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Newly restored Topaz Museum clears the dust away from Utah's forgotten past

As a high school student in the World War II Japanese-American Topaz internment camp, Frank Kami didn’t see much reason for hope.

“I told (my teacher) ‘What future (do) we have? (We’ll) probably be sent to some island somewhere,’” Kami said. “She insisted that when the war was over, I would not be happy doing menial labor (and) that I needed to go to college and get into a profession that I would be happy to be in. She truly meant well for me and wanted me to buckle down in my studies.”

Kami, now in his 90s, took that advice to heart and graduated in 1943 with the first class of Topaz High School. He was drafted into the service in December 1944 and stationed in Germany; after the war he went to dental school at Marquette University with support from his wife, Miyo, who he married in 1949. They established a dental practice in Berkeley, California (where they were originally from) and were married for over 50 years before Miyo passed away.

But with mess halls, recreation centers and a hospital, school was just one part of Kami’s life at Topaz (located about 15 miles from Delta in central Utah), where he and his family were sent in 1942. Now, 75 years later, Kami will return to Topaz for the grand opening events of the newly remodeled Topaz Museum in Delta on July 7-8. The museum pays tribute to the over 11,000 people who were processed through Topaz between 1942 and 1945 and serves as a physical reminder to the injustices they endured, from losing homes, businesses and possessions to the blistering heat and freezing cold of the Utah desert.

Topaz Museum Board President Jane Beckwith said it’s important for people to see the museum so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

“I would like (museum visitors) to have a quickening of their heart or mind,” Beckwith said. “I would like them to resolve to not treat people this way. We had a board member who would always say that there should be no more perpetrators, no more victims and no more bystanders, and that bystander means you. It means me. It means we need to protect people who are unnecessarily feared or maligned, and if we don’t do that, then (Topaz) is what happens.”

Beckwith has been with the Topaz Museum since 1983, which shared space with the Great Basin Museum for years until the Topaz Museum was able to construct its own building next door in 2013, thanks to funding from the Japanese-American Confinement Sites grant program. But it was during those years without its own building that the Topaz Museum Board, which became a non-profit volunteer organization in 1995, realized no one was taking measures to protect what was left of the historical Topaz site, now just the barrack foundations and guard posts. (An official monument, erected by the Japanese-American Citizens League's Salt Lake City chapters in 1976, is located just outside the site.)

“In about 1993, people started putting houses out on the site, and I just could not figure out why somebody didn’t stop that,” Beckwith said. “… And then I found out that if something is on the national register … (and) nobody asked for federal money, then they could do whatever they want … and you could just tell that all that history was going to be destroyed. So … (the board) started raising money to purchase the land."

The Topaz Museum and Board began buying land in 1999, and Beckwith said they now own 634 acres of the original 640. She also said that their building opened as an art gallery in 2014, showing about 120 works that were done at Topaz or the Tanforan Assembly Center (a racetrack turned internment camp); but after closing for remodeling in November 2016, the museum re-opened in early 2017 as a more traditional historical museum, including photographs, artifacts and even an original recreation hall barrack behind the museum, though it's the full-sized barrack replica inside that includes original furniture made by Kami while he was in Topaz.

Born in 1924, Kami was a high school student in Berkeley, California, at the outbreak of World War II. Like many Japanese-Americans, he and his family were victims of Executive Order 9066, which was issued after Pearl Harbor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and put over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry in 10 internment camps on the western side of the U.S. Kami’s family — his parents, two older siblings and three younger siblings — were first sent to Tanforan in April 1942 before being sent to Topaz later that year. Kami would spend over two years there, working in the block mess hall in the mornings.

To Kami, the Topaz Museum is important because it helps people understand that part of history.

“People thought that we were interned during (the) war (because) our allegiance was with the enemy,” Kami said. “… (But) records show that no acts of sabotage (were) perpetrated against the U.S. by anyone of Japanese ancestry. By visiting the museum, one can see the peaceful nature of the internees and (that) the internment was wrong.”

A number of grand opening events are scheduled in both Salt Lake City and Delta, including a dinner and program at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel on July 7 and tours of the Topaz Museum and the internment site on July 8. Online registration for these events is now closed, but Beckwith said people can take their chances registering at 9:30 a.m. at Delta High School on July 8. However, registration is not required to attend the opening program at 10:30 a.m. at Delta High School.

Lunch will not be available after the opening program to those who are not registered, and though the museum will not be open to unregistered patrons on July 8, Beckwith encourages anyone to come on any other day during their regular hours.

If you go…

What: The Topaz Museum

When: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: 55 W Main St, Delta, Utah 84624

Admission: Free (donations encouraged)