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concentration camps

I sent both of my children on a bus on Tuesday. I knew where they were going.

The morning started rainy, buggy, and too early. To be fair, it always feels too early.

My husband and I waved from across the street as the buses pulled away, our kids, along with a hundred or so others, behind tinted glass. We waved like we were excited. Our son was likely not looking. Our daughter may have been, but she also could have not been paying attention until the bus started into motion. We won't know for sure if she saw us waving until she returns.

Returns.

Every day when I leave the house, I expect to return.

That's the default.

It's so much the default that realizing it is actually stunning. We run our lives as though anything else other than what's in our head, our routine, our privilege, is what will take place. There's that little truism that a worrier shines like a pebble in the hand: you're more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Yet we are much more likely to be worried about flying because it is out of our routine. Being out of your routine awakens you to the precariousness we completely shut out in our day-to-day lives.

I put my children on a bus. My oldest will be gone four weeks, my youngest, two.

What should be normal: sending your kids to sleep away camp. What feels wholly unnatural: sending your Jewish kids to a Jewish sleep away camp in the world we're living in now. Even writing those words: JEWISH SLEEP AWAY CAMP make my fingers seize at the knuckles. I don't want you to know there are such things as Jewish sleep away camps. Even having others know that they exist feels like a danger.

I'm used to my feelings and my instincts seeming like hyperbole to others. I'm emotional. I'm tuned in. I'm hyperreactive. I have a hair trigger. I have anxiety and depression.

I also come from a genetic and cultural history of people who ended up in this country because we were hunted and pursued and needed to escape. Over and over and over again. The cells that have come to build the tissues and structures of my body and my brain have been organized by UNSAFETY.

In "normal" suburban upper-class life, this can be a huge detriment. A handicap. It can manifest in the most unhelpful and frankly, startlingly blind ways. I've spent so much of my life reacting and feeling and then trying to understand what makes me tick. I've spent so much time learning to train and control and ignore and channel.

I wasn't made for easy times. I was made for survival. I was made, like an animal, to intuit danger and get the hell out, fast. I was made in the image of fight or flight. I do both better than most people. It's not something I brag about, because it doesn't feel like a good thing most of the time.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp. Because when my husband and I got married (I'm Jewish, he's not), our pact was this: if our children live in a world where historically they could be targeted and threatened because of their Jewishness (regardless of their actual observance of religion or customs), they deserved to know that being a Jew is not negative. We should give them every opportunity to be proud and happy about their Jewishness. Their belonging should help them to feel good about themselves and the world. It should help them seek connection and understanding of the human condition. They should know songs. They should sing full-throated. They should feel comfort in our traditions when they are useful to them, but never feel threatened or unnecessarily constrained by them.

Research funded by Jewish institutions and communities suggests that the number one way to help ground kids in their Jewish identity is to send them to Jewish sleep away camp. It's the glue.

And yet.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp at a time when our government is putting migrant children into concentration camps.

I bought all the supplies on the list. I washed and labeled and sorted and packed. I zipped up those bags to accompany my children. And then I dropped my children off and couldn't see if they were waving back as the buses drove away.

Of course, the camp I'm sending them to has a stellar reputation. Every day they post updates on a special web site, along with hundreds of pictures of the kids in action. I send emails to the kids which are printed out and given to them. I send packages with stickers and trading cards and all sorts of goofiness so that they know they are loved.

Migrants from central America have made their way to our border with just what they could carry. (My children's bags were so heavy that neither of them could carry them. Likely at least 1/4 of what I sent will come back unused or untouched.) Migrants are following the rules of asylum seeking. They are fleeing violence and intimidation and abuse far greater than I will allow myself to imagine. They are separated from their children by a government that has no business doing so.

I, an upper-class white woman, expect my voice to be heard. I expect to be able to vote and call and hold my elected officials accountable. I know what to say to get my point across. I've given money to candidates and I know how to threaten that support in the future. I also have the privilege of time and energy with which to do it. My underlying expectation is that there are very few problems that I don't have some redress for.

