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Topaz Museum preserves lessons learned from Japanese-American internment

SHARE Topaz Museum preserves lessons learned from Japanese-American internment

DELTA — Hisashi Sugaya was just over 2-years-old when his family left the Topaz Internment Camp for Japanese-American citizens.

Sugaya, who is now 74, had not yet been born when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Sugaya's mother had been pregnant with him at the time, and he was one of the many children born behind the barbed wire fences of the internment camp.

After they were allowed to return to their lives, Sugaya said his family remained quiet about the years they spent in the camp. Like many Japanese-Americans who had been held in camps, his family had a desire to continue about their lives, and while he knew where he had been born, his early life and the experiences of his parents were rarely discussed.

"There was a term called 'ganbatte,' which means to endure and try to live through the thing," Sugaya said. "I think once they got out of their camps, it was kind of like, 'Well, let's get on with life.'"

Sugaya said interest in the camps came with the younger generations in Japanese-American families, who began wondering what happened at Topaz.

With the grand opening Friday of the Topaz Museum, Sugaya and many of those interned at the Topaz camp will perhaps finally have a piece of their troubled history preserved.

Sugaya learned much about the camps from reading and personal research, rather than from his parents. It was his search to know more that brought him into contact with the Topaz Museum, of which he is now an active board member.

"We have a lot to tell in this museum," said Jane Beckwith, president of the Topaz Museum board.

Beckwith's efforts to preserve the history of the camp began in 1982 when she started compiling information about the site and its detainees. She eventually formed the museum board in 1996 and worked with Sugaya and a number of other people who had experience in the camp to document the living conditions and lessons learned from the internment order.

Efforts to buy the land where the camp sat began when Sugaya and Beckwith made a visit to the site west of Delta. Sugaya had toured the area with a couple of friends who had worked previously in securing land deals for historic preservation. He said the Topaz Museum was able to begin negotiations with the man who at the time owned almost two-thirds of the internment camp land, eventually securing the first of the museum's purchases.

Interest in preserving the camp's history also arose from several other "pilgrimages" of former detainees and their descendents. These visits helped gather supporters to the museum project and eventually people began gathering their family stories, documents and personal possessions, which would eventually fill out the museum's exhibits.

In one of the exhibits, a list of the Topaz camp "Do's and Dont's" helped to illustrate the restrictions detainees lived under. While regular buses took people from the internment camp to the town of Delta, detainees were not to move about the camp without notifying their "block manager," and they were instructed not to use the phones in town.

Those that did make regular ventures into the town often faced a population with negative feelings about the detainees.

Bill Gardner, a 90-year-old Delta resident, was around when the internment program started, and saw that many Delta locals at the time had been upset about friends and family captured or killed during the war. He said the local reaction to the detainees was mixed. While Gardner's father had fostered a correspondence with some of the detainees, other Delta residents didn't want the detainees around the town.

"You've got to hate your enemy," Gardner said. "It's too bad."

When he was 16, Gardner helped feed workers who took part in the construction of the camp, braving the heavy winds, dust and sweltering summer heat to earn a little money before school.

He said the homes were constructed quickly and cheaply.

"It was just miserable, I imagine, their living conditions," Gardner said.

Sugaya said one of the biggest lessons that the museum focuses on is the civil rights cases, such as Koramatsu v. United States, which challenged the executive order.

"The reason behind it wasn't so much military as it was racism and hysteria, and there was no political leadership to stand up for the Japanese-Americans," Sugaya said.

Sugaya said he hopes the museum will both demonstrate the experiences of those Japanese-American citizens who were interned, as well as encourage visitors to consider the civil rights implications of the events.

He said he feels there is a strong connection between anxiety that some Americans felt toward people of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor, and how he believes some Americans feel today toward Muslims.