Camps and Propaganda: Happy Internment in News Reels

This is the wierdest [sic], most unreal situation—like a dream—I wish I were out. Outside, it seems from the inside, history is taking flight and passes forever. Here, time has stoped [sic] and nothing is of any consequence, nothing of value, neither our time or our skill.

Isamu Noguchi, Poston, Arizona

—Erica Harth, Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans

This temporal and spatial stasis contrasts with the echoes of freedom associated with frontier life that were routinely used in propaganda rhetoric to normalize Japanese Americans’ expulsion from their homes and the public spaces. The concentration camps, as they were commonly known among government officials, including the president (Alinder 2009, 8), morphed in newspapers, newsreels, and magazines into “boom towns,” and “The Japanese Cities of America” (Zhou 2007, 65), into gated communities avant la lettre that protected against the outside world and set a model of how potential war enemies were to be treated. Hence the places of exception appeared as places of self-exemption. The Office of War Information (Bureau of Motion Pictures) released the documentary “Japanese Relocation,” a “historical record of the operation,” narrated by the director of the WRA, Milton S. Eisenhower. Eisenhower started with the automatic remapping of space in the U.S. in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor: the West Coast, he explained, became “a potential combat zone.” Most of the population of Japanese ancestry living in the area was loyal, but contemplating the possibility of Japanese invasion, military authorities determined that all of them, Japanese American citizens and aliens, “would have to move.” The operation, he assured, was done “as a democracy should, with real consideration for the people involved.” Japanese Americans were portrayed as cheerfully cooperative from the start, fully aware of the hard work of government agencies, which “helped in a hundred ways,” even if the quick disposal of property often involved financial sacrifice for the evacuees. Significantly, since the Japanese were responsible for about 30 percent of all commercial truck crops in California, De Witt gave specific instructions to start a program that ensured the continuation of “the proper use of agricultural lands voluntarily vacated by enemy aliens” (Palumbo-Liu 1999, 222).20 When the actual migration started, the documentary portrayed the army as cooperating with the removal and transportation of household belongings and evacuees. The loyal Japanese Americans, the narrator claimed, saw their removal as a “sacrifice” they could make on behalf of the American war effort. Racetracks and fairgrounds were described as “communities” that harbored the evacuees until pioneer communities could be completed on federally owned lands in the interior. The army, the narrator explained, provided housing and healthy, nourishing food for all inside a busy mess hall. The residents, Eisenhower claimed, set about developing a way of life as normal as possible. Once the communities out west were finished, the final movement began. The footage showed smiling faces bidding farewell. They were subsequently welcomed by a contingent of Japanese that acted as guides. Everything was new, and the newcomers looked about with curiosity. “They were in a new area, on land that was raw, untamed, but full of opportunity.” They could build schools, educate their children, and “reclaim the desert,” as if enacting a new stage of the American dream. Although the image of a large contingent of Japanese Americans descending from a train under strict surveillance might be initially at odds with the traditional image of the pioneer, that was the image chosen by the WRA to advertise a second wave of colonization. The traditionally depicted white westerner in a Conestoga wagon was replaced with a contingent allegedly fulfilling “some sort of patriotic mission” (Fryer 2008, 85).

As represented in the film, the communities appeared as concrete versions of the land of opportunity, as examples of self-government, with classes, health care, and political representation. The army would guard the outer limits of each area, while security within was up to the Japanese. There were plenty of opportunities for employment, which were immediately taken by the internees, such as water supply, rooting guayule cuttings, irrigating desert lands, or seeking private employment where labor was needed. This, Eisenhower claimed, was the prologue of a story that had yet to be told. The full story would enfold when desert land turned green and when all adult hands were productively employed. It would be fully told when circumstances permitted the loyal Japanese Americans to enjoy the freedom the country cherished and when the disloyal left the country for good. In the meantime, the narrator claimed, the U.S. was setting a standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who might be loyal to an enemy nation. The U.S., he concluded, was protecting itself without violating the principles of Christian decency.

