In 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from western states. I was one of the 120,000 placed into temporary quarters called Civilian Control Centers, which were comprised of county fair grounds and race tracks. Horse stalls were cleaned out about as well as they could be, and each one became an apartment for a family. Most were there for 2-3 months and then moved to more permanent locations called War Relocation Centers. My father, mother, older brother and older sister and I lived in Los Angeles. We were moved to Manzanar near Death Valley where about 10,000 were incarcerated. I only there a little over a year because I got to leave early.
The government had a problem: they had 120,000 Japanese Americans to take care of, and didn't know what they ate. Some thought, “These Japanese have come from an island country, we'll feed them fish.” The first week I was there, all we got was fish and seafood. You haven't lived until you've seen a small squid with its legs hanging out. When they get boiled, a purple fluid comes out. One of the first dinners happened to be this boiled squid. We had WWI aluminum plates without dividers, which we had to carry down a buffet line. First was mashed potatoes. Then came the squid, whole. Then vegetables. When they plopped it down, purple liquid went into everything. Real bitchy thing to eat. Some loved it. I was from the city and we never ate stuff like that. We had bologna and roast beef!
A lot of the older folks in the center were bitter. Then they said, 'what the hell, what about the kids?' They were pulled out of school mid-semester and risked losing their progress. So a number of college-aged or older people set up temporary schools in the mess halls. We used picnic tables as desks. I taught junior high students math and English. Most of us had no certifications, no background in teaching, but we answered the need. Funny thing is, the State of California accepted the grades that we gave. No student that finished their course load lost their standing. We thought we were clever, that this was a unique situation, but the same thing happened in the other centers without communication. My wife was doing the same thing at the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas.
There were a number of disaffected people in the relocation centers making problems. I expounded against them and caught quite a bit of flak for it. I was threatened harm, and others like myself were beaten up. My father and mother were both told that I had been “marked for violence.” Our room was 20x30 and had one door. That night, I stationed myself on one side of the door and my older brother stationed himself on the other. We had baseball bats because we knew they were coming. My father had stolen some red and black pepper from the mess hall. My mother had a small bag of red pepper, and my father had a bag of black pepper. They were stationed next to me and my brother. If anyone came in they were gonna get whacked, and also get a mess of pepper in their face. We were prepared. That night turned out to be a false alarm. We stood ready for two nights and that was about it. After that, it wasn't that bad.
In January 1943 the Army sent around recruiters to find Japanese-Americans that could speak, read & write Japanese. These people would translate recovered documents and interrogate prisoners of war. I failed that exam because my Japanese was poor. English was good, Japanese was extremely poor. My level of Japanese education went to the third year. It was very insufficient.
Then in February 1943, another group of army men came in recruiting volunteers for the front lines in the 442nd regiment. All they wanted were men that would be able to meet the requirements to become soldiers in 6 months or less. I volunteered; there weren't many. But I was not accepted because my eyes were so poor. They told me I had 20/600 in one eye and 20/800 in the other. I told them I would buy 6-8 sets of steel-rimmed glasses so if I broke one set I'd have more pairs handy. They told me I was nuts. I was refused.
Those are the two reasons I was able to leave early: I was too anti-anti-American and got named to a hit list. And too goddamn American because I wanted to volunteer for the front lines from a Relocation Center!
I refused to call them concentration camps because I didn't like the comparisons to the camps of Europe. We were treated well for the most part.
It was a unique experience. Because of it, I moved my occupational goals from engineering to social work. I'd be able to do something about effecting policy and that's what I wanted to do. I made a change, and that's a positive. I also probably would not have gone beyond about 50mi of home if I hadn't. And I was able to meet the person I married. It turned out not bad.
I didn't end up antagonistic to the US. I came out with an understanding of what hysteria can do. My advice? I want everyone to remember that the government makes mistakes and usually corrects itself. Even though we have had problems, this system of government is probably the best that's available. Don't give up on America. It's great.
I write letters, been doing it over fifty years. Since 1963. I write to all sorts of people. I've written to prisoners, to a minister, to a nun, to a monk. To regular people – people in different states. I'd get their names from a friendship book; someone writes to me and sends me a friendship book, you copy down somebody's name and send it to someone else. Somebody else gets your name, and on and on.
At one time I had over 100 pals. Now if I have 50, it's a lot. People die. People quit writing, or maybe I quit writing to some people.
Starting out, I always wanted to write to someone. Then when I went to a Jehova's witness convention in 1963 in Milwaukee, at the stadium, I met a woman there named Joanne. I said, “hello there” and asked if I could write to her. We probably wrote, could have been, 10-12 years. She even sent me a couple gifts when I graduated high school. I still have one of those.
I remember I kept trying to guess her age, “You're 21, you're 28.” I didn't have her the longest, think I had two or more for longer than Joanne. But it's kinda special having that first person. Then I got a few more, through the years, then I got a whole bunch.
