Curating a False Title

Within Gleeson Library, the Thacher Gallery opened a new exhibition in August titled, “Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps.” The problem is, these were not American concentration camps. They were internment camps. And the distinction is important. The term “concentration camp” means the concentrating of a large group of people in one area. While this term could technically apply to the internment of Japanese Americans, it has historically been reserved for genocide. Naming the gallery as such is a false account of history and a major historical disservice to students who enter the gallery.


For two years, my grandfather was hiding in the woods of Czechoslovakia, now modern day Slovakia. This was in the early 1940s, when being Jewish could get you killed. I often tell this story to have people imagine what was going through my grandfather’s head. It was the fear of being taken to a Nazi concentration camp and separated from one’s family to be used for forced-labor. Or sent to the gas chambers to then be burned to ash. This is the hell he was hiding from.


“Concentration camp” was used for Imperial Germany’s forced extermination of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of modern-day Namibia (considered the first genocide of the 20th century). Tens of thousands were killed. “Concentration camp” was also utilized when General Valeriano Weyler’s relocated and murdered numerous Cubans at end of the 19th century. And of course, there was the Holocaust, where an estimated 12 million were exterminated.


This is why the term “concentration camp” has been applied to these events. A selected group of people were sought out, brought to one area, and systematically killed. And although the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the ugliest stains on our nation’s history, there was no systematic murder. This is also why one of the largest museums devoted to the tragedy is called “The Japanese American Internment Museum,” not “The Japanese American Concentration Camp Museum.”


The wrongful naming of the gallery also affects the reputation of USF. Our university should be supplying an accurate account of history to its students. This becomes even more vital when genocide is being discussed. If a student is unfamiliar with the tragedy of the Japanese Americans, they may be under the impression from the title that systematic extermination occurred when it did not. This misunderstanding dilutes the historical weight and power of the term “concentration camp.”


Putting a spotlight on the tragedy of the Japanese Americans during World War II is critical. I walk hand-in-hand with those who wish to reveal the injustice a government can impose upon its people during war. But it must be done with historical accuracy. Just as Japanese Americans would like their history presented in accurate terms, so would the Jewish survivors of World War II.


Had my late grandfather been able to walk into Gleeson Library’s exhibit, he would have found common ground with the displaced Japanese Americans: fear, anger, betrayal and unforgettable pain. But my grandfather was running away from more than just internment. He was running from death. And he would have wanted that story to be recounted right. The curators of the Thacher Gallery should change the name of the exhibition. Not doing so will continue to provide students with a false narrative.


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