Hilary Wilce discovers what happened to American students of Japanese and German origin during the Second World War
Imagine you are an all-American high school student going about your everyday life when suddenly you're whisked away from your friends and neighbours, transported half-way across the continent and locked up in a dusty Texan internment camp.
This is what happened to thousands of students of Japanese and German origin during the Second World War. It happened to Sei Deyo, an American-born Japanese boy who, in 1941, was living happily in Santa Barbara, California, studying the American constitution at school and working for his boy scout badges. Following Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, his father was arrested, and the family was taken off to Texas. It happened to Art Jacob, a teenager of German origin and another keen scout, who was buying war bonds at his New York school until his father was also arrested as an enemy alien.
It happened, as well, to hundreds of Japanese and German families living and working in Latin America, who were brought to the United States as part of an aggressive deportation programme orchestrated by the American government, which wanted a pool of people who could be more easily deported in exchange for Americans held overseas than could the families of enemy aliens who were already settled in the United States. All these groups were represented at the Crystal City internment camp, a collection of rough huts and a muddy pond near San Antonio which, from 1942 onwards, bloomed into a flourishing settlement through which almost 5,000 internees passed before it closed in 1946.
The camp's population was always divided and in flux. Numbers varied as new internees arrived and others opted to be repatriated. Most of the Japanese-Americans came from the west coast; they included many teachers and other well-educated professionals who were viewed with suspicion by the FBI for what it saw as their influence in the Japanese community. The German-Americans, in contrast, came mainly from the east coast, and from the artisan class - the level of society from which German agents traditionally recruited informants and infiltrators.
The camp opened Japanese, German and American schools, and Schools Behind Barbed Wire meticulously charts the short but varied histories of these three institutions, offering in the process a string of fascinating cameos highlighting how schools are culturally defined, and how they, in turn, shape and define the pupils who pass through them. The German school catered for the children of people who were often angry about being arrested, and about the way they had been treated in prisons and holding camps before being interned. A rabidly nationalist group quickly came to run the camp's German section - in 1943 they honoured Hitler's birthday with a swastika hung in a recreation hall - with the result that even though most of the children spoke English as their first language, almost all were sent to the German school to be taught in German.
This was agony for students such as Otto Strassburger, a gangly 13-year-old, made to sit alongside third-graders because of his poor language skills, while other students remember the school regime as harsh and rigid. Untrained teachers taught a traditional German syllabus, which included lots of maths and four languages, but almost no music or literature.
A similar nationalistic group sprang up in the Japanese quarter, made up mainly of people who had been educated in Japan before moving to Peru, where they had lived in a self-contained Japanese community. They set up a school that followed a traditional Japanese curriculum, including shushin, or Japanese morals and ethics ("Be good to old people"), and martial arts. Home economics included cooking, sewing, flower-arranging and Japanese customs such as the tea ceremony.
But most Japanese-Americans elected to send their children to the US elementary and high schools, where many students remembered having a good time. The schools offered a typical Texan school curriculum, with all the usual extras such as sports events, after-school programmes, evening film shows, cheerleading contests and graduation ceremonies. The only courses that did not go smoothly were the vocational programmes of home economics and agriculture. These found few takers among Japanese families, who expected their children to be academic high-fliers.
To many students, these American schools, with their classrooms, gym and athletics field, were bliss after the makeshift arrangements of the transit camps they had been in before they came to Crystal City, and in them they enjoyed a small but vibrant version of that upbeat American school experience that the world now knows well from Hollywood teen movies.
But the camp at large remained a simmering cauldron of cultural tensions which burst into flames over the issue of the junior-senior prom of 1944. This was roundly condemned by Japanese leaders as being against Japanese custom. "A dance girl is despised as much as a prostitute," said spokesman Ryuchii Fujii, warning that teachers at the Japanese school would resign en masse if the prom was held.
In response, the camp officer in charge, J L O'Rourke, said the prom would go ahead even if no one turned up to it - and it did, with only 30 students attending. The teachers at the Japanese school duly resigned, although presumably they must have been hired again, as the Japanese school, like the others in the camp, did not finally close until 1946.
After the war, most families returned to their previous communities. Some returned to their home countries, but even then, often remained nostalgic for aspects of life in America.
Sei Deyo, the camp's only registered boy scout, struggled on alone to finish his eagle scout award. But the pro-Japanese atmosphere in the camp made him hide this quintessentially Western achievement, so not until four years after the end of the war, while serving as a scoutmaster in California, was he finally presented with the award he had battled with history to achieve.