The Topaz Box Speaks

December 17, 2018 by Admin

It’s windy . . . It’s dusty . . . It’s cold as hell . . . It’s just another Topaz morning, Friday, October 13, 1945. The dust’s so thick that I can barely make out the other barracks next door to the latrines. This is the day I came to be, cut to size and nailed together by the calloused hands of American prisoners of Japanese descent. The man in the White House labeled this place “concentration camp,” and it became known as Topaz, Utah, USA. And all 9,000 prisoners—men, women, and children—there agreed.

Through my walls, I could feel their darkness as they contemplated, Where can we go? They were ordered, “Pack up and ship out,” after four bone chilling winters and “blast furnace” summers back to Japantown, San Francisco, where they were originally rounded up. They scratched their heads and bit their nails. Their main concerns, “Find house. Find work. Find good school for children.” Word was, “Lots of hatred out there, not safe.” More bad news. Japantown was no longer. GONE!! Taken over by shipyard workers from the south. The concerns of the newly freed Americans filled me: Who will rent to us? Who will give us a job? How will we begin anew? What next?  

After four years of prison camp, what were the chances the other “Americans” would accept them back? Me, I was assigned to a young couple with five small children in Block 4, Barrack 10, Units C and D. I was entrusted to safeguard the essence of their dreams and prayers for a better life, “after camp.” How will we be received? Will be accepted as equals?

The next thing I knew, I was squeezed into a packed freight train heading for Berkeley, California. There, I was misplaced and forgotten under a pile of junk in the rear of an ice-cold garage for over five decades. I sat alone in darkness, weighted down. Still imprisoned. I couldn’t blame them. Unnoticed. Hidden. I am just a plain old box. Made of rough lumber and nails. Like me, they stayed in the shadows. Kept a low profile. Didn’t want to stick out. They didn’t talk about camp. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down,” I heard them say.

One day, in 1999, my luck changed when a nice Japanese neighbor, Toru san, rescued me. He declared then and there, I was to return to, “The scene of the crime” the illegal prison camp, Topaz. But it would take another 18 years before they were ready to know the secrets I protected, the memories I held. All those nights and days, I learned that if you are patient and have faith in yourself and wait for your chance, things can change for the better and bring you success in ways you never expected . . . I kept waiting and waiting, holding my breath. I didn’t want to keep the secret any longer. I wanted to help them heal and grow by exposing our “camp” stories.There were so many lives I wanted to touch with our stories of survival. And then, finally,one morning, Toru pried me open. Blinded by the light of day, I let out my dusty, stale breath—for the first time in 72 years. This is what I can tell you. There’s life after suffering; holding things in does no good; unbind yourself; blossom; life shines outside the closet . . .

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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