Internment: The experience of Japanese-Americans in WWII resonates


The unrelenting gray of my Indiana winter was just barely beginning to promise spring recently when I said goodbye to a friend and neighbor. Myrtle Goldfinger was born in Tokyo in 1917 and came to America as a child. Her father, a minister, brought his family to live in California, where he founded the Hollywood Japanese Independent Church. I met her toward the end of her rich and wonderful life, in the lively, vibrant home of her son and daughter-in-law and beautiful grandsons.

Immigrants like myself and, perhaps, Myrtle’s parents are ensconced in an artificial and unrelenting present, having left behind the generation that connects us to the past.

In my conversations with Myrtle, I regained some of what I had lost in migration, her reminiscences drawing me closer to the grandmothers and aunts now separated from me by seas and continents. This was not Myrtle’s only gift to me. As was recounted in her obituary, Myrtle Goldfinger was one of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were sent to “War Relocation Centers” by President Franklin Roosevelt at the onset of World War II.

Despite having spent years at the Manzanar internment camp in the California desert, Myrtle emerged from the war with a desire to serve the country that had so unthinkingly doubted her loyalties. She joined the Federal Civil Service and began work as a translator for U.S. forces stationed in Japan.

As a Muslim American, seeing the fortitude of someone like Myrtle is an incredible source of inspiration. The fact that an entire population perceived to be a threat to national security could be collectively punished based on national origin seems surreal and impossible.

And yet it happened, and many Japanese-Americans who lived that bizarre reality are alive today, and witness to another era of suspicion focusing on a new imagined enemy. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee for the US House of Representatives, has held hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, directly imputing that all Muslim-Americans are complicit in the support of terrorism.

Before an unquestioning and fearful America, American Muslims have been painted with the same broad brush of terror that colored Japanese-Americans as traitors.

Undoubtedly, fear is a timeless emotion that has delivered much injustice, but the reality of fear can be tempered by the refusal to repeat its mistakes. As ordinary Americans become more and more tolerant of the demonization of Muslims, they lose the consciousness of past persecution that then felt similarly legitimate and justified but can now be seen in all its ghastly shamefulness.

Muslim Americans, burdened by stereotypes and helpless before the hateful tableau that played out in Washington during the hearings, must similarly draw strength from the perseverance of past victims whose love of country survived even the most hurtful trials.

As one of them living in our trying times, knowing Myrtle was a beautiful coincidence and a poignant reminder that hope is just as resilient as fear.

Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star.

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