The Train to Crystal City: A disturbing first-person account of the internment of enemy aliens in World War II and its secret connection to the Axis powers

Texas journalist Jan Jarboe Russell offers a disturbing account of the home front during World War II in her new book The Train to Crystal City (Scribner).

Within hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Government began a round-up of Japanese, German, and Italian aliens without regard to any Constitutional protections.  Soon to follow was the internment of entire families, including children born as United States citizens.  Eventually, thousands of Japanese and Americans born of Japanese parents were evacuated from the West Coast, resulting in the loss of their farms and businesses and freedom.

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Russell centers her book on Crystal City, a family internment camp built in the Texas desert.  Russell writes about the difficult living conditions at the camp, conflicts between foreign-born parents and their American children, and the Government’s efforts to provide education and health services to the internees.

The book is full of ironies.  German and Japanese citizens were forcibly removed from Latin America and placed in U.S. internment camps.  Ironically, some Jewish refugees from Germany were snatched from Latin America and placed in the same camps with Germans suspected of Nazi loyalties.  

Germans, Japanese, and Italians were rounded up on suspicion of subversive activities.  However, cases could be based on possession of radios and cameras, and the unproven gossip from hostile neighbors.  Racism and xenophobia were a big part of the problem.

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The Crystal City internment camp was in Zavala County, Texas
However, not all internees were total innocents.  Russell writes how some internees at Crystal City demonstrated loyalty to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Some internees volunteered to be repatriated to their native lands during the war.

Russell builds her book around the story of three women——Ingrid of German parents from Ohio, Sumi of Japanese parents from Los Angeles, and Irene, a Jewish woman deported from the Netherlands to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Russell writes about secret exchanges of internees at Crystal City and other internment camps for American citizens and prisoners of war held in Germany and Japan.   

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Jan Jarboe Russell

We read the reaction of Ingrid and Irene when they learn that they were each part of the same trade which saved Irene’s life, and placed Ingrid and her family in Germany in the last days of World War II.

At the end of the war in Europe, the Allies took over the concentration camps and operated them under the name of displaced persons camps.  The Jews in the camps remained behind fences with little change in their living conditions.  Russell reports on the American efforts to humanize conditions in the displaced persons camps, and eventually arrange for immigration for the inmates.

Russell has written an outstanding, highly readable book.  She gives a broad, unbiased view of one of the saddest chapters of American history.