In our opinion: Remembering Topaz

Published: Friday, Aug. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A photo at the Topaz monument shows barracks at the camp. The buildings had no foundations and were most likely frigid in winter and hot in summer. Temperatures ranged from minus 30 to 106.

Topaz Museum

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A volunteer organization is making important strides to guarantee what took place 70 years ago in a remote corner of Utah's western desert doesn't fade into the remote corners of forgotten history.

The recent groundbreaking for the Topaz Museum and Education Center is part of an effort to preserve the lessons from a chapter in American history that would be more comfortable to forget. The center marks the site where more than 10,000 people of Japanese descent were held in a series of internment camps at the onset of World War II.

Their detention has been widely decried as among the most egregious examples of civil rights violations in U.S. history. That our government, out of "military necessity," could round up and virtually imprison large numbers of people for no reason other than their ethnicity is a dark reminder of what is possible in times of national distress and insecurity.

There was no evidence that large numbers of Japanese-Americans were covertly enlisted as part of the Japanese war effort. The creation of Topaz was less a matter of national defense than a byproduct of hysteria and prejudice on a scale that, looking back, is hard to comprehend.

That's why the nonprofit Topaz board will build the museum and education center west of the town of Delta. The group understands its mission is not to establish a shrine of shame, but to ensure that future generations may appreciate the lessons of Topaz, which are both dispiriting, and inspiring.

The majority of those interred in the camps never ceased seeing themselves as Americans. There are many stories of how the detainees faced their predicament with a quiet dignity, determined to outlast a siege on their personal freedom they knew to be unnecessary and unjust.

Most were able to move past that terrible episode to live successful and productive lives. A large number eventually served in the U.S. military. Most of the detainees were residents of the West Coast, where they were forced to surrender their property before being taken to Topaz. When they were eventually released, many chose to remain in Utah.

Today, many of our most prominent and successful residents are descendants of those once held within the barbed wire perimeter of Topaz.

In 1998, the United States offered a formal apology to the internees. The government also approved modest monetary compensation for survivors. Those acts were just and proper. But apology alone does not bring absolution.

The most sincere and effective expression of regret is to see to it, as the Museum Board has committed, that future generations may walk among the remnants of Topaz and embrace their somber and cautionary message.

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