As many of you may know, I spend most of my research time studying the role of the French railroad in the WWII deportations and the current conflict in the U.S. today over those deportations.
This is a hot conflict. The President of the French Railroad company (SNCF) attended the Obama-Hollande State Dinner...there are billions of dollars on the line as well as about 650 Holocaust-survivor/descendant litigants. Katherine Shaver of the Washington Post has a story about it today. Click here to see.
Yesterday, I was at the University of Alaska, discovering more about how the U.S. deported and interned people during the same years the SNCF was transporting Jews to the German border.
Have you heard of them? I hadn't either.
They were living on the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska and were removed from their homes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were supposedly being removed to protect them from a Japanese attack. The image above shows them as they are forced to be removed from their homes.
Now, we can understand the US wanting to protect its citizens. Sounds noble, right? Well here's the rub.
They were sent to shacks with no potable water, no medical care (not even bandages), minimal food and barely any clothes. And I can tell you after a week in Alaska experiencing -30, it would have been very hard to survive a winter without clothes..especially in 1940. It was so cold that winter the little food they had remained frozen.
Many did not survive.
10% of their entire population died from poor nourishment and cold-related illnesses (pneumonia). Some groups lost 25%.
Causes of death for some children were recorded "Pain."
75-100 people were crammed into each building. It was abysmal.
Officials began to hide the treatment of these people, realizing that if word got out in the US there would be hell to pay.
So they started to send them a bit more supplies.
This helped more of them survive, but when they returned home they found a nasty surprise.
The U.S. military had ransacked their homes, stealing their belongings, including valuable Russian Orthodox relics, even pulling up the linoleum from their floors. There was no apology and barely any money given to rebuild their lives.
Remember these people were supposedly deported for their own protection!
In the late 1970s, some reparations efforts began. Lawyers helped them put together 8 volumes of proof of their treatment.
President Carter commissioned hearings that proved that Constitutional Rights were repeatedly ignored. Neither people or property were protected.
As they say, whenever you point a finger at someone else, there's three fingers pointing back at you.
I'm the last one to justify the actions of the French during WWII. I have dedicated significant time and money to understanding French complicity. It's a painful chapter in French history, especially for those of us who deeply love France. This is the country that gave us Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others upon which the foundation of Human Rights rests today.
I just want to point out some of the untold stories about what happened in the U.S. It is easy to be on the right side of justice 70 years after the fact....
(If you have not yet seen the movie, I do not think this will ruin the movie for you. However, since each has his own measure of "ruin," it's your choice)
When Philomena returns to the nunnery in search of some more clues as to the whereabouts of the son that was taken from her, the nuns handed her a letter that she had signed 50 years prior. The letter said that she relinquished all rights to information about her son.
Her friend, the journalist, asked her if she was coerced. He says something to the effect, "If you were coerced in any way, we can fight this!"
Philomena (played by Judy Dench) responds with something like, "no, I signed it freely. I truly believed what I had done was a sin." (she had sex with a handsome young man at a carnival).
Then the scene changes. The film did not push the question of whether one is still free after years of indoctrination in an isolated location. Disowned by her family and thrown into a convent, Philomena lived with nuns who shamed her and told her she was damned for her sins. Under those conditions was she really free when she signed form?
In our conflict resolution doctoral program, we discuss at length this notion of "choice." What does it mean to be able to choose?
If we had never heard of yoga, do we really have a choice about whether or not to practice it? Can we really expect people to imagine solutions beyond the contexts in which they find themselves? The past 50 years has seen a shift, at least in criminology discussions, to consider the options the person may have considered as possible at the time they conducted whatever crime. A person growing up in an abusive home in a poor neighborhood feels (and maybe rightly so) that she has less choices available to her about what to do with her career, how to care for her health, and how to handle challenging situations.
Then there are these exceptions. My friend, who grew up in the Deanwood Community in DC and had a job giving parking tickets, has totally reinvented himself in this 3 months since we have met. He has committed to bringing healthy food to the neighborhood in which he grew up (Deanwood)
He says they have not had a grocery store for 20 years!!
The only food options are fried chicken and hamburgers. He says these folks don't have choice to be healthy the same way as other folks. At least not with the same ease. He's becoming a vegan chef and will change the face of his neighborhood and the country, I believe. His gift is giving people the power of options. (I would like to write more about him, but surely he will want to write his own autobiography one day and I don't want to ruin it)
The movie, my friend's life change and the doctoral program have all caused me to consider if whether choice and/or the perception of having choice is one of the greatest ways to contribute to others.
Something to think about....