Travelling north from Death Valley, we stopped in at Manzanar. We felt it was important to connect the boys to a tangible reminder of how ugly and inhumane a great democracy like America can allow itself to become. Manzanar was one of ten camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, having been forcibly removed from the communities they were residing in. Being the best preserved, it has come under the protection of the National Park Service.
We started in the exhibition area that adjoins the Visitor Center. The displays were informative and engaging and really helped the boys grasp what had happened in wartime America and what unchecked intolerance can lead to. They were staggered to learn that even Japanese American soldiers, returning from fighting for America, were subject to abuse simply because of their heritage. They could not comprehend the degree of prejudice that would lead to a democracy legislating in order to subject men, women, and children to such treatment. They understood the history and the placement of Manzanar in a wider context of historic examples of a nation legislating in favour of intolerance but they could not comprehend the inhumanity. Sometimes it is simply impossible to explain hate. Because they could most relate to it, they were most moved by the section dedicated to the history of children in the camp. These children included orphans who were removed from institutions and relocated to the camp because somehow tiny orphaned children were seen as a threat to national security because they happened to have Japanese heritage. All of the exhibits were incredibly emotive. It was impossible not to be moved. It was impossible not to be provoked into asking questions. How did people allow this to happen? What do we need to do to ensure it can never happen again?
Most of the fabric of the camp was destroyed in the couple of years immediately following its closure. An attempt at erasing the past, perhaps. What we saw when we stepped outside, therefore, was really a reconstruction of some of the huts and an indication of where the others would once have stood. We found we were walking around in almost complete silence as it seemed neither we nor our fellow visitors could find the ability to absorb what we were taking in and articulate our response. The huts had been furnished to illustrate how the internees lived. It must have been so horrendously difficult to go from living in private houses to living in these flimsy bunk houses with little or no privacy. Further, the temperatures during the warm months must have been completely awful and in winter they must have been bitterly cold. The furnishings and personal items in the reconstructed huts really breathed life into the place. It brought the political and national history of the place into personal, individual focus. Seeing a tiny pair of shoes tucked in beside a bedstead has rarely been so poignant.
The last location we visited at Manzanar was the cemetery. I think I read that over 140 people died while held at Manzanar. Most were buried elsewhere but a few were interred on site. The remains of many of those were then relocated after the camp was closed in 1945. I love cemeteries. They are among my favourite places and I always feel comfortable when wandering around a cemetery. This cemetery, however, was haunting not because of the dead but because of its wider context. The whole of Manzanar was haunting. It was just that the isolated cemetery, scratched out of the desert dust, the snow capped mountains looming in the background, seemed to encapsulate the utter awfulness of Manzanar. Never again.