When I was a reporter, I traveled with a group of Japanese Americans on a bus from Seattle to Tule Lake, California, where the remnants of a World War II internment camp still stood. The group members were children and grandchildren of those locked up in the camp; it was the largest segregation center in the United States.
During the war, the federal government forced more than 100,000 US residents of Japanese descent from their homes, put them on trains and imprisoned them in internment camps. They were considered the enemy because of their race. The prisoners were men, women and children. Some old. Some very young. There were entire families.
The group wanted to see where their parents and grandparents had lived when they were imprisoned. They wanted to touch a past that was hard for them to grasp. It had been decades since the camp was dismantled, but there were still a few small wooden shacks where entire families were forced to live.
Many of those on the trip told me their relatives found it difficult to share what had happened to them when they were segregated and imprisoned. Ordinary lives uprooted, trying to find normalcy behind barbed wires. But bit by bit through the years and decades, they shared and told their stories. Their children learned and so did their grandchildren. During that trip, they walked through the shacks, breathed the dry air and touched the sandy land of Tule Lake, trying to picture what life was like.
On our way back to Seattle, there was no anger on the bus. There was reflection. Sadness. One of the woman showed me a bit of the sand she had collected from the dry lake bed where the camp once stood. She wanted to always remember.
I think a lot about that trip today as talk continues about registering Muslims, as tension rises about nationalism globally and as politicians continue to attack a free press. We insulate ourselves from thinking it cannot happen again, here in the United States or even around the world. In Nazi Germany, the imprisonment and eventual killing of Jewish people began with documentation and registration. There are accusations of ethnic cleansing in today’s Syria, where refugees with no safe havens have been driven into dangerous zones.
I think of that little bit of sand. I don’t want to forget either.