The Observer Review: The Train to Crystal City, by Jan Jarboe Russell

Jan Jarboe Russell reads from The Train to Crystal City on Monday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m., at BookPeople in Austin.

Why should a person read about injustices perpetrated by her country in the distant past? To honor those who suffered? To inoculate against the repetition of errors? To strip the scales from her eyes and develop a more realistic, if more jaded, picture of her government?

For any of these reasons, Americans—and particularly Texans—should read Jan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II. The camp was located about 120 miles southwest of San Antonio, but remains a little-known part of the state’s wartime history.

During World War II, the U.S. established two systems of internment camps. The better known of the two, the War Relocation Authority, displaced 120,000 Japanese, more than half of them born in the United States, from Pacific-coast states. The second program—the Alien Enemy Control Unit program under the Department of Justice—imprisoned mainly German, Japanese or Italian citizens who were deemed threats to national security, often with dubious justification. The Crystal City camp, one of three DOJ camps in Texas, was the only one in the U.S. designed to house families.

The Train to Crystal City
Jan Jarboe Russell
416 pages; $30

From December 1942 to February 1948, more than 6,000 persons of German, Japanese and Italian descent spent some period of time confined in the 290-acre camp. Many were wives or American-born children of men who’d been arrested and interned for being leaders in their immigrant communities. The Crystal City camp offered these women and children a chance to “voluntarily” intern at the camp, thus reuniting families and keeping a roof over their heads. Such was the circumstance of Ingrid Eiserloh, born in New York to German parents, and Sumi Utsushigawa, born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents. Russell structures her account loosely around these two women’s memories of their childhood internments.

The book focuses on one especially painful and surreal development: the exchange of internees, including American-born U.S. citizens of German and Japanese descent, for American prisoners (such as diplomats and businessmen) held in Germany and Japan. To bring captive Americans home during wartime, President Franklin Roosevelt had to find prisoners to exchange for them, and Crystal City detainees served that role. Some fathers suffering from “fence sickness”—i.e. internment camp depression—volunteered for the exchanges, regardless of the wishes of their American children. News was censored in Crystal City, and though information spread through contraband radios and rumor, it was possible for desperate fathers, such as Ingrid’s and Sumi’s, to believe that Axis powers would prevail, and that contrary reports were propaganda. Even after the war and the prisoner exchanges ended, President Truman ordered that remaining alien enemies who were considered dangerous should be “repatriated”—an inaccurate word for second-generation Japanese-Americans such as Sumi, who was sent with her parents to Japan in December 1945. The process of determining which internees were dangerous and which would be released domestically was one factor that delayed the camp’s closure until 1948.

Once repatriated, it didn’t take long for the Eiserloh and Utsushigawa patriarchs to realize the folly of their fantasies. The transition from Texas warmth to snow and starvation in war-battered Germany and Japan was painful. Native populations, suspicious that the repatriates were spies, had a hard time believing their complicated and counterintuitive stories about being imprisoned in the country to which they had immigrated, and then exchanged for prisoners.

But not all was lost for these central characters. Ironically, both families found work abroad for the U.S. military, and the young women eventually made their ways back to the United States. Ingrid, a prisoner traded to Germany for Americans, helped save the life of German Jewish teenager Irene Hasenberg in a concentration camp. Hasenberg and her family, who spent nearly a year in Bergen-Belsen, held faux Ecuadorian passports, making them eligible for Germany’s last prisoner exchange with the U.S. “The exchange was intended as Germans for Americans, but these two teenagers were exceptions,” Russell writes: “a German Jew in Bergen-Belsen traded for an American in Crystal City.” The passages about Ingrid and Irene’s intertwined fates are some of the most engrossing in the book.

Russell brings to life other characters as well. One poignant example is camp supervisor Joseph O’Rourke, a Border Patrol officer in his late 40s who treated internees with compassion while suffering under the weight of his assignment and a lonely personal life. He once told a colleague, “My family is the people in this camp.”

O’Rourke’s side story is compelling, but elsewhere it can seem that Russell includes the life histories of so many people that her central narrative becomes cluttered. Ingrid and Sumi are forgotten as readers become distracted with details about other internees, or political figures in Washington.

This weakness is balanced by Russell’s gift for reconstructing vivid scenes from documents, correspondence and interviews. She also succeeds at showing the complexity of the moral dilemma faced by officers like O’Rourke, who were tasked with deciding who was dangerous and whose rights should be restricted. While most of those interned were citizens loyal to the U.S., some were Nazi sympathizers, including Fritz Kuhn, head of the American Nazi Party. Ingrid’s father had openly expressed anti-Semitic views. This may not have made him a threat, but a reader can understand why, without the benefit of hindsight, it raised suspicion.

Perhaps the purpose of reading about dark episodes in the past is to remind us that present-day conflicts between liberty and security may not have clear answers now any more than they did then.

“The fundamental questions of citizenship, the status of aliens—indeed the definition of who is and who is not an American—are perennial,” Russell writes near the end of the book. In telling Ingrid’s and Sumi’s stories, she illustrates what it meant to be a casualty of policies intended to protect Americans. Ultimately, The Train to Crystal City is about identity, allegiance and home, and the difficulty of determining the loyalties that lie in individual human hearts.

Contributing writer Robyn Ross lives in Austin.

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Published at 3:50 pm CST