At the foot of the imposing Sierra Nevada in eastern California’s Owens Valley lies the site called Manzanar.

According to literature published by the U.S. National Park Service, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, empowering the Secretary of War to relocate nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their west coast homes to one of ten War Relocation Centers. With only the possesions that would fit into two suitcases, 11,061 men, women and children (approximately two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens) were relocated to Manzanar War Relocation Center between 1942 and 1945. The entire Manzanar detention facility encompassed some 6,000 acres. The facility consisted of the detention camp, adjacent agricultural use areas, hog farm, reservoir, airport, cemetery, and sewage treatment plant. Of this area, a rectangle of approximately 550 acres, containing the living area of 36 blocks of wooden barracks for the internees and various administrative facilities, was enclosed by barbed wire fences and secured by guard towers. Missing, however, from the official travel guides was any mention of the guard towers being equipped with machine guns and searchlights, and the watchful eyes of armed U.S. soldiers.

I am not sure what exactly has always drawn me to Manzanar. For so many years it was just a patch of desert off of Highway 395 on the way to a fun-filled weekend of skiing at Mammoth Mountain. Cruising up the highway at seventy or more miles per hour, in a loaded down station wagon with a group of loud, rowdy friends, it was very easy to not know it even existed. When I ask people if they have ever been there, most look at me with questioning eyes and ask, “What’s Manzanar”?

Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage and the knowledge oh so well of what happened in Europe during that same period in time. Maybe it’s my attraction to the stark beauty of the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Or may be it’s that it is hard to believe that right here in our own back yard, the United States Government rounded up 120,000 men, women and children, most of which were U.S. citizens, took them from their homes, businesses, schools and communities with pretty much just the clothes on their backs, and relocated them to a piece of desert in the middle of nowhere. The government didn’t call it a concentration camp. There were no gas chambers or ovens. But in many ways, Japanese-Americans, U.S. citizens, were being treated the same as people were being treated in Europe. Their freedom and liberties were taken away because of fear, hate and intolerance.

Manzanar was dismantled after the war and forgotten about for many years. Finally, on August 10, 1988, Congress signed legislation providing restitution to the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans who had been interned and relocated, and on March 3, 1992, Congress recognized the significance of this site and established the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Today, nearly seventy years later, in the post 9/11 world that we live in, we must look back at places like Manzanar and learn from our history. We must educate ourselves and teach our children and our children’s children to be understanding, compassionate and tolerant of our fellow human beings. And we must never forget, lest we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.

If you ever get the opportunity to take the beautiful drive up Highway 395, slow down and stop at Manzanar. I promise it will be a moving and memorable experience; it always has been for me.

Brian Goodman
June 14, 2010