The ProsenPeople

New Reviews

Friday, January 18, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:



 

Tu Bishvat Reading

Friday, January 18, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of JBC's Tu Bishvat reads here.





 

Debating the Term "Concentration Camp"

Thursday, January 17, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Eric L. Muller wrote about the photographer Bill Manbo, mass incarceration and Kodachrome, and asked: What does a concentration camp look like? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my blog posts this week I have written about the Kodachrome slides that Bill Manbo took while imprisoned with his family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. Today I return to the question with which I began: was Heart Mountain an American “concentration camp?” 

Controversy over the use of the term "concentration camp" erupted in the late 1990s when an exhibition about the camps for Japanese Americans was slated to open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York. The exhibition, created by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, was entitled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience.”  Some American Jewish groups, most prominently the American Jewish Committee, objected to the title. They argued that using the term “concentration camp” to describe places like Heart Mountain diminished the suffering of those (mostly Jews) who lived and died in the Nazi camps in Europe. Eventually a compromise was negotiated: the exhibition would retain its title but feature an explanatory panel disclaiming any attempt to compare the American camps to those in Europe.  

This did not end the matter. Over the following years, activists in the Japanese American community and some scholars continued to encourage all who speak and write about the imprisonment of Japanese American to use the term “concentration camp.” Their position continued to attract support until finally the national Japanese American Citizens League adopted a resolution endorsing it as a preferred term

I won’t use the term in my own writing and speaking about the American camps, except in situations where I have (and wish to spend) lots of time explaining exactly why I’m using it.

The best argument for the term is that it’s historically authentic. Lots of people called the camps for Japanese Americans “concentration camps” at the time. Take a quick look at these little clips from stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from 1942:

Another argument for the term – one that I’ve never found terribly persuasive – is the dictionary. Advocates for the term maintain that the dictionary definition of “concentration camp” unambiguously fits places like Heart Mountain. I suppose it depends a little on your choice in dictionary. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1993), a “concentration camp” is “a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or foreign nationals) are detained or confined and sometimes subjected to physical and mental abuse and indignity.” That’s certainly in the ballpark, but what if you prefer to look at the Oxford Dictionary of English (3d ed. 2010)? There you find the following definition:

“a place in which 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 labour or to await mass execution.  The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe 1933–45, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.”

The second sentence of this definition captures why a dictionary can’t solve our problem: however accurate the first sentence is in describing the American camps, the second sentence rings true about conventional usage. You say “concentration camp” to most people and what they hear is “Auschwitz.”

I believe that many of the advocates for the term “concentration camp” understand this connotation – and that it’s this very link that makes the term attractive. Rightly trying to correct the misperception that the American camps were justified and life in them pleasant, they want a word that will jolt people. I once attended a talk where a leading Japanese American advocate for the term “concentration camp” urged the audience to adopt the term because it would “get people in the gut.” Exactly. But the major reason why the term “gets people in the gut” is Auschwitz.

One other common argument in favor of the term “concentration camp” maintains that the error is in using that term not for Heart Mountain but for Auschwitz. The German camps, this argument goes, were in actuality “death camps,” not concentration camps. (Koji Steven makes this argument here, for example.)

In the name of trying to correct historical error, this position makes big errors of its own. The Germans devised and ran many different kinds of imprisonment camps in Europe for Jews and others.  I mentioned four camps in my first post back on Monday: Westerbork, Flossenbürg, Buchenwald, and Sobibor. Each of these differed from the others. Very few people died at Westerbork, and killing was not its specific purpose. More and more died at each of the other listed camps in order, and virtually every person taken to Sobibor perished. But from this list, only Sobibor was a “death camp” – a camp built for the purpose of killing people. To insist that Heart Mountain was a “concentration camp” while the German camps were “death camps” is to collapse all of the horrific complexity of German wartime incarceration into a simple and mistaken idea. It misses the point that Buchenwald, which my grandfather survived, was importantly different from Sobibor, which his brother did not.

Lastly, and most importantly: all four of the German camps I listed (and all of the others I didn’t) were points on an importantly different spectrum from the American camps run by the War Relocation Authority. The German facilities – regardless of whether they functioned chiefly as transit camps or forced labor camps or death camps – were in service of a system of (at very best) disregard for the simple humanity and survival of those who passed through them that never entered the American experience.

Eric L. Muller's most recent book, Colors of Confinement, is now available.