Asylum-seekers, in good faith, and following the rules, have nothing left to lose. They are coming here seeking something less life-threatening than what they're fleeing. They're seeking some good will. Or, at the very least, safety. Or relative safety.

I put my children on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp knowing that in my daughter's cabin of 8 girls, there are 4 young adult counselors who are there to make sure that she's safe, happy, and her needs are being met.

I also know that last year, an asshole white supremacist antisemite decided to go to a synagogue on shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and turn it into a bloodbath. Well before that ever happened, well before the era of mass shootings and Columbine, Jewish institutions like synagogues and preschools and JCCs have needed extra surveillance. We've had police guard our religious services and social gatherings. Even (and perhaps especially) seeking out Jewish belonging, Jewish joy, has always been a reckoning with danger and threat.

After I sent my children on that bus—the one I knew where it was going—the one where I'd shoveled their overpacked duffle bags into the bowels of the bus—I came home to a house strewn with the remnants from packing. Laundry bins with unneeded t-shirts and shorts and single socks. The cat—he normally comes to greet me when he hears the garage door open—was nowhere to be seen. I called for him. He still did not come. I came upstairs and looked in my son's room. No cat. I looked in my daughter's room—with its orange and pink somewhat darkened by the rainy skies—and there he was, tucked into a furry circle in an eddy of her duvet. I laid down next to him and lost control. The control I never really had.

Twitter this week has erupted in a jagged back-and-forth between politicians and pundits and opinion-havers about whether or not it is appropriate to call the migrant detention centers run by ICE and our government "concentration camps." I, and most other Jews I follow and know, agree they should be called exactly what they are.

Non-Jews (and, to be fair, some Jews as well), like to tiptoe around the Holocaust and any words or imagery which may in any way encroach upon the historical accuracy or singular legacy of that horrible period. To a degree, I might agree when the comparisons are used flippantly or improperly.

But the legacy of the Holocaust, we are all reminded, is NEVER AGAIN. And NEVER AGAIN means that we don't wait until something worse happens. What's happening RIGHT NOW in the United States shares that DNA.

In the same way I understood or had an inkling in my bones that the election might go a way I didn't want it to, I know this same thing: we are not ok. This is not just the start. This is halfway down the road to the place where we lose not just perceived control, but real control. For all the current administration's lies and purposeful incapabilities, know this: the cruelty that comes out of the mouth of our president and those who continue to support him in the government and in the populace is not a lie. It is predictive. They're telling us in advance what they intend to do. And then they are doing it.

In a world where I still have the ability to put my daughter and son on a bus with all their toiletries and know that they will likely arrive at their destination, I also know that our government argued for the legal right to deny soap and toothbrushes to migrant children. When anyone's children are denied such basics—human basics—no one is safe.

I know it will sound like hyperbole. I know that those who so easily dismissed my concerns early on—before this administration even took office—will still attempt to dismiss my warnings now. But do so at your own peril.

I was not built for normal times. I was built for times like these. And I haven't been wrong yet.

This post originally appeared on Outside Voice. You can read it here.

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A mini history lesson about the concentration camps on American soil.

74 years ago, a U.S. president ordered an entire ethnic group to be placed in concentration camps on U.S. soil.

During World War II, a young boy was forced from his home with his family, placed on a cramped train, and sent to an isolated camp across the country with no knowledge of when he would be able to return home. He and his family were confined to camps for years, solely on the basis of their ethnicity.

This isn’t the story of an inhumane atrocity that happened across an ocean or in another country. It happened on U.S. soil in 1942.


