Lest We Forget: Internment Camps in North America

Every year in November, I make an effort to watch at least some of the Band of Brothers series. It's not a perfect series, but it stands as a reminder of the human cost paid by those serving in the war.

This year, I watched episode 9, "Why We Fight". In this episode, Easy Company liberates one of the satellite work camps around the Dachau concentration camp. There is some artistic license in place: Easy Company did not liberate any of the camps, although they did see Dachau after it was liberated. It's a very emotional episode.

Jews at the gates

That this is offered as the reason as to why the US entered the war, however, is a fiction. The subtext offered is that America went to war to fight tyranny, to stop evil like Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. In reality, America declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour. Germany declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbour. There's a good article by On Violence which discusses this issue, including the broad feelings of antisemitism in America throughout the 1930s. It's easy to understand why Spielberg wants to promote this as one of the reasons for the war, but sadly, the "Final Solution" was not a primary concern of other nations, until after the concentration camps were liberated.

At the gates of the concentration camp

But despite this, the episode is a powerful reminder of these concentration camps, and the horrors that were inflicted on the Jews, and other undesirables.

Earlier this year, I also re-watched some war films, including a BBC mini-series on the concentration camps. "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'" was also called "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State" when aired by PBS in the United States. With documentary precision, this documentary builds up our understanding of how organized and widespread the whole extermination program was, and the mentality of the people keeping it going.

In "Why We Fight", we don't get any real sense of scale. It's a smaller camp, but the focus remains on the reactions from the soldiers. It's a TV series about these soldiers, and it is through their eyes that we learn about the camps. Through their eyes, we get a glimpse inside one of the buildings in which men were piled like lumber.

Prisoners stacked in the hovels

The Jews weren't the only ones persecuted in the war. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, internment camps in the United States and Canada were opened, with a number of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were segregated. In Canada, the [Japanese Canadian Interment] detained over 27,000 people of Japanese descent. In the United States, the number of Japanese American Internment detainees was in excess of 110,000. While these camps were not labour camps as in Russia, or extermination camps as in Germany, nonetheless, some of the same principles guided their creation: racial discrimination. In addition to removing all people of Japanese heritage to internment camps, their properties were also seized and sold below market prices. Similar camps held recent German immigrants. Jews who managed to escape Europe and fled to North America were likewise kept in prison camps, often alongside German prisoners. In World War I, Canada held 8,579 prisoners, mostly of Ukranian heritage, in a series of concentration camps from 1915-1920.

Castle Mountain Internment Camp

Families uprooted, brought from their homes by armed soldiers, because their parents came from a particular country. While North American internment camps didn't result in mass executions, they uprooted thousands upon thousands of families. Is "at least we didn't kill them all" a good enough excuse? The basic liberties we take for granted, the ones which we say that our soldiers fought and died for, were being broken at home while they fought and bled.


In America, the family of George Takei was relocated to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, before being transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. In Canada, David Suzuki's family was relocated to a facility in Slocan in British Colombia.

George Takei at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas

While it's popular to imagine that only the "bad guys" would strip away the rights of their citizens, it's clear that this is not something that only Nazi Germany is guilty of. While they carried out mass executions, with little to no outcry, Americans and Canadians evicted and sold the properties of their own citizens, again with little to no outcry. As Takei notes in his post on Why we must remember Rohwer, almost nothing remains of these internment camps. While the existence of the extermination camps in Germany are well documented, there is an active attempt to disremember the failure of our own democratic principles in North America.

Burying the dead

This is why it matters. I haven't seen Allegiance, the musical inspired by George Takei's time at Rohwer, but shows like this are important, to tell the other stories from the war. Because the phrase "Lest we forget" shouldn't be one sided.

Movie Reviews for Remembrance Day

Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or in Poland's case, Independence Day, November 11th of each year is kept in memory of the great wars of the twentieth century, and of the many sacrifices made in the fight for freedom.

Until relatively recently, movies about the two World Wars have focused almost exclusively on the heroic exploits of a few soldiers, with relatively little attention drawn to the horrors of war. This romantic view of modern warfare has changed more recently, with movies which are not nearly as one sided in their portrayals of armed conflict.

In 1993, Schindler's List was released, addressing issues of the Holocaust. This marked the first of many award nominated war films by director Stephen Spielberg. While some have complained that this film focuses on the 600 Jews who were saved, rather than the several million Jews who were murdered during the Second World War, it is an emotionally powerful film.

Spielberg followed up in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. This was one of the first movies to portray the horrors of war as just that: horrifying. The landing scene at Omaha Beach is chaotic and deadly, with a frenetic pace as soldiers died to take the beachhead. Of particular note in this film is the framing device, the and elderly veteran visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, to honour his fallen comrades. There is a great deal of focus on what we do with our lives, and how to live them in a way which honours the fallen soldiers in these great wars.

In 2001, the HBO series Band of Brothers followed the men of Easy Company as they fought in WWII, along with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company. This series goes beyond any other that I have seen in depicting the war, and the terrible toll it took on the soldiers who fought in them. It's a visually stunning film, and extremely emotional. Part 9, Why We Fight, is one of the most heartbreaking of episodes, and invariably brings tears to my eyes.

While I have not yet seen it, in 2010, the HBO miniseries The Pacific focused on the efforts of the US Marines in the Pacific front in WWII. This forms a counterbalance to Band of Brothers which focused exclusively on the European front.

There are a number of documentaries about the war as well. I've recently watched Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, a BBC documentary narrated by Linda Hunt, which uses multiply sourced historical documents to portray the Nazi's genocidal program at the concentration camps. It's a powerful documentary, in clinical precision detailing how the Nazi regime carried out the mass murder of over six million Jews and undesirables.

There are also films which show Hitler's rise and fall. The film Downfall has become famous for various YouTube spoofs where Hitler learns of some new event, for which he is then angry. The real film is quite powerful, showing a Führer out of touch with the realities of the war, and of his own people.

Another highly fictionalized portrayal is Hitler: The Rise of Evil. This film covers the period from the end of the Great War to the Night of the Long Knives. This movie was uncomfortable to watch, and not just because it was showing the beginning of the Nazi regime. The filmmakers made several decisions which seemed to make a caricature of Hitler, well beyond what would have been necessary. Choices in the film are entirely fictionalized, even contradicting historical evidence. This was a disturbing film to watch, slough perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.

There are of course many other recent films which depict the wars and the Holocaust. Passchendaele, by Canadian director Paul Gross shows the futile battles fought over fields of mud in World War I. Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas all cover stories of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Film plays a great part in remembering the past. All the more so today, when there are so few veterans of the Second World War alive today. Their personal testament to the horrors of war have gone silent, and these films, although they often contain fictional elements, are now the most vivid reminders of worldwide war.