One of the main lessons of history is to not repeat the errors of the past. It’s why UMass Boston Professor Paul Watanabe brings his students to the Japanese internment camp where his family was forced to live for four and half years during WWII.
It is an emotionally draining journey into the California desert in April, for them to experience Manzanar.
“It was extremely hot and there was just dust everywhere. My first reaction was, wow, the government must have chosen the worst possible spot to put these people. And it’s another not surprising fact, it was probably on purpose,” said student Reema Elrefaie.
We met up with Watanabe’s class when they had just returned from their pilgrimage to Manzanar, one of the 10 camps the US government set up to incarcerate 120,000 people of Japanese heritage. Two-thirds were American citizens and the remainder, at the time, could not pursue citizenship - it was illegal for Japanese immigrants to even become citizens. We got to sit in on their class discussion.
“The whole internment experience was a cultural genocide," Roisin O'Keefe said.
“There was a list on the executive order of things that people were told to bring. It was like bed sheets, pillowcases, dishes, clothes, and nothing else. People weren't allowed to bring pets. You weren't allowed to bring family heirlooms. Anything that kind of was representative of your culture you had to conceal," Jamie Roballo added.
For Watanabe, his reflections on the visit brought him to tears.