Making It Human

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 | Permalink
Eric L. Muller will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The question that I am exploring in this series of blog posts is what a “concentration camp” looks like. In the first post, I noted that there has been tension between some American Jews and some Japanese Americans over the use of the term “concentration camp” for the prison camps that held Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. In the second post, I tried to describe a bit of what was unique about the American camps — the ways in which they arose from some of the same kinds of causes as the German camps while being administered by a government agency with a very different set of views from the SS. Tomorrow, in my last post, I’ll say a few words about how I’ve resolved the dilemma about using the term “concentration camp” in my writing about the American camps.

Today, I’d like to say a little bit about Bill Manbo, the photographer who took the Kodachrome slides featured in Colors of Confinement, and his family. It’s often rightly said that the number “six million” is an abstraction and that the truth of the Holocaust can only really be appreciated in the context of a real human life. The same is true of the 120,000 people the US government exiled and imprisoned.

That's a photo of Bill Manbo. He was born in Riverside, California, to Japanese immigrant parents in 1908. He and his parents moved to Hollywood before Bill went to junior high school. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1929 and went off to study auto mechanics at the Frank Wiggins Trade School. That’s where he met Mary Itaya, four years his junior, who had grown up on a farm in Norwalk, California. Her parents, Junzo and Riyo Itaya, were Japanese immigrants and successful farmers of truck vegetables; they had a particularly successful and valuable crop in rhubarb. Mary was at Frank Wiggins to become a seamstress.

Bill and Mary married soon after graduating from trade school. Bill opened up a garage in Hollywood and Mary took in sewing and did some costume design for Los Angeles theater companies. In 1940, Mary gave birth to a son, whom they named Bill, like his father. They called him “Billy.”

Billy was not quite two years old on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. A few months later, the FBI arrested Billy’s grandfather Junzo Itaya (Mary’s father) as a potential saboteur because he had done some accounting work in the late 1930s for his neighborhood Japanese after-school program. This meant that Junzo was gone, locked up in a Justice Department detention camp, when the rest of the family was rounded up and forced to live in a horse stable at the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the end of April of 1942. The day before leaving, the family signed an agreement with their white landlord that required him to preserve and market their rhubarb crop for as long as the family was gone.

In September of 1942, the family was put on a train for the long trip to Heart Mountain in northwest Wyoming. 

There they moved into small barrack rooms equipped with cot frames and thin mattresses, army blankets, a light bulb, a bucket and pail, and a coal-burning stove. All living was communal — communal mess halls where family structures disintegrated and communal latrines where privacy was nonexistent. Winter temperatures often did not rise above the single digits.  In the spring of 1943, they were made to submit to loyalty investigations. Bill and Mary passed the test, though not without difficulty, because they were angry about what the government had done to their lives and the life of their little Billy and did not conceal their anger from the investigators.

Starting in 1943, the WRA urged those designated “loyal” to leave camp for jobs in the country’s interior. A slow process of separation and dispersal began for the Manbo and Itaya families. Mary Manbo’s two siblings left camp in 1943. Bill Manbo left Mary and Billy behind for a factory job in Cleveland in mid-1944. Later in 1944, Junzo Itaya (Mary’s father) left camp temporarily to investigate a possible farming job in New Jersey, leaving behind only his wife Riyo and Mary and little Billy. When he returned to Heart Mountain ten days later, pleased by what he'd found in New Jersey, he found Riyo in the camp hospital. She had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Her illness would keep the couple confined in the camp until it closed in November of 1945.

Junzo and Riyo then faced returning to California with nothing: all they had back on the coast was their rhubarb plants and some outbuildings they’d left behind in their landlord’s care. But even that turned out to be mistaken. Their landlord had plowed the plants under shortly after they left in 1942, and the outbuildings were long gone. It was a complete loss. They would have to start their lives again from scratch.

Eric L. Muller will be blogging here all week.

Images from COLORS OF CONFINEMENT: RARE KODACHROME PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION IN WORLD WAR II edited by Eric L. Muller. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs by Bill Manbo copyright © 2012 by Takao Bill Manbo. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Book Cover of the Week: A Nearly Perfect Copy

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Sami Rohr Prize finalist Allison Amend's newest novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, will be available in April from Nan A. Talese. In the meantime, check out her last novel, Stations West, and her posts for the Visiting Scribe

2012 National Jewish Book Awardees on the Visiting Scribe

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Congratulations to all of our 2012 National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists! It's particularly lovely to see so many past Visiting Scribes on the list. Read their posts below (featured on their book's page), and find a complete list of winners and finalists here.




