Journey Back to Topaz: Former inmates take pilgrimage to former Central Utah concentration camp

POND MEMORIES — Former Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp inmate Jun (Nakahara) Dairiki (above) stands next to the former pond that her father had built. photo by Martha Nakagawa

Although May Saito Takashima was only 9 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, that Sunday is seared into her memory.

“That’s when I became a ‘Jap’ overnight,” said Takashima, who participated in the recent pilgrimage to the former Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp. “When I went to school Monday, I became a ‘Jap.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew that was not a good word because people would make fun of me.”

The family lived in the horse stalls at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif. before being sent to the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp, where Takashima remembered the heat, dust “like flour” and whirl winds.

“We could see a whirlwind coming from a distance,” said Takashima. “Even as kids, we knew that was scary. It would get dark and dusty so we’d try to run away. If you can’t get to your place, we’d run into a bathroom or something, but since everything wasn’t sealed, the dust would come through the cracks and windows.”

Once Nikkei were allowed back to the West Coast in 1945, the family moved into government subsidized dormitory housing at San Francisco’s Hunters Point. With five children to feed, the family barely made ends meet.

“My father was working as a janitor, and we couldn’t even afford cafeteria food, not even once a day,” said Takashima. “So we would go to this store that we called the Hilltop and get two loaves of bread, a package of salami, bologna and a jar of mustard. Then we used this old fashion desk in the dorm that pulls down as our table and ate our food sitting on the bed.”

Takashima also had a difficult time adjusting to her new three-story junior high school, which was a far cry from the wooden barrack at Topaz.

Yonsei Akiko Takashima, Takashima’s granddaughter and Toru Saito’s niece, said the pilgrimage was worth her missing music classes.

“I wanted to come because it’s such an important chapter of my family history,” said Akiko. “Just by being here with my uncle, rather than on my own, it gave me an opportunity to have him show me the exact place where he buried his marbles, to see the pile of rocks he collected as a little boy and to hear that last year when he came, he burned incense and finally felt that he could let go of coming back here.”

Jun (Nakahara) Dairiki was 7 years old when her family was forced to leave their San Francisco home.

“My mom was sad because we had to get rid of all of our things at a fire sale,” said Dairiki. “I remember the vendors coming around, knowing they could get things next to nothing. We had a piano and a solid wood dining room table. My mom had to get rid of all of that.”

The family lived in the horse stables at Tanforan but when her sister got sick, her mother was able to get the family transferred to newly-built barracks. About a month later, the family was sent to Topaz.

Some of the lifelong impact Topaz has had on Dairiki is that she will not eat pork and beans and egg foo young, nor watch the movie, “King Kong.”

“One year, our block had a Halloween party for the kids,” said Dairiki. “That evening, they showed ‘King Kong.’ It scared the beejeebers out of me. After the movie was over, one of the older teenagers told us spooky stories. I tell you I was never so scared. And it was cold and the wind was howling that night. I literally slept under the covers. I didn’t even go to the bathroom because to go to the bathroom, you had to leave your unit.”

When the family was released from Topaz, they took along their adopted stray dog.

“I don’t know where we got the dog, but I called him Fudgecicle, Fudge for short,” said Dairiki. “It was kind of a black and brown dog with little white spots. When the war ended, my mom said we can’t leave her behind. Other families left their dogs behind, and my mom said it was too cruel to do that.”

Ruth Ichinaga was 7 years old when she arrived at Topaz, but has little recollection of those years.

“I’d forgotten so much,” said Ichinaga, whose family lived in Berkeley, Calif. before the war. “I wanted to come to see where we lived and see if it would stir up memories for me. But when Jane Beckwith said that Block 28 where we lived might be hard to find because something was thrown on it, I felt these tears coming up. Maybe part of it was because I was so much looking forward to seeing where we lived.”

Marielle Tsukamoto’s family was sent to the Fresno Assembly Center and then to the concentration camp in Jerome, Ark. Tsukamoto, then a 4-1/2-year-old, recalled the day the family left for camp.

“I remember standing next to my grandmother outside, on the back door of our house,” said Tsukamoto. “She was crying and looking at the roses in her garden, her garden that she loved. She was saying that she didn’t think she was ever going to come back to see this. I remember taking her hand and telling her that it would be okay, that she would come back.”

After the war, the family was able to return.

“We were one of the lucky 15 percent,” said Tsukamoto. “A man by the name of Bob Fletcher took care of our farm, paid the taxes and the mortgage. Most people lost their property because they couldn’t pay the taxes and the mortgage, or they put the land in trust with someone who in the end took the land from them.”

Sansei Haruko Joanne Doi’s father was at the Manzanar concentration camp in California, while her mother was at the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Doi teaches a graduate theology course at the University of California, Berkeley, where she incorporates the camp experience.

“The course looks at pilgrimage practice, memory, reconciliation, solidarity, suffering and hope,” said Doi. “Those are theological themes, and it’s interesting how these memory affected people, especially in California.”

When Doi first offered the class, she was surprised to see many non-Japanese Americans taking the course. “Slowly, the stories came out,” said Doi. “People either saw a neighbor being taken away or knew someone who was taken away. That’s when I realized how big the story is.”

Dr. Howard Kline, who is married to Dr. Ellen Sawamura, a former inmate at the Tule Lake concentration camp in California, made his fourth trip to Topaz. In describing his first time at Topaz, Kline said, “It was a very powerful experience. It angered me because of what the Japanese lost, which was their freedom.”

Kline, a Jewish American, did not lose immediate family in the Holocaust, but has visited the Nazi death camps.

“I was horrified,” Kline said. “I still feel the anger that sometimes surfaces in my being. It comes back to me, both in terms of my dreams and thoughts. It was one of the worst moments of history, I think.”

Anna Chepourkova, who is of Ukrainian, English, Scottish, Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, attended the pilgrimage for the opportunity to see Chiura Obata’s work.

“I love Chiura Obata’s work, and I saw that we would see his work and the works of other artists who were in Topaz,” said Chepourkova. “So I was drawn to that. And I just felt it was a good time to go because I would be going with people who would be going for very deep reasons, and it would give me a chance to listen and understand better how people survived an experience like this.”

Chepourkova’s Ukrainian father immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. He had been a pre-med student in Moscow in 1917 when he was drafted into Alexander Kerensky’s White Russian Army to resist the Bolsheviks’ Red Russian Army. When his regiment started to lose, they retreated across Siberia in the dead of winter with snipers shooting at them. They fled as far East as Harbin, China. From there, the father immigrated to the U.S.

On her mother’s side, Chepourkova’s family has been in the U.S. from before the American Revolution.

Like Chepourkova, Lewis Boynton and wife Sonja Penttila drove from Kaysville, Utah, with their granddaughter Lizzy Tousley, 12, to view the Topaz artists exhibit.

Tousley became interested in the camps after reading “The Bracelet” in school. The story focuses on the World War II camp experiences of a young Nikkei girl.

“It was kind of sad because of all the pain they went through,” said Tousley.”

Penttila, who grew up in Ogden, Utah with Nikkei friends, wanted her granddaughter to learn about the camps.

“I wanted my granddaughter to understand that you cannot judge people based on race and fear,” said Penttila. “But we never expected to meet actual internees here.”

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