The Train to Crystal City by Jan Russell sheds light on World War II internment camps
Did America have concentration camps in the Second World War? Some Japanese clearly think there was at least one, for they built a granite monument to it in Texas inscribed ‘Crystal City Concentration Camp’ to serve as a ‘reminder of the injustices and humiliations suffered here’. The official name of the camp was Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility and Jan Russell in the sub-title to her book The Train to Crystal City calls it a Family Internment Camp. About two-thirds of the nearly 6000 people who passed through the camp between 1942 and 1948 were ethnic Japanese; the rest were mostly ethnic Germans. The Germans built no memorial and would probably have been shy of calling it a concentration camp.
Crystal City was certainly not a concentration camp in the original sense of the term, as used by the Spanish in Cuba in the 1890s and the British in South Africa in 1900-01, that is a camp to ‘concentrate’ a scattered rural population to prevent it from feeding, either willingly or unwillingly, the guerrilla bands which defied the imperial power. Unwittingly the British gave the institution a more sinister meaning. Enteric fever swept the camps, thousands died, mainly children, the military imposed strict secrecy but a brave newspaper correspondent leaked the news into the British press, there was an international scandal and the camps were closed: a victory for a free press over the secret state.
But it was not the Cuban or South African camps that the Japanese had in mind when they dedicated the Crystal City memorial. Nazi Germany used the term indiscriminately for the multitude of camps they set up, from camps like Theriesenstadt which actually did concentrate the entire Jewish population of Bohemia in one small town, to punishment camps, labour camps, death camps and multi-purpose complexes like Auschwitz. The only thing they had in common was the harsh regime and the indifference or worse to the welfare of the inmates.
Yet even in this wider sense Crystal City was not a concentration camp. Conditions were Spartan, but not harsh. The death rate was well below the birth rate. Indeed it was so low that it must have been below the rate for comparable groups in the population at large. There are advantages in a strictly controlled environment. The most serious dispute between the inmates and the camp authorities was when a group of irate parents broke up the 1944 High School prom, for fear it was ‘Americanising’ their children.
But there is no disguising that it was a prison camp, complete with barbed wire and armed guards, set up to contain civilians who had not been convicted of any crime. Of course they were ‘enemies’, even though most of them were long-standing residents of the United States and many were American citizens, including nearly all the children. The strangest group was a number of Japanese who had settled in Latin America and for various reasons were considered a danger to American interests there. They and their families were picked up by American agents in countries such as Guatemala and Peru and forcibly transported to America where they were arrested as illegal immigrants and interned in Crystal City. After the war they contested their illegal immigrant status, but it was confirmed by a US court and they were deported to Japan. One unfortunate family was sent to its ‘home town’ of Hiroshima, still a radio-active ruin, where not surprisingly they failed to trace any of their relatives.
There were over thirty internment camps in America and most of the inmates of Crystal City had passed through one or more of them before reaching their final camp. They were therefore a select group, men who were considered particularly dangerous to America together with their families (the women mostly volunteered to join their husbands, along with the children). The basis on which they were chosen was arbitrary and inconsistent. Some were denounced by neighbours (e.g. the German-American who was reported by a neighbour for using suspiciously large amounts of concrete in building his home), but like the Spanish Inquisition the prisoner was not told who had informed on him or what was the charge. The main cause for suspicion was membership of expatriate organisations.
Russell makes the point that this was the only family internment camp in America. In the other camps in America men and women were segregated. She also says it was the only family internment camp ‘on either side of the Atlantic’. I presume she means the only American internment camp, since the British (e.g. the Isle of Man camps), the Germans and the Russians all ran family camps.
Why was this group brought together and given such special treatment? They were in effect a bank of families to be drawn upon to exchange for American families held in Japan, Germany and the occupied territories. In theory ‘repatriation’ was voluntary, but it was often the only way for a family to be brought together and the internees were kept in total ignorance of the situation in their ‘home’ countries (they were not even informed of VE day). The last family exchange with Germany took place in February 1945, just as the country was being invaded. The German ‘repatriates’ were lucky to escape with their lives, although they did not all escape being raped.
The Germans too had their ‘hostage bank’ at Bergen-Belsen. The February 1945 exchange was made by trading a group of Dutch Jews for the last Crystal City repatriates. Anne Frank might have been part of the exchange, had she not died of typhoid a few weeks earlier. The German repatriates at least rescued an equivalent number of Jews from almost certain death in a real concentration camp.
The people whose release was secured in this way were presumably only too happy to get away – above all the Bergen-Belsen inmates. Yet few of the people sent in exchange would have sought repatriation if they had not been interned, and they were deliberately kept in ignorance of the situation in their ‘native’ countries. The Japanese internees from Latin America were kidnapped and brought to America by force to use as hostages. Hardly any of the Crystal City people were active opponents of the US government and most would much rather have been released than repatriated.
About the contributor: Edward James is a Reviews Editor for the Historical Novels Review and has recently published Freedom’s Pilgrim: A Tudor Odyssey on Amazon and Smashwords. He plans to publish a further historical novel, The Frozen Dream in the near future.
Author photo by Trish Simonite