Selling Memories and History

A soldier and his mother in a strawberry field in Florin,_Sacramento_County,_California.

By Judy Berman

The yellowed, tattered newspaper clippings and mementos that were part of my late mother-in-law’s life brought back a flood of memories.

As my husband started to inventory his mother’s belongings years ago, I thought about how little she spent on herself. Yet she was very generous to her family.

To anyone outside of the family, Jennie Dicker’s mementos might have little or no value. To us, it was as if she were with us still.

How can you put a value on memories?

That’s what an auction house planned to do with artifacts made by Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned during World War II over fears that they might be spies.

The Rago auction house was going to sell off 450 photographs and artifacts made by Japanese-Americans in internment camps.

After an outcry from the public, including Star Trek’s Sulu (played by George Takei), the auction house in Lambertville, New Jersey, decided to withdraw the art pieces that were for sale.

Rago Arts and Auction Center founding partner, David Rago, issued this statement on April 17: “We know what the internment camps were. We know that it was a disgraceful period in American history, but we did not understand the continued emotional impact embodied within the material. We just didn’t get it.” (Associated Press)

Internment camp - Japanese-Americans during WWII

Takei was 5 years old when he was sent with his family to an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, and has been a strong advocate to make sure that this time in history is remembered. On his Facebook page, he said: “These irreplaceable works represent the struggles and indomitable spirit of our community against a great injustice.”

He said this “dark time” is a “chapter that we must never repeat and never forget.”

When he was 8, they were released from the internment camp. He said they had “lost everything.”

Internment camps - maps of World War II - Japanese-Americans imprisoned

Like others interred, his family was given a one-way ticket when they were released to wherever they wanted to go to in the United States, plus $20. Many were embittered about their experience and decided to relocate to other parts of the country.

His family chose to return to Los Angeles. Life was difficult. Many would not hire Japanese-Americans. They were denied housing.

Despite the bitter struggle, many like Takei’s family worked to put their lives back together. Their memories, sometimes, were all they had to recall life before World War II.

That’s why Takei is grateful to those who protested the sale. Advocacy groups and supporters want “to ensure this artwork was not sold off piecemeal to private buyers, but rather will be appreciated by generations to come.”

“The internees gave their artworks and furniture to historian Allen Hendershott Eaton while he was researching his 1952 book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” according to an article in The New York Times (April 13).

Eaton’s daughter sold the lot to the unnamed consigner. The auction house will not identify the owner of the collection.

Takei said that Rago Auctions “will sit down with interested Japanese-American institutions and parties to ensure that the collection will find a home where pieces will be properly cared for and curated.”


What are your views on this topic? Another battle over art – this time stolen by the Nazis prior to World War II – was a decades-long struggle to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1. It was made into a movie, “Woman in Gold” (2015).


Main photo: (May 11, 1942) A soldier, 23, and his mother in a strawberry field in Florin, Sacramento County, California. The soldier volunteered July 10, 1941 to serve in the U.S. Army. The mother, 53, came from Japan 37 years ago. Her husband died 21 years ago leaving her to raise six children. She worked in a strawberry basket factory until her children leased three acres of strawberries last year “so she wouldn’t have to work for somebody else.” 453 families were to be evacuated from this area.

Photo: Internment camp – Japanese-Americans in U.S. during World War II –  Los Angeles, California. Japanese Americans going to Manzanar gather around a baggage car at the old Santa Fe Station. (April 1942). They were boarding a train bound for one of ten American concentration camps.

Video: Japanese American Relocation –

Video: George Takei, on an interview in ‘Democracy Now!, (2-28-14)” describes his family’s experience in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Photo: Map of forced Internment camps during World War II where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in the U.S.

  1. War is ugly Judy and what we did in the US and in Canada to people is shameful. I recently learned that Jews were not allowed to emigrate to Canada to escape persecution during the war. It is important to remember these things so that we (hopefully) don’t do them again. ❤
    Diana xo

    1. Diana … I wrote a story about the Safe Haven at Oswego, New York. That’s where nearly 1,000 refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied territories – mostly Jewish – stayed during World War II. It was the only such place in the U.S. After the war, they were allowed to become U.S. citizens.

