Last January, I got the opportunity to review one of those rare books which takes the reader by surprise by its depth into the nature of humanity. The book, "The Train to Crystal City" by Jan Jarboe Russell, is the rarely told story of community, uprooted by war, fear, and anger; stripped of nearly everything and held captive behind barbed wire and watchtowers and ultimately used as pawns by a government they trusted in as told from the prespective of two American-born teenage girls; one of Japanesse ancestry and the other of German. Their stories are made even more tragic by the fact that these were ordinary Americans, differing only in national origin or race, but otherwise little different from you and I.
Like any American family found in every city, town, or wide spot on a country road, they had their own family traditions and beliefs. They shared the desire for a new and better life for themselves and their children. They believed strongly in a strong work ethic, in family and community, and most of all, in freedom. What happened to these family was a national tragedy, but also a warning that such things have happened here and may happen again.
The publication of "The Train to Crystal City" was a literary success. It was listed in the New York Times' "The Top Books of 2015" and the New York Post's "2015 Favorates". I would like to think that my pre-publication review of the book, which I am re-posting below, aided in some small way to its success, but the credit belongs entirely to Ms. Russell's ability to bring the stories of these remarkable individuals to life in such a way that even with the passing of some 70 odd years we can easily relate to them as if they were one of our own. With that, I am pleased to say that "The Train to Crystal City" has been released in paperback. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book, I urge you to do so now. It may just open your eyes.
"The Train to Crystal City"
by Jan Jarboe Russell
World War II, like all wars, encompassed more than just military successes or defeats or the rise and fall of an ideology. Wars impact every aspect of human existence, thus it comes down to the individual and how their lives are impacted in ways where they had little, or more often than not, no choices. So what becomes of those who trusted their country to protect them and instead, betrayed them? What about governments who selectively disregard individual rights out of fears---perhaps real; perhaps not? How does one cope with suddenly being stripped of their job; their school; the friends and loved one and imprisoned for an undefined crime? We've come to expect this of a dictatorship, but what about America?
I had the opportunity to recently review "The Train to Crystal City" by Jan Jarboe Russell. This is the story of just a few of the thousands of lives that, through war, became intertwined in ways that are scarcely imaginable today. These ordinary individuals found themselves thrust upon a world stage, not as bit players, but as set pieces to be used and discarded by events far greater than any of them could comprehend at the time. This is the story of what happens to the American Dream when fear and prejudice are allowed to engulf a nation's soul.
The internment camp in Crystal City Texas was a one of a kind facility designed to hold families and serve to facilitate a secret prisoner exchange program created by President Roosevelt. Its internees would be exchanged, sometimes involuntarily, along with their families and sent to Germany for key personnel, such as downed US pilots or prominent businessmen held by the enemy, and later in the war, for American or non-aligned Jewish nationals held in concentration camps. Then there was those Japanese-Americans who just wanted to go home---not to Tokyo or Yokohama---but to Los Angeles, San Francisco or perhaps Lima and return to their lives before the war who instead found themselves on liberty ships sailing to a devastated and defeated Japan; a Japan their parents did not recognize. As wonderfully told by Ms. Russell, many of the children, who were American born, didn't speak the language of their parent nor understand the culture. In countries where thousands were fleeing and millions were trying to rebuild their lives, these former Americans or Latin Americans were trying to find their way amid rubble, despair, and suspicion.
Then, of course, there were those who benefited from secret exchange like a former baseball pitcher and pilot who was shot down over Germany and lost a leg, exchanged for an internee and found a new life back home in America, or a Jewish girl, who had been interned in the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp along with her family, and managed to obtain a forged passport from Ecuador, exchanged for an denationalized German and his family at the last minute, but then left stranded in Algiers awaiting changes in a government policy that would allow her to complete her journey, while her family remained stuck in a Swiss hospital thousands of miles away.
These stories are as compelling as they are compassionately told through Ms Russell with each turn of the page; many of their stories having never been told until now. Thanks to Ms. Russell, we can relive their memories with them; their fears; their anger; their sense of betrayal; and their sense of aloneness and shame as their time behind barbed wire and watch towers slowly changed from days into months, and then into years, and ultimately the bitterness that they faced when they were forced to leave the country they loved so much and return to a world they barely remembered or knew at all. Some would adjust. Some would be broken, but all would carry the weight of their internment.
In the end, "The Train to Crystal City" is a story that every American needs to know. As hard as it is for us to believe some 70 years on, this is a story of people as real as you or I who had to suffer the indignity of imprisonment and loss of nearly everything they held dear for nothing more than being born in a foreign land or looking different. Finally, it's the story of perseverance; of family and the human spirit's ability to overcome hardships. It's also a warning. If it happened once before, could it happen again, and if so, who will its victims be this time?