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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Five

 
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2020  

 

Restorative Justice in One Small Town

 

 

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chYapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. 

 

                      -Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me"

 

 

You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure, for a poet remembers.

                           

-Czeslaw Milosz

 

We had been in Vienna for several days—my mother, my daughter and I—when we finally found the Monument Against War and Fascism, unveiled by the Austrian government on November 24, 1988. Its German title is somewhat different: Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus. Mahnmal means warning or reminder. Its central image is of an old Jew crouching down on his hands and knees scrubbing stones, a memory my mother held in her sympathetic nervous system every day of her survivor's life. Her mother, my grandmother, Nanette, had been forced onto her hands and knees on her way home from work just days after the German invasion. She had survived that ordeal, only to be murdered in Auschwitz together with most of our family. That death camp is the only monument that means anything to me, but I was curious how the Austrians, who had come late to redress, conceptualized a monument against Faschismus and murder.


A sign, hidden behind some bushes too far away from the sculpture for most people to notice reads, in German: The first to fall victim to the Nazi regime were political opponents and Jews. After 12 March 1938, many Jews were forced out of their homes and into the streets to clean away political slogans. The figure of the kneeling Jew is to remind us of these acts of humiliation.

 

This "act of humiliation," a euphemism, was the first overt violent action by the Nazis in the reign of terror; it escalated quickly to genocide.


Signage is important, and I wondered why this one had not been updated to reflect changes in Austria's moral compass as a member of a socially conscious EU. Perhaps the insular Austrian bureaucrats still imagine that they were victims rather than willing perpetrators.


The front of the square is bordered by the "Gates of Violence," carved from the granite that thousands of prisoners carried over the "stairs of death" at the Mauthausen death camp. And there are other stones here, too, smaller stones visitors have placed on the old Jew's back, an iconic stereotype embedded in European history.


It was summer and there were travelers from all over the world gathering around the monument, but no Austrians. We were outliers, visitors from another dimension. I'd read somewhere that late at night punks and runaways sit on the old Jew's back. I didn't dare return to witness this desecration, but the next morning I called Dr. Bernhard Denscher, at the time Head of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Vienna. "In my opinion this work of art should be more than just a tourist sight," he told me in perfect English. "It should provide food for thought and incite the beholder to pause and linger." My thought exactly.


This story came back to me this morning as I took my walk along Huguenot St. in New Paltz, NY: the sign at the African American burial ground has been repainted. It is now brighter and more noticeable. It sits in front of a "monument" of stone, a bench with a thick iron chain at its base. The bench has been there a while, now the sign stands in high relief, the story of enslavement by the Huguenot, English and Dutch settlers in New Paltz crushed into a small space, there for all to read and ponder, and for the descendants of slaves to visit as a sacred space. My only quibble is that the word "founded" was not changed as the land we live on was inhabited by the Lenape Nation before the settlers arrived, and was stolen from them.


Still, it's an important renewal, one that reflects the national discourse about monuments, Black Lives Matter, and the cultural changes we are navigating amid the horrific pandemic. I wish all my fellow citizens—here in this small town, and throughout the United States—continuing fortitude and an open heart during the painful but essential reckoning with our past.

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When Friends Make Us Proud

 
 
 

In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.

             --from the Manzanar National Historic Site website

 

I met Carol Shinoda and John Tateishi in a Chaucer class at UC Berkeley. I didn't know their backstory, nor did they know mine. As young, carefree college students the words camps, incarceration, round-ups, detentions and reparations were not mentioned, or even fully known. They were buried deep in our families' histories and in our psyches, only to surface many years later when we were married and about to start our families. We were all living and working in London, simultaneously by design—John & Carol, Jim and I. And once we had our first born children, we all began to think about returning to America.


"I had always thought we'd be expats forever," John told me recently. "I imagined we'd live in France eventually because the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, many of their parents interned in camps during the war, fought with courage and patriotism in the bloodiest and fierecest campaigns in Europe. The French have never forgotten that; their gratitude is still palpable. But we thought it was important for our children to know what had happened to the Japanese-American community inside America after Pearl Harbor. So we returned to America to become a part of that community."


Five years after they returned to California, John and Carol not only found a community, they became active in that community. They joined a civil rights group, the Japanese American Citizens League. John eventually became the Chair of the Regional Redress Program and, in 1978, he became National Chair. He also gathered and edited a book of oral histories called, And Justice for All, and became a lobbyist in Washington for the Redress Campaign.


Now John has published Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations (Heyday Books) about the day to day, week to week, year by year travails and successes of the movement that culminated in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned. It granted each surviving internee $20,000 in compensation. A total of 82,219 received redress checks.


The United States has a long history of racism, xenophobia, and violence against immigrants and minority groups. The World War II Japanese American chapter is only one chapter in our sordid story, a fault line as shameful as the Native American genocide and enslavement. We must continue to expose these stories, resist false narratives, and write about them with courage. I am proud of my tenacious friend--the book was not easy to write-- and wish him fortitude as he embarks upon his publicity tour. Check out John's website for a schedule of appearances: https://www.johntateishi.com/

 

 

Photo: Out of focus but poignant nonetheless. This is Manzanar where John Tateishi was incarcerated as a toddler. Like most interned families, his family lost everything--or it was stolen-- the day they were shipped out. It was cold in these mountains. Japanese American Californians, accustomed to a warm climate, did not even have the right clothes.

 

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