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Jewish Museum Remembers Japanese Internment with ‘Then They Came For Me’

Public school children salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. April 20, 1942, San Francisco, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange. National Archives. Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Japanese American Owned Store. March 13, 1942, Oakland, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange. National Archives. Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.



They stared with curious eyes through the slats of a truck built for hauling livestock. They were a group of children among the 120,000 civilians of Japanese heritage confined to camps in 1942. Two months after Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, interning all Japanese living in California, Oregon and Washington state. Many were U.S. citizens and none were accused of a crime. They were simply members of what was deemed as the wrong race.

The photograph of those children in the truck is part of the current exhibition at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, “Then They Came for Me.” The title comes from remarks by German theologian Martin Niemöller, speaking of Hitler’s rise to power: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The relevance of the wartime internment to the museum’s mission is easily understood. “It’s a shared experience of prejudice solely based on race, an internment sole based on race,” says curator Molly Dubin. The relevance to contemporary immigration and social justice issues is also apparent. The bulk of the exhibit consists of enlarged photographs on display panels accompanied by text. Many were taken by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers, acclaimed photographers employed by the federal government to document the internment. Eventually one of the captives, Toyo Miyatke, was able to take some of the pictures included in the exhibit.

“Then They Came for Me” contextualizes the racism that made Executive Order 9066 possible with a panel that reviews the antiAsian legislation that culminated with the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Japanese immigration altogether.

The internment photos tell heartbreaking stories of ordinary civilians removed from their homes and businesses to camps in remote places. Telling signage is seen in one photo: EVACUATION SALE: FURNITURE MUST BE SOLD. The Japanese received pennies on the dollar for real estate as well as personal possessions. Each internee was allowed to carry only a single suitcase into captivity. In 1988 each survivor was paid $20,000 in reparations.

The photos document long lines of Japanese, dressed in their Sunday best, walking under heavy guard to waiting trains. An elderly blind man is helped down from a train by soldiers. The faces of the captives are impassive, yet sadness and concern

seep through. An ugly set of faces is visible in a photo of a crowd watching as a convoy of internees pass by. Jaws are hardened while others smirk. A few bystanders seem to jeer at the Japanese.

Camp life is well documented, including wooden guard towers topped with machine guns and surrounded by barbed wire. The barracks stand on dusty ground and a woman teaches children on a wooden porch in lieu of school. At one of the largest camps, Manzanar, internees are seen harvesting tomatoes. Some detainees were given leave to find work outside the camps. Others demonstrated their unbroken patriotism by volunteering for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated units in the European theater. The 12,000 internees who refused to sign a loyalty oath were transferred to harsher confinement at Tule Lake.

Although one panel reproduces an air raid poster hung in San Francisco, “Then They Came for Me” underplays the panic that ensued after Pearl Harbor as it played out against the endemic anti-Asian racism of American popular culture, nor does it investigate the political pressure behind Roosevelt’s fateful decision to issue Executive Order 9066. The exhibit does valuable service by underlining the Orwellian language used by the U.S. The forced removal of the Japanese was called an “evacuation” and the camps innocuously designated as “relocation centers.”

“Then They Came for Me” runs through May 29 at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, visit jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.

Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation. May 9, 1942, Hayward, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange. National Archives. Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

David Luhrssen is the author of World War II on Film and other books on American cultural history. He is managing editor of the Shepherd Express.