There was no bitterness in Helen Tsuchiya's voice when she spoke of having spent more than three years as a teenager in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arizona during World War II.
Ordered behind the camp's barbed wire by federal authorities, her father lost his 40-acre farm in central California, where he had grown grapes for wine and raisins. He was imprisoned with his wife and children, including Helen, and unable to make the mortgage payments.
"As horrible as it was for her and her family, she did not come out of it angry," recalled her son, Todd Tsuchiya, a Golden Valley dentist. "She told us to be kind and compassionate."
Helen Tsuchiya, of St. Louis Park, died Feb. 4 at age 92. Born in the United States of parents who immigrated from Japan, she was an American citizen, but she was nonetheless imprisoned because of her Japanese ancestry.
When she was 80, Tsuchiya told Eden Prairie fourth-graders the story of her family's forced confinement as part of a school project in which the youngsters, with the support of Minneapolis folk singer Larry Long, wrote a song to honor her.
The song, "Be Kind to All That Live," which was her motto, is included in Long's 2011 CD "Don't Stand Still."
She's the subject of a short film by Long and David McDonald. An article she wrote about her internment appeared in 2010 in Teaching Tolerance magazine, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It's my parents who really suffered," she wrote. "Now I want to share my story with the children so it will never happen again."
"She was very sweet and kind," Long recalled. "She reflected the highest principles of traditional Japanese Buddhist culture. She was a very proud Japanese-American."
On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Tsuchiya feared going to school, worried what classmates would say, but her parents made her go. She recalled with gratitude how a social studies teacher told the class, "I don't want anybody to blame Helen, because she's an American citizen and she had nothing to do with the war."
But in 1942, her family was among 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps. Her mother decided to leave family photos, including her wedding pictures, at the farmhouse, thinking it would protect the house until they returned. The day after they boarded trains to the camp, a relative visited the house and found it had been cleaned out and the photos were gone. "It was very, very sad," she said.
Inside the camp in a desert in Arizona, her family lived in a small room in a barracks. There were group toilets and showers, offering no privacy.
Todd Tsuchiya said that after the war, the family moved to Minnesota because two of his uncles had been assigned to Fort Snelling, working in a program where Japanese-American translators were used for the war effort.
Her internment photos are part of a multimedia program to take place at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, to mark the 75th anniversary of the date that President Franklin Roosevelt signed the internment order, said Tsuchiya's friend Joyce Yamamoto, who wrote the narrative for the event. Yamamoto was born in the camp where Tsuchiya lived.
Tsuchiya became a medical secretary and worked for a neurologist, Dr. Sidney Shapiro, for 55 years. She married Frank Tsuchiya, an engineer, who also lived in an internment camp and is now deceased. She was an avid golfer and at age 80 won the state championship in her senior women's category, according to Frank Tsuchiya Jr., another son.
A memorial service has been held.