pretensions. One of his photos features a smiling, attractive high school student in a dress, twirling a baton against an ominous mountain backdrop. The girl is Ellen's Aunt Flo.

Far from conveying the impression that they felt angry or unjustly persecuted, Ellen's parents almost never talked about this history with their two daughters. When her mother did make a rare passing mention of the internment, it was lighthearted, as if such an ordeal were a fairly typical childhood experience. Ellen recalled her aunts and uncles mentioning their days in "camp," when they spent hours rolling up balls of tinfoil for recycling into metal. Ellen was a teenager before she realized they hadn't been talking about the YMCA.

"It never really had any impact on us," Ellen told me. I asked what her sister was doing now. Ellen said she was an immigration lawyer.

"And you don't think there's a connection there?" I asked.

"I guess I never really thought about it," she said.

I wanted to know where her family had been held and for how long, how her father had been wounded, why he had ended up fighting when others in the family had not. She had vague notions about all of this but admitted that she had never really felt at liberty to ask. Her father wasn't given to long explanations. Her mother guarded the most routine information as if she alone understood its hidden value; she didn't like for outsiders to know her address or telephone number, and she adamantly refused to be photographed.

I will admit that Ellen's shadowy family history was one of the things that drew me to her. Her relatives had suffered, and this was something I could understand; Jews have elevated suffering to a kind of performance art. That Ellen's parents had risen beyond discrimination and ostracism made them, in some weird cultural way, more like my own forebears, chased by bigotry across Europe and Asia and, finally, to a new country whose muted resentments were more subtle and insidious.

What I could not understand, on a cultural level, was the secrecy. In my family, every small injustice is scrubbed and polished, like an heirloom, so it can be measured against the injustices of others. An especially harrowing trip to the grocery store becomes a tale of victimization to be repeated through the ages at family weddings and funerals. To remain silent in the face of misfortune, however petty or subjective, would be an abdication of our inheritance.

In Ellen's family, the determination not to acknowledge injustice is equally willful. When the Los Angeles Times published its photos of the century, it included one of Ellen's grandfathers, Nancy's father, that was taken the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a charmer of a man who ran through a succession of jobs--for a while, he held a stake in a hotel in East L.A. that is still visible from the freeway--and, according to family lore, was given to gambling.

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