 

Behind Barbed Wire

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Eric L. Muller asked: What does a concentration camp look like?  He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My new book Colors of Confinement presents dozens of stunning Kodachrome photographs of everyday life inside the barbed wire confines of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. The photographer was Bill Manbo, a thirty-something auto mechanic from Hollywood, California, who was locked up there in September of 1942 along with his family and his wife Mary’s family. Although Manbo was not a documentary photographer, his pictures (and the fact that he was allowed to take them) capture much of what was unique about the confinement sites that the U.S. government created for the West Coast’s ethnically Japanese population during the war.

On the one hand, the photographs reveal a population held captive in a desolate desert compound with no conceivable justification other than suppositions about racial loyalties.  

On the other hand, the photos reveal that the population’s captors allowed them a surprising number of freedoms, including the freedom to engage openly in Japanese cultural and religious activities … and the freedom to wander around taking pictures of them.  

Of the first point — the injustice of the mass incarceration — there can be no doubt.  Months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government uprooted and exiled some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — citizens and resident aliens alike — for reasons that included biological racism and economic opportunism.  The U.S. Army general who ordered the roundup explained that U.S. citizens were just as dangerous as their Japanese immigrant parents because the “Japanese race” was an “enemy race” in which the “racial strains” ran “undiluted” in the blood of the second generation.  White-dominated agricultural interests on the coast that had long sought the ouster of successful Japanese farmers saw an opportunity to put them out of business and were among the most forceful advocates for mass exclusion.  It would be a distortion to say that the ouster of the Japanese from the West Coast and the ouster of the Jews from Germany had exactly the same causes, but it would also be a mistake to miss the fact that the two mass deportations shared key motives.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy noted this in a 1943 decision when he wrote that the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans bore “a melancholy resemblance” to Germany's treatment of its Jews.

And yet there can also be no doubt that the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the civilian agency responsible for confining Japanese Americans in the camps, did not share the ugliest views of those who had called for and overseen their removal from the coast.  The WRA was certainly capable of  manipulation and blunt repression  of its charges, but it also often sought to help them make their imprisoned lives more bearable and less dreary, healthier and more productive, and less likely to end up in a state of permanent government dependency.  This is why Bill Manbo’s photographs include images of dancing kimono-clad women, and of sumo-wrestling men, and of inmates lined up for a matinee showing at one of the camp's two movie theaters.

This helps us appreciate what is arguably the most amazing thing about this collection of photographs (apart from the fact that they’re in color):  a prisoner had the freedom to walk around the camp and take them.  

In the spring of 1942, before Japanese Americans were forced from their homes, cameras (like short-wave radios, binoculars, and other such items) were contraband.  In the late winter of 1943, however, the WRA came to realize that camp inmates would have an easier time adjusting to life behind barbed wire if it restored to them the ability to take family photos and document their lives with cameras.  Not many had the wherewithal to reclaim their cameras, and fewer still had the skill and commitment to shoot in Kodachrome, then an expensive technology that was just seven or eight years old.  Bill Manbo did, though, and it’s because he did — and because the WRA trusted him enough to allow him — that we have these beautiful glimpses of life at Heart Mountain.

Eric L. Muller will be blogging here all week.

Images from COLORS OF CONFINEMENT: RARE KODACHROME PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION IN WORLD WAR II edited by Eric L. Muller. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs by Bill Manbo copyright © 2012 by Takao Bill Manbo. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

What Does a Concentration Camp Look Like?

Monday, January 14, 2013 | Permalink

Eric L. Muller is Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law and director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center for Faculty Excellence. His newest book, Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

What does a concentration camp look like?

Does it look like this?

(Set aside for a moment the fact that it's a color photo, and that we're accustomed to imagining concentration camps in black and white.  The photo is from 1943, and yes, it's in color—but more on that later.)

It's easy to imagine that this could be a row of barracks at Westerbork, the transit camp in Holland that housed Dutch Jews (most famously Anne Frank) awaiting removal to the east.

It could just as easily be a shot of Flossenbürg, a camp in far eastern Bavaria housing mostly political prisoners for forced labor.

Conditions were harsher and many more people died at the notorious slave labor camp Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany.  My grandfather was among those imprisoned there; he spent a few weeks at the camp late in 1938 after his arrest at Kristallnacht.  He described it as a dismal and brutal place, but I can imagine that in certain weather conditions he might have seen a view not unlike the one in the photo above.