      1. Oh wow Judy! The stories you tell in this article touch me deeply. It makes me cry to think about how cruel we can be to our fellow humans. And it makes me cry how kind we can be as well… ❤

      2. It is hurtful to know about man’s inhumanity to man. But, you’re right, we need to remember man’s overwhelming kindness and generosity as well. 😉 Thank you for your comments, Diana.

  2. Judy, you can edit this should it be upsetting. I wrote a post around Pearl Harbor day over a year ago, where I used the day to memorialize those who were citizens in our country and those who just happened to be bombed in the 2 major Japanese cities. My ex-husband, Mike, was stationed during Operation Baby Lift in Japan, where the Air Force helped to take Cambodian babies and children out of there needing surgery. He was a medic, he told me the horrors shown in the museum in (I believe) Hiroshima. What we did to their innocent citizens made me upset, like he was, too looking at the displays and photos. I felt we should have bombed their military sites and not their cities. I have been a little more careful since I upset a serviceman with my own post, but I do stand by my feelings that this was a rather drastic action by the U.S. I am so glad you were both informative and protective of our Japanese-American citizens and what they endured. My friend in California says there is an area where the homes were taken over while the people were interred, there probably is ‘bad karma’ in this for those who live in the ‘ghost’ towns. She says there are plaques and memorials to those who were forced out of their homes. Have a great day and you can edit parts of this out, Judy. Won’t hurt my feelings at all. smiles!

    1. War is an ugly thing. What is done creates wounds that sometimes never heal. Many Japanese-Americans had their homes, property and possessions taken from them. They lost everything. It’s horrible to know that this happened in our country – that our citizens had no due process, were not convicted of any crimes, just hauled off and sent to some isolated camp surrounded by armed guards.

  3. The museum in Hiroshima was established in the year I was born, 1955, called the Peace Memorial Museum. Mike (Air Force medic ex-husband) told me about many areas where he felt the people were warm and friendly to him, knowing this was not ‘his fault,’ but he felt bad, looking at the areas where the bombs hit in Nagasawki and Hiroshima, Judy.

    1. Robin … I wrote a post about No Man’s Land during World War i. For a brief time, around Christmas, there was a truce. The men from both sides got together and played ball. When the truce was halted, some did not want to fire at those that they had met and liked. If only we could all get to know one another, we might appreciate each other more.

  4. I can remember reading about George Takei being outraged by the suggested sale of those images. It does sound a disgusting thought someone would want to make a lot of money from another persons suffering. I find thinking like that very distasteful. 😐

    And no, you can’t put a cost on mementos of family history, they’re evidence the loved on existed. I have three letters written by my Mother at age 18 that I found in her papers when sorting the precious remnants of her life when she went into a nursing home. It was a terrible time for all of us, and I remember reading those letters with a lot tears – the woman I had never known (Mum as a teenager) and all her worries and fears, hopes and dreams written to her own mother. Even if it had been a letter from someone I didn’t know, I would still have found those letters quite wonderful – I love an insight to the person who’s been long forgotten. You can never put a price on that! 🙂

    1. Suzy … If they could find a museum to showcase those mementos, that might be an ideal way to resolve this. But, the time itself, needs to be remembered so that it is never repeated.

      I understand how you treasure those letters from your mother. I have many that my Mom and Dad wrote to me and often re-read them. They bring back wonderful memories.

  5. What a sad period in our own American history. I would love to read your story about the Safe Haven in Oswego, NY. A good friend of mine married the son of a couple who met and married in one of the Japanese internment camps. Love, it seems, can conquer all.

      1. Thank you Judy! I thoroughly enjoyed your story on The Safe Haven and happy to know we did something like this for WWll refugees. I have only heard that the majority who tried to get here were turned away by the shipload. Not a pretty picture in our own history.

