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“Then They Came For Me” Exhibit in Chicago

Letter from a Reader

November 16, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |



I recently had a chance to see an exhibit at the Alphawood Gallery in Chicago that really hit me hard. The exhibit is called “Then They Came For Me.” and also features a powerful film called And Then They Came for Us. Both are about the forced incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, first in “war relocation centers” and then in internment camps in the spring of 1942, just a few months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i. If you are in Chicago, hurry to see it since it closes November 19.

I thought I knew a lot about this, but the exhibit made me realize how seldom this story is told in its full horror and outrageousness. You can also learn about this in the American Crime Series at  (See case #89).

One reason the exhibit is so powerful is that it gives you a gut-level feeling for what it was like to be one of the people in the “removal” and how brutal it was. This is revealed through personal accounts and mementos of those who experienced it, plus very powerful photos that are enlarged and displayed with great impact so you feel like you are there.

One wall at the beginning has a timeline for 1942, which is astonishing: Executive Order 9066 was signed in February; in mid-April the first “removal” was carried out in San Francisco; in mid-May most other Japanese-Americans were given notice to immediately register their family, and a week later they were given six days to pack only what they could carry, and to sell homes and businesses at rock-bottom prices. Then they were loaded onto trains and trucks and taken hundreds of miles away without knowing their destination until they got there. A quote from internee James M. Omura is highlighted: “Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler’s mistreatment of Jews? Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?”

Dorothea Lange was one of several photographers hired by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the removal and show how “humane” and “orderly” it was. She was outraged by what she saw and resolved to resist by documenting every anguish and abuse of the people incarcerated. Initially they were not supposed to photograph the barbed wire and guard towers that surrounded the camps, but these things were so prominent that they ended up in the photos. Many of the pictures are so disturbing and revealing that they were hidden away for years by the government.

Prior to the Japanese-American “removal” the press began to paint them as villains and supporters of Imperial Japan, in order to turn public opinion against them, as part of creating popular support for the U.S. entry into the war. The exhibit has a postcard that was circulated at the time, depicting two white Americans stabbing a caricature of a soldier in Japan’s army. Looking closer, you see that this is painted on a board with holes cut out for the two faces, so grinning fools could have their picture taken as the attackers! This is the “great American tradition” that Trump and his supporters uphold! 

People attending the exhibit were studying every photo carefully; some older folks were talking together about their own experience in the “camps.” In a comments book, several Muslim-Americans and a Mexican-American noted how much it felt like what they experience every day, right now.

And that’s another reason this exhibit is powerful: its relevance to what is going on now in an America under a fascist administration. From this exhibit you can draw the clear lesson that the resistance against the internment of Japanese-Americans needed to be much broader and more immediate, in order to prevent it. And millions today need to oppose similar measures against Muslims, Latinos, and others and even more drive this fascist regime from power.

The film And Then They Came for Us by award-winning documentary film makers Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider is important in its own right. There are interviews with internees; and with Muslims in the U.S. today who are getting support from some of these former internees. The film indicts Trump, has people reading the Niemöller quote in a very artistic way, and interviews three Japanese-Americans who, as young men, resisted their removal to the “camps.” They were imprisoned, but this helped spark resistance among the internees in the camps (see also the revcom article mentioned above). The film is being shown around the country—look online for the schedule. It will be shown in Seattle on November 20, Los Angeles on November 27, and San Francisco on December 10.

I hope that this beautifully-presented exhibit travels to other cities—look for it! The exhibit in Chicago is FREE, which is remarkable in itself. Go to for hours and location.


Editors’ note: This exhibit moves to the ICP Museum at 250 Bowery St. in New York City January 26, 2018 through May 6, 2018.




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