Kids boarding a bus for relocation in Byron, California. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

And the young boy in this story is George Takei, the "Star Trek" actor, who was one of more than 117,000 Japanese-Americans detained in U.S. concentration camps during the early 1940s. He talked about his experience on Democracy Now!:

"We had nothing to do with the war. We simply happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. But without charges, without trial, without due process — the fundamental pillar of our justice system — we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps — prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us — in some of the most desolate places in this country: the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, the blistering hot desert of Arizona, of all places, in black tarpaper barracks. And our family was sent two-thirds of the way across the country, the farthest east, in the swamps of Arkansas."

Japanese internment is a dark period in America's history, but in many history classrooms, the camps are only touched on briefly — if at all.

American citizens receiving their instructions for deportation. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

In my public school U.S. history curriculum, the internment camps were just a couple of paragraphs in a textbook, and we didn't talk about it in class at all. During college and through my own research, I learned so much more about the camps and the people inside of them — and why it's still important to talk about them.

Here are four key things that you should know - but might not have learned - about the forced relocation of Japanese Americans on U.S. soil.

1. Japanese internment began Feb. 19, 1942, and most evacuees were detained in the camps for about three years.

On that day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that paved the way for detainment and the relocation of Japanese-Americans. In the coming months, almost 120,000 West Coast residents were removed from their homes and sent to 10 camps across America.

The detainees were instructed to only bring belongings that could fit in one suitcase, and they were forced to leave behind their homes, businesses, and schools. Most of them had no idea if or when they would return. Can you imagine how terrifying that would be?

Most families didn't know where they were going or when they would come back. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

2. Most of the camps were isolated, and they lacked the resources and freedoms of the outside world.

The camps weren't fully constructed when the detainees were being evacuated, so some families were held in "assembly centers" like Tanforan, a racetrack. According to a survivor, they slept in horse stalls, didn't have access to running water or heat, and had limited access to bathrooms.

After Japanese-Americans were moved from the assembly centers to the more permanent camps, they usually lived in barracks, where there was limited privacy. The camps eventually had clinics and schools, but they were understaffed and under-resourced.

A notice informed Japanese-Americans they would be evacuated. Photo via U.S. government/Wikimedia Commons.

3. The detainees worked hard to make the camps feel like home.

Compared to the victims of the Nazi death camps, most of the people incarcerated in Japanese internment facilities had a much higher quality of life, and outright violence was rare. The detainees knew they wouldn't get to go home anytime soon, so they started making the camps their own.

Japanese-Americans wrote, published, and distributed their own newspapers in the camps. People who had been leaders in their communities pre-internment ran for elected office in their camp's community council. Young people put together bands and held dances. And even though most of the camps closed in 1945, survivors still meet periodically for reunions.


A community council holds a meeting in the Topaz, Utah, concentration camp. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

4. When the camps closed, many Japanese-Americans didn't — or couldn't — go back home.

In his interview, George Takei said that going back to California from the camp in Arizona was a "horrific, traumatic experience." Because the internment period devastated businesses owned by Japanese-Americans, many families lived in poverty in the years after the war. The families who were detained left almost everything behind, but there was very little to come back to.

"We lost everything. We were given a one-way ticket to wherever in the United States we wanted to go to, plus $20. And many people were very embittered about their West Coast experience, and they chose to go to the Midwest, places like Chicago or Milwaukee, or further east to New Jersey, New York, Boston. My parents decided to go back to Los Angeles. We were most familiar there. But we found that it was very difficult. Housing was impossible. They would deny us housing. Jobs were very, very difficult." — George Takei, via Democracy Now!

Fumi Hayashi recounted to the Oral History Archives Project: "I remember once around Christmas time, wondering when we'd ever get out of there. And it's sort of like, 'Does the government really hate me this much?' ... It's a hard thing to accept, and there's no answer." Photo via U.S. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

We want to think that something as terrible as uprooting and imprisoning an entire ethnic group could never happen in America, but it did. And it could happen again (just ask Donald Trump and his supporters).

So it's important to keep remembering—by telling our stories and listening to the people who tell theirs.