And though it's far less likely, the image could even conceivably be of a camp like Sobibor, where I believe my grandfather's brother Leopold was gassed in 1942.  (In the linked photo, Leopold sits in the chair with his left arm in a sling. My grandfather stands next to him.)  Sobibor and a handful of other German camps existed only for murder, so if the image above is of one of those places, we might guess what the smoke is.

Now consider this picture.  Is this what a concentration camp looks like?

This image has a lot of what we'd expect in a concentration camp, but the little inmate clutching the barbed wire fence doesn't look European.

In fact, he is American, of Japanese ancestry.  His name is Billy Manbo, and he is about three years old in the picture.  The detention facility behind him, which housed over 14,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945, went by the official government title of "Heart Mountain Relocation Center," but people at the time routinely called it a "concentration camp."

And one last picture, also from Heart Mountain.  Is this a picture of a concentration camp?

These images are among the nearly two hundred stunning color slides that a Japanese American amateur photographer named Bill Manbo (the father of little Billy pictured above) took while imprisoned at Heart Mountain in 1943 and 1944.  They are featured in my new book Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, and they offer striking and sometimes unsettling new vistas on this American episode of mass injustice.

They also offer a chance to think about an unfortunate conflict that has roiled relations between some in the Japanese American and American Jewish communities—a conflict over the meaning of the term "concentration camp."  I'll use my blog posts this week to explore that conflict and explain how I, as a descendant of inmates of one kind of camp and a student of the other kind, have resolved it.

Eric L. Muller will be blogging here all week.

Images from COLORS OF CONFINEMENT: RARE KODACHROME PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION IN WORLD WAR II edited by Eric L. Muller. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs by Bill Manbo copyright © 2012 by Takao Bill Manbo. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

New Reviews

Friday, January 11, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:
 

The Genesis of "The Jewish Furrier" in "The Prince of Tides"

Friday, January 11, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Cliff Graubart wrote about higher education and  his father and Pat Conroy. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.


Carol Conroy was browsing the poetry section when my parents Sigmund and Frances walked in. They were visiting with me in Atlanta as they did every year on their way from Israel to the States. I introduced Carol to my folks and they sat in the coffee room of The Old New York Book Shop for a few minutes getting to know each other.

Now, I always joked with Pat Conroy, my friend and Carol’s brother, about how much smarter Carol was than he. But when Carol came to the store a week later and dropped 5 poems on my desk, I had proof after reading the first poem called “The Jewish Furrier Tells How to Write Poetry.”

“Cliff’s father was right.
He said: Simple. You just do it.
You hold the animal and pick your knife.
Courage it takes. The rest forget.
But have the coat on the woman’s back,
not in your mind.
For instance the whistle.
You hold it in your throat
and send the air through the mouth’s toy.
Lips can be silver.

Siggy Graubart knows something.
His advice is good.
It is as natural as the swift intake of joy
in Megan’s smile,
the youngest niece,
when she cries daddy across the yard
and runs to kiss the matted fur
of a father’s head, the poet.

I was stunned that Carol could glean so much from my father in so short a time. It was 1980, and Pat and I decided that our new publishing company (founded in 1978) would grow into poetry. We asked Carol to expand the 5 poems to 10 and we would produce a book of poetry, and a few months later The Jewish Furrier came out in a limited edition of 150 numbered copies in gray boards and tan cloth spine on Hayle hand-made paper bound by hand at the Pamami Press in Douglasville, Georgia by Mike Riley.

I did not know then how significant that little book would become. Carol submitted the work in a contest connected with Harper Lee and won a year’s residence at a University in Virginia and a contract with W. W. Norton for The Beauty Wars, her first regularly published book.

In 1986, when Pat was going to press with The Prince of Tides, he had created “Savannah,” a poet based on his sister Carol, and incorporated a poem from The Jewish Furrier. Two days before going to press, Carol called Pat’s publisher demanding that the poem not be printed. She was unhappy at being portrayed in the book to begin with, and would not tolerate the printing of her poem.

Pat had two days to re-write the poem, and the book was printed with “The Jewish Furrier” as a different poem.

Serendipity. Carol’s not Jewish. Pat’s not Jewish. Carol writes a book of poetry, about my Jewish father, which opens the door to her career as a poet. Pat writes The Prince of Tides, his break-through novel, which incorporates her book, and has a strong Jewish component in the Lowenstein character, portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film version. Somehow, I found myself in the center of this creativity and expansion into Jewish themes so near to me, and loved it.

Cliff Graubart is the author of The Curious Vision of Sammy Levitt and Other Stories (Mercer University Press, 2012). Visit him online at www.cliffgraubart.com.