An American Concentration Camp: Manzanar, California

The cemetery at Manzanar

In a time when anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise, a visit to Manzanar reminds one that the most shameful anti-Asian hate crime in our history was committed by the American government during World War II. Guilty of nothing, but targeted because of their Japanese descent, 120,000 Americans were forcibly rounded up, shorn from their homes and livelihoods and sent to live in desolate locations. Manzanar, in the Owens Valley between the snow-capped Sierra Mountains to the west and the scorching hot desert of Death Valley to the east, was one of those places.

The town of Manzanar (which means apple orchard in Spanish) had long lost any semblance of being verdant agricultural land By 1913, the Los Angeles Water Department had bought up all the water rights in the Owens Valley, and what was left of the water in the valley was being sent to the growing metropolis to the south. The federal government had to lease the land from the Los Angeles Water Department just to create this camp.

Only a few buildings remain at this sandy and wind-swept site where once hundreds stood: a mess hall, a latrine, a barrack and an auditorium. The Visitors Center is closed because of Covid, but visitors can still walk and drive through this National Historic Site.

A Mess Hall at Manzanar

Where the buildings have been torn down, ghostly outlines of the structures remain – here were the offices of the Manzanar “Free” Press, the community garden, rows upon rows of barracks, a school.

where the newspaper building once stood
Outlines of buildings

These camps were euphemistically called “relocation” or “reception” centers. While not death camps like Auschwitz, and despite some prior controversy over the term “concentration camp”, there is no doubt today that camps like Manzanar met this definition: a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution

The resilient Japanese people who were herded into this spot had the resourcefulness to try to create a semblance of normal life while they were here, forming schools, social clubs, newspapers. But just as with the orchestra of Terezin, these were the cries of humanity of a people from whom everything, including freedom, had been taken.

This incarceration was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1944 in Korematsu v United States and it was not until 2018 (!!!!) in Trump v Hawaii that the Supreme Court finally acknowedged, even while upholding Trump’s anti-Muslim and racist exclusion policies, that “The forcible relocation of U. S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority and that Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—“has no place in law under the Constitution.” 323 U. S., at 248 (Jackson, J., dissenting).

As I stood in the remains of the Manzanar cemetery, a man lingered for a long time over a gravesite. Perhaps it was that of a relative, or perhaps of his community.

a grave at Manzanar

.As a Jew whose religious identity was partly formed in my youth by the legacy of the Holocaust, as a Jew who grew up with “Never Forget”, I stood at Manzanar with sadness. I wanted to know more of the stories, to understand more of the legacy of this trauma. Perhaps it is time for me to read Farewell to Manzanar, and other accounts of this time. It is a reminder that I can never stop trying to understand the legacies of racism in this country and figuring out what I can do to change it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: