POWELL, Wyo. — At Heart Mountain, in the shadow of a beautiful backdrop, sits an ugly reminder of our country’s complicated past.
The original barrack at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is a memorial to the events that occurred 80 years ago when Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into concentration camps.
Now, a new exhibit at the center is exploring the parallels in the lives of two men, one Japanese American and one Lithuanian Jewish, who both experienced the turmoil of forced placement in concentration camps.
“Over there in that corner, you can see some graffiti from somebody who originally built the barrack. It says, 'Slap the Japs,'” said Krist Ishikawa Jessup, the research and editing manager at the center, on Tuesday.
Heart Mountain is one of 10 Japanese American concentration camps created during World War II. At the time, 14,000 Japanese Americans were forced to live in barracks, like the one at the center.
“We tell their stories and what the government did to these Japanese Americans inside these camps,” Jessup said.
Their new exhibit focuses on preserving that piece of history and similarities to the experiences of those incarcerated in camps in Europe.
It’s called Parallel Barbed Wire and tells the stories of Clarence Matsumura, a Japanese-American man, and Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian-Jewish man.
Both were forced to live in camps on opposite ends of the world, Matsumura in Heart Mountain and Ganor at a subcamp in Dachau, Germany.
“The Parallel Barbed Wire is exactly that. It’s talking about the parallels in their lives, forced removals from their homes, loss of property, being forced to live in conditions that are less than ideal,” Jessup said.
The parallels don’t end there as the lives of those two men would eventually intertwine. After Matsumura was released from Heart Mountain, he was drafted into the Army where he met Ganor. Ganor had just completed a death march from Dachau and was fixing soup when the U.S. Army came to the rescue.
“As he was making that soup, Clarence Matsumura drove up in a Jeep and saved him, took him back to an American hospital near Waakirchen in Germany,” said Jessup.
The two would reunite 47 years later during a trip to Israel, a trip that gave them the courage to open up about their experiences.
“They were both able to go the rest of their lives and talk about this, and this is actually what prompted Solly to write his book, 'Light One Candle,'” Jessup said.
Much of the exhibit’s narrative is based off "Light One Candle." Jessup, who created the exhibit and is part Japanese, has a special connection to his line of work.
“My great-great-grandfather was arrested by the FBI in 1943 and put into a Department of Justice camp down in Santa Fe, New Mexico,” said Jessup.
And the center's interim executive director, Aura Sunada Newlin, does as well. Clarence Matsumura was her great-uncle.
“While I didn’t know Clarence, to walk past and see my grandma’s face on the wall and to see actually how Clarence looked a lot like my grandma, it’s like walking through a family photo album as I walk through this room,” Newlin said.
Newlin is actually pictured with Matsumura in one of the images in the exhibit. She’s still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of what happened to her family.
“Part of it is very emotional and part of it is me recognizing that I would like myself to feel more than I typically do, and that’s going to be a lifelong process for me,” said Newlin.
Newlin and Jessup hope the exhibit evokes the same emotion among visitors. They hope the message hits home in reminding people of the tragic events that occurred at the site less than a century ago.
“That’s the importance of telling these stories, so that way, future generations, political leaders, people in these spaces know these stories, and think back to it in moments of crisis, in moments of turmoil, and think, we’re not doing that again,” Jessup said.