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Book Review: ‘The Train To Crystal City’ by Jan Jarboe Russell

The Train To Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell is a fascinating, engaging, sobering look at a military project few know about that took place in Crystal City, Texas and, to this day, the U.S. government hasn’t admitted parts of it. I’d heard the author do a presentation on the book during the Texas Book Festival about, I think, two years ago. Among those at the session were folks from Texas, including, if memory serves, some from Crystal City, who remember trains going to Crystal City but not knowing until reading her book what really went on there.

I suspect many Americans are like me in that; a) Internment camps during World War II are given short shrift in history books, and b) what is shared is about Japanese-Americans who were forced to stay in these camps solely based on race. My visits to Manzanar in California reinforced that personal belief.

But what happened in Crystal City is much worse. In addition to Japanese-Americans being sent there so were German-Americans as well as some Italians. The book does an amazing job – through various sources cited – of talking about what life was like day to day in this camp where these different ethnic groups were forced to co-exist.

Once President Roosevelt made the decision to open this camp law enforcement began grabbing men, many of them who were listed in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s files, and sending them to camps. Some would first go alone to one camp, then would be shipped to Crystal City so they could be with the rest of their family.

All of us at a book discussion Sunday were horrified to learn that not only did authorities send specific Japanese Americans from around America to the camp but many Latin America nations sent some Japanese and German and Italians to the camps as well. As you might imagine, there were many rifts at different levels in the camp. For example, there was an American school, which is where the Americans wanted students to go but there were also special schools for Germans and Japanese students as well.

The book details one point well remembered from those who wrote or talked to the author about life there, A prom. The camp wanted teenagers to attend a regular old fashioned American prom and many of the teens wanted to go. But the Japanese elders said, essentially, no moral Japanese woman would dance. And the generation gap – as well as some culture gaps grew. Some Japanese teens did attend to the horror of their teachers and families.

This camp also had prisoner exchanges. That fact led some to think that those held in the internment camps were more dangerous than those at other camp, which was not the case.

The prisoner exchanges were as fascinating as they were horrifying. In addition to the transfers of actual war prisoners German Americans and Japanese Americans who had never been to their nationalities’ homeland were given the chance to do so. What they didn’t know, because they were not provided with news there, was just how bad things were in their homelands.

Thus some of the Germans who moved to Germany arrived after the U.S. had discovered the concentration camps and the war was pretty much over. Similarly, some of the Japanese arrived in Japan after the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The closest thing to a hero in the book was Eleanor Roosevelt. This book made me want to read more on her as well as more about Nuremberg. Eleanor was vocal in her opposition to the internment camps, including the one in Crystal City, even after her husband, you know, the president, had told her to quit it. That she kept talking about it impresses the heck out of me.

The final part of the book brings the reader up to speed on what has happened since the camp was closed. Namely the U.S. government did admit, in 1988, it was wrong to hold Japanese in internment camps and gave reparations of $20,000 to each camp survivor.

If you travel to Crystal City, as I considered doing while reading this moving book, most evidence of the camp is gone. There IS a historical marker but it only mentions that Japanese were held there.

All these years later German-Americans, including survivors, are still pushing the federal government to admit they were held too. They’ve told the government: we’re not even asking for money, just admit what you did. As recently as with President Obama they made that request and continue to be denied.

The book was a reminder of many things, such as how if you look into any area of history you will find horrific stories you didn’t know about. Or about how there are American leaders who at first opposed these camps but later worked on them, for the same reasons given by German leaders in Nuremberg, namely, I was only following orders.

So while many folks I know have been learning about Vietnam in recent days, via the PBS series, I’ve been learning about this particularly ugly chapter in World War II. I hope this review will pique your interest and that the U.S. government will, one day, admit what it did to Germans.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education… then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years
He lives in Austin.

He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one.

He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle.

He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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