  6. Your post prompted me to think of a book of historical fiction I read quite a while ago set in the Pacific Northwest showing the vile treatment of Japanese families. I can’t think of the title but don’t see it listed here in your credits or I would recognize it. It made such a impression on me because the facts were so revelatory because I hadn’t remembered these horrific events being taught in any of my history courses, high school or college.

    I did see Woman in Gold last week and I think Helen Mirren represented well the chutzpah needed to make reparations become a reality, in her case a lovely piece of art restored.

    A comment on your top photo – the ruffly sun bonnet is certainly reminiscent of hats my Grandma and Mother made and wore. I have even unearthed a photo of me as a 2-year-old wearing one, the bonnet almost bigger than the baby!

    1. Marian … Is the book you’re thinking of “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson. I have that book and love the writing. So much history is left out of the history books. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed reading books about history rather than the textbooks I had in school.

      I’d love to see “Woman in Gold” – especially if it stars Helen Mirren. She’s fantastic.

      I probably wouldn’t have to look too far to find a similar photo of myself in a ruffly bonnet. 😉

      1. Bingo! I was going to go upstairs to check my bookshelves, but hesitated. (I have plantar fasciitis in my right foot.) What fabulous writing too.

    1. The photo above my post is of a Japanese-American soldier and his mother. From the dates mentioned, he enlisted months before Pearl Harbour. Yet, it appears his mother was among those sent to a ‘relocation’ camp. Tragic, especially given the honorable service of so many Japanese-Americans.

    1. I am not sure but I think the question remains what that consigner is going to do with the art and photos. The daughter of the historian who wrote about these pieces sold the entire lot to the consigner

  7. What a powerful post, Judy. There are so many details that, with just one day’s difference or one hour’s turn another way, and everything would have changed.
    It makes me think of a closet door frame in my grandmother’s house. It had measurements of all her grandchildren’s heights in 1962 to show on that one day in time how tall we all were. My cousin and I were the first two who realized that tucked among all the lines with names and ages there was one name–“R.M.J”–between two others. No one in our family has those initials, and though we’ve heard numerous theories, we don’t have specific answers.

  8. i am all for finding the families who owned these things and returning them to them at no cost. this is a small price to pay for people who have been so wronged.

  9. Good work, Judy, to keep the story of how our own citizens were treated so badly during World War II in the foreground. I agree with George Takei’s protest, and Beth’s comment above. It would be righteous to return these to the original family. By the way, great work, too, with WHEN, reporting about Oswego’s Safe Haven during World War II.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I think the hope is that the mementos will be placed in a museum. I hope so, too.

      I originally did that story about Oswego’s “Safe Haven” as a 3-part series when I worked at WHEN-AM in Syracuse. It was a fascinating bit of history I had not known of before I did this interview … and I had lived about 35 miles from Oswego.

  10. I have always loved the story about W.W. 1 at Christmas . I think it says it all . The people don’t want war they just have to go trough the motions. The gift of life is so precious . I so wish everyone would respect and accept each other but it just ain’t going to happen is it Judy.

    1. Cherry … I love that Christmas truce story from WWI, too. But such a scenario is unlikely to happen worldwide.

      Jimi Hendrix said it best: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

  11. Collections like these provide such a glimpse into our recent and not so triumphant past, they should be catalogued, archived and placed into responsible hands and treated with the respect they deserve. Placing them somewhere for a public record would be my preference – a museum such as our Imperial War Museum would display something like this with the utmost discretion. Also there is a very moving exhibition of a collection of artefacts from the Holocaust. While these things may be upsetting to see, they provide a fitting reminder that this sort of atrocity should not be repeated.

  12. I know I wrote recently about the 4 books on WW II and Eisenhower photos that Sam (Santo) my godfather brought to me in the mid 50’s. I don’t recall where and it’s a mistake I still make not keeping copies and cleaning them out! Maybe I was 7, but I read them and viewed the photos with him. When we are young we understand better I think. We don’t get so scared. I was given simple explanations and questions were answered honestly by him. He knew of Oswego but we never got there and he also mentioned the Japanese though I never heard of them again until my 30’s. Truth along with the actual facts must always be known. We behaved with the Japanese not unlike Hitler’s forces did except ours was out of fear or paranoia I think. Hitler’s was born from the devil himself I think. Our concentration camp results killed the “lives” of so many Japanese in too many ways. Though they lived they lost their whole lives work up to that point and I am sure their recovery if you will was never complete.The reparations made these past years sadly were a joke (my opinion)! My biggest concern is that this all can happen again in greater scale than ever before. We only have to look to recent Rwanda, Cambodia, or going back to Armenia, and our own American Indians.
    I pray not! We must not forget! Thanks for listening.

