‘Society can do better’: Topaz Stories exhibit at Utah Capitol shares tales of hardship, redemption

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s a part of American history that some would probably rather forget.

But it should be remembered and reflected on.

Shortly after Japanese forces had completed their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II, fear and hysteria ran rampant throughout the country. Now engaged in a conflict with Japan, many were convinced that the those of Japanese lineage living in the U.S., particularly on the West Coast, would serve as operatives for the enemy.

As a result, from Feb.1942 to March 1946, more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent were rounded up and forcibly relocated and detained in one of 10 War Relocation Authority facilities, or internment camps.

One of those camps was placed not too far from Delta, Utah and was known as the Topaz War Relocation Center, or just Topaz, for short.

Since the end of the war, and after the passing of several more decades, the United States government determined that the use of internment camps and the treatment of its inhabitants was primarily rooted in racism and fear. There was no evidence to suggest that any of those who were held in facilities, such as Topaz, were conspiring against the U.S.. By 1992, more than $1.6 billion had been paid in reparations surviving interned Japanese Americans.

Still, a little more than 80 years after Pearl Harbor, some scars persist and the stories of the families who were interned at Topaz are hoped to serve as a reminder and a cautionary tale of discrimination. 

At least that’s what Jonathan Hirabayashi, who designed the Topaz Stories exhibit installment at the Utah State Capitol hopes.

“The Topaz situation was in total, very, very hard for a lot of people,” he explains. “But many, many people persevered and continued on with their lives.”

The exhibit, which was completed on the third level of the capitol building on Friday, is simple but powerful. The halls are lined with the 31 stories from surviving families of internship or from their descendants. Some of them are heartbreaking, including one of a family who had to leave behind their beloved family dog during their evacuation and relocation to Topaz. Another tells the tale of a child who was born in one of the facility’s dirty horse stables turned into a makeshift apartment. 

Hirabayashi‘s family’s story is there too. Though he never experienced Topaz, his grandparents and parents did. In fact, it was while his parents were waiting to be sent to Topaz from the Tanforan Assembly Center in California, that his father proposed to his mother. Their honeymoon was a trip to Topaz, their horse stable/living quarters serving as their honeymoon suite.

“Unfortunately the damp wood and horse manure made the stall smell really bad,” Hirabayashi writes in his story’s display. “My parents were able to joke about this years later. I thought it was funny too, when I first heard the story. Nowadays, when I think about it, I get mad and sad at the same time.”

Hirabayashi believes his family eventually found redemption after Topaz, while living in Pleasant Grove. His mother was elected president of his school’s PTA, and his father was invited into the local Lion’s Club, something he calls a “positive experience” for both of them.

Still, there are some feelings of sadness, and a bit of anger, when he thinks about his family’s hardships at Topaz. His hope is that we can learn a lesson from the mistakes of the past, and give it consideration the next time we have the opportunity to impose hardship on others from a different culture.

“Eventually there’s redemption somewhere, and you just realize you have to move on,” Hirabayashi says.  “And you just want to do better the next time whenever a group is subjected to those kind of biases. So that’s that’s how I look on the whole situation as something that you learn from and that society can do better next time.”

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