Author Archives: Eric L. Muller

Eric L. Muller

About Eric L. Muller

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.

Debating the Term “Concentration Camp”

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: WesterborkFlossenbürgBuchenwald, 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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on January 18, 2013

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Making It Human

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. Continue reading

Posted on January 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Behind Barbed Wire

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. Continue reading

Posted on January 15, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Does a Concentration Camp Look Like?

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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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

Posted on January 14, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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