    1. Rick … I know you were concerned about your messages getting thru. I got all four – two as anonymous and two as you. This post there were some spacing problems – probably because it was cut and pasted from Word – but I fixed the spacing.

      You are right to have concerns about history repeating itself if we do not listen. The killings taking place in many countries today is evidence that some have not learned those lessons. Thank you for your comments and for your persistence in posting your message. I also get frustrated when I believe there is a problem posting. 😉

  13. Hello Judy,

    I found this post so relevant to some reading up I have been doing lately. I perspective I get is that facts ( Reality?) can sometimes so fly in the face of the perceptions that we might be holding ( no doubt created from what we hear, like to hear, see, like to see) over time.

    In my trying to follow the genesis of the recently on-going nuclear reactor discussions between the UN Us and Iran, I ended researching nuclear reactor proliferation (500 either built or under construction in 30 countries, including some countries with abominable human rights records and political instability), nuclear weapon proliferation, (17000 nukes in 9 countries, Israel has up to 200 and Pakistan and India both have 100+ each)

    I was also shocked to find that the USA has been involved in wars for 214 out of the last 235 years. It is the United States that has been waging wars of aggression, not Iran. Ahmed Rehab challenged Bill O’Reilly on this point by asking him: “How many countries has Iran attacked in the past 50 years?” The answer is, of course, zero. Meanwhile, the United States and her ally Israel have attacked numerous Muslim countries.

    So how would all this show up in our scheme of things and the stand that we are willing to take?


    1. Shakti … The U.S. was reluctantly drawn into World War II in 1941 after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Many criticized the U.S. for not getting involved sooner because of the nearly 6 million people who were sent to concentration camps as part of Hitler’s Final Solution (genocide).

      I was trying to focus on art appreciation in the aftermath of war.

  14. Great post, Judy. I had seen the info that George Takei posted on Facebook. I think so many still have no idea that such internment camps existed in the US. It sounds like the auction house may have honestly not thought about the impact of what they planned to do. The items made by the interned have deep sentimental memory. Although the Klimt painting also has deep sentimental value to the “Woman in Gold’s” niece–as well as monetary value of course–I think the systematic looting of Jewish goods by the Nazi’s is different from the auction house holding a sale. Perhaps it would be more similar to a German auction house auctioning off art work created by those in concentration camps. Of course, all of these things are horrible, and belongings hold memories, whether they are “great art” or not. I believe the artwork in both cases should be returned to the rightful owners or next of kin. Galleries research the provenance of paintings all the time.

  15. Judy thanks for bringing this into the light. War is always going to be a choice our countries can make. But hopefully we can learn by our past. Treat humans with respect and hopefully learn that war is NEVER the right answer to anything. I cannot imagine what these people would have went through, at least the photos will be a reminder to not repeat such a shameful act.

    1. Unfortunately, Kath …. It seems some never learn. More’s the pity. The saving grace is many do the right thing and, as a result, make this world a wonderful place to live in. 😉

  16. War has leaves so much devastation in its wake, not only in terms of lives lost, but the lives torn apart in its aftermath. This is one such case, and these were Americans! We can only work to repair the damage done, and it will never remove the horrible memories that remain. Shame comes to mind. Fear has a way of encroaching on all our rights. Makes me sad to say this Judy, but I feel we as a country are feeding that fear even more so now. Our enemies love it.

  17. The constitution purports to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority . . . frankly, I’ve never known it to pass any of the tests it was given . . .

    . . . hence this and other memories. And yes, each and every instance should be remembered.

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