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Fast forgetting Utah’s concentration camp

by on August 10, 2012

On a recent assignment for Salt Lake Magazine, I visited the site of the Topaz concentration camp in Utah’s West Desert. In World War II, 11,00 American citizens were imprisoned in Topaz simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.

The people of Delta with the help of former internees and their families, are building a museum to keep alive forever the memory of the injustice that happened 15 miles outside of their town.

I was compelled to ask the internees I met if they thought something like Topaz (photo left, a fragment of a Boy Scout buckle in the ruins of the camp) could happen again in America. Considering what their nation had done to them, I was amazed, judging by their joy in life and wicked senses of humor, how sane they are.
Still, their answers my question are anything but upbeat and offer a glimpse of an America many of us want to ignore.

Ken Ota, 91, who was in Topaz until he was drafted into the U.S. Army, has no doubt about what his country is capable. “It all depends on who the opposition is and who’s in charge.

Amy Ota, his wife, who spent her teens in the camp, remembers the kindship between the detainees and the black railroad porters when the Japanese-Americans were shipped on blacked out trains from the Bay Area to Delta.

“The black railroad workers were so kind to us.” she said. “I guess they knew what it was like.”

Toru Saito, who had been imprisoned in Topaz from the age of four through eight, is skeptical that America has learned a lesson. “That stuff about ‘never forget Topaz’ is bullshit,” says the retired mental health worker. “The truth is, some people even [in Delta] don’t know anything about it.”
Saito remembers that during a past visit to Delta, an elderly woman told him, “We treated you people better than you treated our prisoners.”

“What do you say to that?” said Saito, shown right. “I tried to tell her, ‘We are your people. Our government put its own people in concentrations camps.’ But I was wasting my breath.”

“It’s going to happen over and over again,” Saito says. “It’s the nature of man to find someone weaker—and push them down. Look at Guantanamo.”

Willie Ito taught himself animation while a child at Topaz and went on to work for Disney (Ito created the iconic “Lady and the Tramp” spaghetti scene.). “I’d like to bring the critics of building the museum out here and say, ‘Can you live like this? We did.’ “

If you think they sound paranoid, take a minute to remember Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s immigration reform idea. When Chaffetz ran for his seat in 2008, immigration was a hot issue (it still is) and Chaffetz made points with the political far right by suggesting that if elected, he would round up illegal immigrants and put them in “tent camps” surrounded with barbed wire.

Topaz is in Chaffetz’s district. I wonder if he’s ever visited.

Glen Warchol also writes about arts, culture and politics in Salt Lake Magazine

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