Story and Photos
By Malak Habbak
On Jan. 21, the day a gender gathered on the streets to protest misogyny, racism and xenophobia across the globe, June Berk, 85, spent her day at the Gilb Museum of Arcadia Heritage looking at an exhibit on opening day that spoke to a tragic time in her life not too long ago.
On May 7, 1942 Berk and her family were taken to the Santa Anita assembly center, a “prison,” she recalls. One day she slept in a three-bedroom house— with a dog, living room, dining room, kitchen, backyard and front yard— and the next behind barbed wire in a cramped horse stall, nine-by-ten, with a one-foot opening on three sides and floors of asphalt and tar. There was no privacy, no security. Searchlights would follow anyone leaving their barracks and horse stalls after dark.
Arcadia’s temporary exhibit featured statistics, stories, sketches, photographs and other historical artifacts, containing copies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, letters of formal apology from latter presidents and a newspaper called the Santa Anita Pacemaker written at the center by Japanese Americans. A “wishing tree” stands at the heart of the exhibit allowing visitors to add their personal touches on tags hung on its branches.
A section of the exhibit is dedicated to Riyo Sato’s sketches, formerly hidden from the world in Sato’s apartment. It was not until Sato’s passing in 2009 that her niece discovered them while cleaning out Sato’s apartment.
“[Sato’s] quick sketches were never intended for public consumption, but probably a way for her to distract herself from the chaos around her,” Hashimoto wrote in an email correspondence.
Hashimoto donated the artwork to Arcadia’s museum curator Dana Hicks, believing the sketches should be housed close to where they were made. Hashimoto said she felt comfortable handing the pieces to Hicks, who she believes had the “vision, perseverance and desire to make this exhibit a reality.”
“In doing so, she honors the courage, trust and resilience of those who endured the difficult times during that time in our history,” wrote Hashimoto.
Surprised by how many people “don’t even know that this happened,” Hicks aims to help the public learn their local history and understand “where other people have been,” in hopes that “we can all come together.”
Regular museumgoer and 60-year Arcadia resident Betty McEwan, 91, saw the exhibit the week after opening day and was surprised by the “enormity of the acreage” that was the Santa Anita assembly center, the nation’s largest center that housed Japanese-Americans before they were moved inland to more permanent camps.
“Nothing was ever said in the community about it and I think Dana is the one that brought that history right into Arcadia,” said Betty McEwan.
Her husband Jack McEwan, 97-year-old World War II veteran, viewed the photographs while reminiscing his fear after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
“We were stunned, we were shocked,” he said. “We didn’t know if they were going to make an attack here on the coast.”
Ramifications following the attack on Pearl Harbor meant the country’s Japanese-Americans had to give everything up—businesses, homes and cars—that could not fit into two suitcases and labeled citizens as “non-aliens”
“That was the first thing that was very jarring, was that they would use this kind of language to skirt around denying us our constitutional rights to a fair trial,” said Berk.
She said nothing at the exhibit, not even the pictures, could ever capture the “horrible odor in the stalls”, “the ugliness of the experience” or the “suffering” of her parents who had passed before President Ronald Reagan’s apology rang on the radio in 1988, Berk said.
“The exhibit at the Gilb museum speaks to the mistake that once happened and that this mistake should not be repeated against any group of people.”
Berk, along with Bill Shishima and Minoru Tonai, will be speaking at the exhibit on March 25 for “A Day of Memory.”