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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Commemorating shame

George and Kim Semba were teenagers when they were hauled from their Washington state homes in 1942 and interned in the Idaho desert for their bloodlines, their last names, the shapes of their eyes.

Carried by trains, windows draped so passengers couldn't see where they were going, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans like the Sembas were trapped behind barbed wire during World War II at what became known as the Hunt Camp - a concentration camp in all but name.

After the war, the camp fell apart, returned to dust and sagebrush, and little was said about it. That's changing. The site became a historical monument by executive order in 2001. Since 2002, plans have been in the making to rebuild a portion of the camp, now called the Minidoka Internment National Monument, to its original condition.

Local historians, residents, even several American presidents say reconstructing the site is essential to remembering, to ensuring a place like the Hunt Camp never again exists on American soil. But not everyone agrees - including the Sembas, who were surprised to learn that several Idaho lawmakers introduced this spring a bill in Washington, D.C., to expand the camp.

For some of us, learning from history means looking it in the face. For others, the pain simply cuts too deep to revisit our pasts.

"I just want to forget about that place," said Kim Semba. Now, she returns to the site only to show curious friends the place she suffered so much misery. She never enjoys the visits - trips that spark painful memories of cramped living conditions, armed guards, white Idaho children on the other side of the barbed wire who hollered "Jap" whenever Kim came near.

A push to remember

Others insist on commemorating the site. The National Park Service, which now manages the camp, wants to nearly double the size of the monument and either move or reconstruct original buildings on the property. The NPS hosted 28 public meetings about the expansion since 2005, said monument superintendent Neil King, and most of the feedback has been positive. Even from former internees, many of whom flock to the site each year for an annual pilgrimage.

In March, Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson introduced legislation to expand the monument to include Bainbridge Island, Wash., where the first Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to internment camps such as Hunt Camp.

Earlier this month, the College of Southern Idaho hosted a civil rights symposium centered on the memorial's history. And most recently, the memorial was named one of America's most endangered historic places - because of a proposed animal feedlot nearby - by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in an effort to boost interest in the camp.

However painful, it's necessary to acknowledge history, said Russ Tremayne, a professor of history at the College of Southern Idaho.

"The monument is like a cemetery," he said. "It's historically significant." And despite the Sembas' reluctance to embrace the camp, "these are their stories," Tremayne said. "This is something that they've buried. But history doesn't get buried. Historians might, but history never does."

A push to forget

So why all the attention now, after the camp sat unnoticed for decades, crumbling back into dust?

"If you look at the dark, ugly depths of our history, those take a long time to come out," King said. "We're just now sort of bringing it out of the closet."

The Sembas would prefer that door stay closed. Rebuilding the camp will do little to quell racism, they said; it may even incite it. George and Kim, now both in their 80s, have lived a lifetime and are yet to understand why they were treated so poorly - why they're sometimes still treated poorly.

"We were American citizens," George said. "We'd never even been to Japan."

George's former high school buddies stopped talking to him after Pearl Harbor. Just one friend ever bothered to send him a letter after the war. After being released from the camp with only the clothes on their backs, the Sembas were migrant laborers, making less than a dollar an hour stooping in Idaho farm fields. They saved their money, and eventually bought a farm south of Twin Falls where they worked until they retired to town several years ago.

Even now, after so many years, the Sembas said racism is still palpable. "There are some people that understand," George said. "But there are still people who are sometimes mean to us."

Perhaps it's to shield themselves from a lifetime of discrimination that the Sembas now shy away from the Hunt Camp. They're tired of talking to reporters about it. Tired of taking visiting friends to the site. Tired of thinking about a time and place that defined their lives, perhaps for the worse.

"That place is terrible," said Kim. "There's nothing there for anyone." [Link]


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