Dachau

Home Seattle in Shorts

On 29 April 2015 the world recalls the horror of human behaviour as it is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Dachau in Germany. Dachau was not one camp, but several connected camps and the liberation took place over a few days. One particular aspect of the liberation is deeply poignant, but also a source a racial controversy in the United States. During World War Two America had its own concentration camps, which housed the Japanese American population of the Pacific coast. In the 1980s Japanese American activists engaging in the successful Redress Movement campaign used the story of a Japanese-only unit of the U.S. Army liberating Dachau while their families were still held behind barbed wire back in America. This claim angers many right-wing Americans and you can find online denunciations of the possibility of their being any Japanese Americans at Dachau. That anger may reflect an unwillingness to confront the contradiction that the Redress Movement had marked up; America cheered at the liberation of a concentration camp while its own concentration camps remained open on U.S. soil. It would be another five months before the Western Defense Command rescinded the exclusion orders that allowed America's concentration camps to gradually close.

Those Japanese American soldiers were there at the liberation of Dachau, but not at the main camp. They liberated one of the sub-camps for factory slaves possibly on 29 April and encountered camp inmates put on a forced death march away from the camps on 2 May. They were part of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, which was part of the 442nd Regiment which was recruited solely among the Japanese American community, including from those U.S. concentration camps. You can watch a video with some U.S. veterans of Dachau and two Lithuanian Jews liberated by them at the 442nd veterans' site Go for Broke

When I wrote Seattle in Shorts my driving inspiration was the deep contradiction between two commemorations in April 2012; the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair (as depicted in the almost eponymous Elvis movie) and the 70th anniversary of Seattle's Japanese American community being taken by train to a temporary concentration camp at the Puyallup Showgrounds (a tragic scene depicted in Jamie Ford's haunting novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). It was not until long after my novel was published that I discovered this further contradiction in Japanese descended soldiers recruited from U.S. concentration camps liberating a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. It was only with the Redress Movement that this story became widely known and it has a Seattle connection; it was inspired by the Pride and Shame exhibition (1970) at the city's Museum of History and Industry.

Despite not knowing about these concentration camp men liberating a foreign concentration camp there is a connection drawn in my novel between American concentration camps and Nazi death camps. The novel consists of a story about Martine Brown, a contemporary Seattleite of the grunge generation returning from London to her native city due to a mental breakdown. Between the chapters of her story are very short stories about Seattle's minorities with a large cast of characters including two recurring figures; a Polish Jew who escaped going to Auschwitz and a Japanese American Seattleite who did not escape being sent to a concentration camp in Idaho. The story of Mrs Gorski and her recently deceased friend Mrs Miyajima forms the first short story and is based on a connection with the year 1942. That was the year that the Nazi authorities decided to create death camps that would masquerade as concentration camps and the U.S. authorities sent the largely agricultural Japanese American community to live in concentration camps in the deserts. If you go to Amazon you can read that short story in the online preview of the book.

My novel revolved around the 70th anniversary of those two horrible government decisions in 1942 and tomorrow if you pause to reflect on the liberation of Dachau you will be reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the ending of three years of horror for European Jews and three years of misery for Japanese Americans. Oh and the date of that train journey that emptied Seattle's Japantown? 28th April 1942; exactly 73 years ago today.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved

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