DELTA — Topaz, a World War II Japanese-American internment camp, was home to several members of Darlene “Dee” Imazeki’s family for less than a year before they were released in June 1945 and moved to Palo Alto, California.
Imazeki was only an infant and doesn’t remember the experience, but conjured a somber image of life in desolate central Utah when she walked the dusty, sagebrush-covered landscape of the internment site.
“To see the register, to know my family was there it was really quite moving,” said Imazeki, who recently visited the Topaz Museum and site with her church group from San Jose. “The Japanese term ‘gaman,’ means to persevere, to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. It is one of the words that come to mind about that time and people.”
Decades of time invested by volunteers in collecting artifacts and raising funds to build a museum and preserve the 640-acre internment site (about 15 miles northwest of Delta) made it possible for Imazeki's emotional return to Topaz.
A major milestone was realized last January when the Topaz Museum opened with its first art exhibit, “When Words Weren’t Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942-1945.” While the museum’s permanent exhibit is still in the works, many with personal ties to Topaz like Imazeki have already visited and left impressed, full of gratitude.
“It will be a great resource going forward,” Imazeki said. “It’s important that America knows this happened. My family has nothing to show what Topaz is like. That’s why this trip was especially meaningful.”
Comments like Imazeki’s allow Jane Beckwith to smile.
In 1982, Beckwith was teaching journalism at Delta High School and struggling to generate rigorous article ideas for student journalists.
“There are only so many articles to be written about homecoming queens, parades and football games. We needed to find some stories,” said Beckwith, who retired from teaching in 2009 after 40 years. “I started asking students to go into the community and interview people who had ties to Topaz. Immediately the artifacts started coming in.”
As the collection of artifacts grew, it surprised Beckwith to learn little had been done to preserve the history of Topaz, where the U.S. federal government locked up as many as 8,300 Japanese-Americans, primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area, from 1942 to 1945.
“The story is compelling. You can’t hear the story and ignore it. I couldn’t believe no one was doing anything,” Beckwith said. “We started wondering why isn’t there a museum? Why isn’t there something that is telling this complicated and critical story of American history? There was a need and I decided to do something about it.”
Thus began a community campaign to collect and protect the history of Topaz for the education and fulfillment of future generations.
The museum’s current exhibit features about 70 pieces of art, with more in storage. In addition to the art, there are dolls made of shells from ancient Lake Bonneville, a rebuilt recreation hall, a replica housing unit, documents, photographs and other artifacts.
Prior to the museum opening in January, the museum board of directors hired Scotti Hill, an art historian, to organize the inaugural exhibit.
“This exhibition highlights a part of American history that is important but commonly forgotten or neglected. It raises some uncomfortable questions about what the government has done to its own people,” Hill said. “But I think the message of resilience, creativity and positivity, despite these difficult circumstances, is an uplifting one. It’s something you don’t have to be an art-lover to appreciate.”
The majority of artwork on display was created by a number of artists held at Topaz, including Chiura Obata, Miné Okubo, Setsuko Nagata Kanehara and others. Their artwork often depicts day-to-day life and the landscape surrounding Topaz.
Barbara Jones-Brown, an independent historian, has visited the Topaz internment site many times and recently toured the museum with the Mormon History Association. They contain a treasure trove of history, she said.
“You go to the museum and you see the beauty their hands produced while living in that hell of Topaz,” said Jones-Brown, who wrote her master’s thesis on Japanese-American internment. “It is stunning and so moving to see the beauty that emerged from the ugliness.”
Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was also part of the MHA tour.
“This is a remarkable museum that brings to life an important and sad chapter in American history,” Turley said. “The people who operate the museum have done a great job of displaying art and artifacts in a way that helps bring the story to life.”
While genuine compliments are kind, Beckwith appreciates it more when visitors ask how they can help. There will always be a need for volunteers in the Delta area. The museum will always accept donations and ask people to respect the internment site. They are also grateful for any educators that send their students, even if they have to bribe them with extra credit.
“I hated extra credit, but extra credit meant that a lot of kids came to our museum this past May. Kids would come and I don’t know if they had to write a little report or take just a selfie down here, but that really helped us,” said Beckwith, a member of the museum's board of directors.
“We’re not finished. We still have a lot of work to do. The Topaz museum will always need grant and foundation money. There will always be more to do.”
To learn more about the Topaz museum, visit Topazmuseum.org.