Few in the 1940s knew about the existence of the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility, and those who did generally didn't call it by its official name. They called it an internment camp, or a kidnap camp, because almost none of the more than 6,000 people who lived behind its 10-foot-high fences was there by choice.
Longtime journalist Jan Jarboe Russell reveals this hidden and disturbing aspect of U.S. history in "The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II." Enhanced by eight pages of black and white photos that, in some instances, look disturbingly like those taken at Nazi concentration camps, the book is a must-read for those interested not just in history, but in human nature. Among other questions, it asks: Who are our enemies?
The only family internment camp anywhere during WWII, Crystal City, in Texas, served as home to thousands of immigrants from Japan, Germany and Italy, as well as their American-born children. Brought there by train from throughout the United States as well as from Latin American countries including Guatemala and Peru, residents lived in small apartments or cottages, attended mandatory daily roll call and were watched by armed guards. Built by the U.S. Farm Security Administration as a migrant labor camp several years before the United States entered the war, Crystal City had schools, a mess hall, bakeries, a pool "the size of a football field" and other "amenities" that the International Red Cross and a compassionate director oversaw.
And not all who were brought there stayed there.
Hundreds of Crystal City detainees who were considered potential threats to the U.S. — including American-born children — were exchanged for diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians and other "more important" Americans being held as POWs in Germany and Japan. Russell's in-depth reporting and rich details allow readers to feel the same confusion, sorrow and desperation that swapped families felt when they were "returned" to their war-devastated home countries. A focus on the lives of two teenage girls and their families also brings the daily realities of the camp to dramatic, relatable life.
Painstaking researched and sharply written, "The Train to Crystal City" is compelling, thought-provoking and impossible to put down. It's a story as mesmerizing as it is disturbing that illustrates the many costs of war, as well as how far people are willing to go to achieve their goals. The book's publication at a time when arguments about immigration reform almost daily make headlines is also most appropriate. As Russell notes: "The fundamental questions of citizenship, the status of aliens — indeed the definition of who is and who is not an American — are perennial."
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.