Learning history through art

Anne Frank. Gerda Weissmann Klein. Sabina Szwarc.

These names are among those recorded at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. They were among the approximately six million Jews in Europe that were subjected to persecution and murder by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. According to the museum, nearly two out of every three European Jews were killed by 1945 as Nazi Germany attempted to create a more pure race which included targeting some 200,000 gypsies and at least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients.

It’s easy to focus solely overseas when faced with these horrible facts surrounding World War II. It’s a shameful part of history that needs to be remembered so that it’s never repeated again. However to do this, Americans must also remember that Europe was not alone in having concentration camps on its land.

During the war, there were thousands of Americans rounded up, assigned family numbers and moved into concentration camps based on their ethnic heritage alone.

There were 10 Japanese American Internment Camps, two of which were based in Arkansas. The Jerome Internment Camp was partially in both Drew and Chicot County and is today a National Historic Landmark. According to AETN’s WWII Oral History Project, the camp was open for 634 days, the fewest of any of the camps, and held 8,497 Japanese Americans on its 10,054 acres.

The Rohwer Relocation Center was built in Desha County, although only the camp’s cemetery remains. The cemetery is a National Historic Landmark. AETN recorded it as housing some 16,000 Japanese Americans from Sept. 18, 1942, to Nov. 30, 1945. It was the one of the last to close and its 10,161 acres were about 12 miles northeast of McGehee.

Imagine growing up in these concentration camps? I admit, it’s hard and unpleasant to.

For this reason, I say a field trip is in order. The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies is presenting “The Art of Living: Japanese American Creative Experience at Rohwer” at its Concordia Hall, 401 President Clinton Ave., through Nov. 26.

I attended the exhibit by chance on Saturday, the day after its grand opening. It displays many of the handcrafts made by the Japanese Americans who were interned at Rohwer. It was humbling to see the small wooden statues of the Bald Eagle, the national bird, and the various self-portraits, wood carvings and even a silk screen. I loved seeing the various bird pins made from scrap wood, the various murals as well as the fashion drawings. The fashion drawings made me laugh. No matter where you are, you are also going to want to look your best. The pieces were mostly from the Mabel Rose Jamison Vogel/Rosalie Santine Gould Collection at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies with additional pieces donated by twin sisters Tanaka and Yetsuko Saguchi, who were both interned at Rohwer.

Despite the ugliness of the camp, those within its boundaries were still able to see beauty in common items. A tin can became part of a bracelet, dried grass became zori sandals and scrap fabric and brown paper sacks became books.

Two of my favorite pieces were Kinuye Morimotsu’s “Apple Girl” that was completed in 1943 and Terry Yokoi’s “Japanese Landscape” completed in 1945 (both pictured below). These simple paintings were great, although you shouldn’t just take my word for it.

"Apple Girl." Photo by Sarah Morris
"Japanese Landscape." Photo by Sarah Morris

Visit and let me know what your favorite pieces are. You won’t regret it.

For more information on the exhibit, call (501) 320-5700.

This is a copy of my bi-weekly Tuesday column: Sarah’s Thoughts.


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