I'm closest to Frances from Texas. We're on the phone everyday, 2, 3, 4 times. We share a lot. She got married to her first husband in Texas, about 50 years ago. She was a child, 18, when she married him. He died soon after in a car accident. Then she met Charlie and married him, and they were married quite a while. He died about two years ago from lung cancer. She doesn't have any kids or grand kids. She lives by herself out in the country. She's originally from Manhattan!
Then there was Brother Thadeus, a Monk from Kentucky. He died about three years ago. We me through someone else. He used to send me beautiful cards and things, it was very nice. He was supportive. Last I heard, he was gonna visit relatives in CA and I didn't hear from him, didn't hear from him. When I wrote to the monastery they said he had died and sent me his obituary. I don't know what he died of – I know he had diabetes like my husband and I have. Could be anything, he was close to 70. He was a very nice person.
The men in prison – they can get strange sometimes. Sometimes they can be okay. One sent me a hand-made bag that his cellmate made for me. It's got my name right on there. They sent me perfume, powdered perfume. My sister asked me what I told him to make him send me this stuff – I sure never told him I was in love with him or thought he was the greatest guy. Prisoners are in the habit of doing that. They say, 'I love you, you're the greatest, blah blah blah.' Well I'm married, and that don't make any difference to them some of the time. I'm not writing to him now cos he got nasty.
I still write today, I sure do, pen and paper. I don't know any other way. I don't have a computer, and even if I did I'd still do it this way. Cos I like to send out my cards, that's what I do. Someone said it's a dying thing, letter writing.
One piece of advice? I don't know. Care for each other.
My name's Katherine Syfiert, my maiden name. I took it back as a 40th birthday present to myself. I'm a 4th generation Madisonian on one side and a 5th generation on the other. I worked for Child Protective Services for 45 years.
I had gone to East High School; I was a really good student. I played in the band, I was the editor of the paper, all this kind of stuff. Then I started at the University here in 1959. I cried that I wasn't able to go away to school, but since I was poor, I was just glad to go to school.
I was in over my head in the world of men, let's put it that way. Somewhere after my freshman year, I was pregnant. In those days, it was all your fault; if you got pregnant, it was because you didn't say no enough. By now you would probably call it date rape, but I didn't even know that term. Then you have to tell your parents.
You had the chance, if no one knew, to pass it off. I went to “stay with relatives,” and placed this child for adoption. That's what a kid would do back in the 1960s. Then they could go to a family that wanted them and could do everything for them you couldn't. If you raised them, you wouldn't have an education or any money. So you take the opportunity. Nobody, except a very few, knew.
It does something to you though, because you always feel like you're being dishonest. “Well if you knew who I really was, what I've really been through, you wouldn't think I was such a great person.”
At one point I met a man and thought I should really tell him about this baby I gave up. So I did, and two weeks before the wedding he told me he didn't feel the same way about me anymore. I felt naïve, but I always knew I could get through it. Therapy helped.
One day I went to a group called AID, Adoption Information and Direction. They were gatherings of adult adoptees and parents of adopted parents talking about the issues related to adopted kids. In the late 1970s, adult adoptees wanted to know where they came from and were fighting the laws that had sealed all this stuff.
I made up my mind that I was going to make it possible for my son to find me, if he would ever want to. I sent a letter to the adoption agency and got back a letter saying saying your son has recently been asking how he could find you.
It was the news I was wishing for, even though I knew that I'd have to tell my own children, who were older teens, when this came out. But having been a part of that group and seeing how important it was for the adult adoptees to find and know who their birth parents were, I decided I needed to. And we did find each other. He had saved old pictures of everything in a scrap book. His whole life – graduation, everything – so he would have this to show me!
I think a lot people, like me, end up in social work because of stories like that; they come out of abuse or something else and they want to help. I was able to tell these kids that I've been there and that I know what it means. I know where you're standing.
I think what happens to these kids is they don't have anybody else to love. They think if they have a baby, things would be better. With no sense of what it takes to make a secure enough life for that child to not pay the price.
Sometimes my work meant convincing a mother that as much as they love their child, they can't quite do it. This baby deserved to be happy, secure, trusting, smiling, healthy – and these kids didn't have those things.
Some of my best memories are of people that have gone though hell and thanked me for treating them like a person. Told me that I've made a difference in the work that I did. It was really hard to give it up.
Advice? Be a part of others' support group. Make new families, new support groups, new friends. Help people when they screw up.
I often thought that difference between me and my clients was that I had a family. If the car broke down, my dad would give me a ride so that I could get to school. It's that sense that somebody would.
Also, there are times when you need to give things away. Without expectation. Not a loan – just give it. When you can. Just give it and not have them feel embarrassed because they can't pay it back.
And get people to try things when they don't want to or think they can't. When you tell them they can, and they do, everyone feels great.
And lastly: regardless of whatever you've done, or wherever you've been, or had happened to you, you can still be there for other people.