Significantly, another movie, Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt, represented the Theresienstadt ghetto as the “model community.” In fact, when in the summer of 1942 the Nazis dispatched Jews from Germany and Austria to Terezin, a large percentage of the contingent were old people who were told that they were going to an old-age home (Lamberti 1995, 106). In Austerlitz, others were led to believe that they would be taken to a “pleasant resort in Bohemia . . . with beautiful gardens, promenades, boarding houses, and villas, and many of them had been persuaded to sign contracts, so-called Heimeinkaufsvertrage .. . offering them, against deposits of up to eighty thousand Reichsmarks, the right of residence in what was described to them as a most salubrious place” (239).21 The rituals at the entrance of the ghetto echo with ringing familiarity: the inmates had their suitcases taken away, and these were only returned when the SS guards had confiscated any valuables. Lamberti describes the process as if the internees were passing “along a conveyor belt,” as SS men recorded their personal data in the camp index, searched them, determined their fitness for labor, gave them a mess card for meals, and assigned them to a barrack (1995, 106). The detailed administration of the camp aimed at establishing a model camp in Bohemia that would serve three purposes: it would be a model detention center where Jews, mainly those with international connections, could be interned and build their own life and “govern themselves” (Tuma 1976, 13); it would also serve as a selection station to determine and separate those unfit to live in a model camp, who would be shipped to the extermination camps; and it would show the world the kind of “paradise island” the Germans created for enemies of the state (ibid., 14). The powers of the Third Reich would seem

“compassionate,” and the camp would silence the talk of hunger, torture, and death in concentration camps (ibid.). The imminent inspection of the Red Cross in 1944 gave the Nazis an opportunity to dissimulate the true nature of their deportation policy and sanitize the camp beyond recognition (Schneider 1995, 130). The ghetto underwent a vast cleanup program: pathways and a grove were set up, over a thousand rosebushes were planted, and a nursery was fitted out with all kinds of equipment. The old Orel cinema, the dumping ground for the oldest inmates of the ghetto, was transformed into a concert hall and theater. Shops were opened for the sale of food and household utensils. These were in fact the artifacts that had been taken away from the Jews long since deported and murdered (ibid.). There was also a convalescent home, a chapel, a lending library, a gymnasium, a post office, a bank, and a coffeehouse with sun umbrellas and folding chairs outside, according to Austerlitz, “to suggest the agreeable atmosphere of a resort inviting all passersby to linger for a while” (243). To thin out the population, seven and a half thousand of the sick and infirm had been sent east. Terezin thus became “a Potemkin village or sham El Dorado” that might have deluded inmates and visitors alike (234). Thus the Red Cross delegation could attest to the efforts on the part of the Germans to “spare” the Jews from the horrors of war. What they saw were happy inmates, looking out a window, well dressed, well taken care of in case of sickness, enjoying proper meals and bread rations, and with a wide variety of entertainment to choose from, including sporting events, cabarets, theatrical performances and concerts, or simply a stroll after a day’s work (244).

The simulacrum was immortalized in Kurt Gerron’s movie. A former actor and director in Berlin, Gerron used some of the prominent inhabitants of the ghetto as extras, carrying out presumably day-to-day activities (Schneider 1995, 130-31). Sebald writes that cancan music from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (247) create the soundtrack for the fast-paced footage. In high-pitched, strenuous tones, a male narrator talks about the task forces and the cohorts of workers deployed. The evacuees carry out a variety of jobs and are, “if necessary, retrained, so that everyone willing to work—jeder Arbeitswillige! . . . had an opportunity of fitting seamlessly into the production process” (250). Towards the end of the film there is a long sequence showing the first performance of a piece of music composed in Theresienstadt, Pavel Haas’s study for string orchestra (ibid.). The aim in both movies is strikingly similar: both try to simulate the workings of a city while dissimulating the workings of the camp.

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