Where life leads us

Family history exerts a powerful pull

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

You never know where life will lead you.

Lourdes Nicholls has a story she needs to tell. It started 32 years ago in high school in Berkeley, California, when she was assigned to do a family history report.

"I got sick for a week after doing it," she recalled, "and I've never missed a day of school or work since. I just poured everything into it."

In some ways, she's still working on it.

You wouldn't know it by her name, but Lourdes is half-Japanese. She knew her maternal grandparents, Kiyotsugu and Chie Tsuchiya, had been in an internment camp during World War II, and that her mom, Fumi Knox, was born there, but they rarely ever spoke about the experience.

Which was not unusual for those interned. 

On Feb. 19, 1942, just two months after Pearl Harbor, in response to hard lobbying by influential economic interests in California and other West Coast states, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the "evacuation" of roughly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens. They were imprisoned (for their own safety, they were told), in 11 camps in various western states and as far east as Arkansas, by the War Relocation Authority.

It happened so fast, most families didn't have time to liquidate property and businesses, which were quickly gobbled up, especially by those who coveted prime farm land since many Japanese Americans were successful farmers. The internees could only take what they could carry, and they didn't have much time to pull even that together. Some simply left businesses shuttered. Others sold off what they could for whatever they could get. 

Lourdes' grandfather offered his nursery business in Los Angeles to the neighborhood milkman. He said he would take whatever the man had. He had $75.

After the war, most of those who had been in the camps didn't talk much about it — a combination of shame and fear of further discrimination. Most of the former internees laid low.

So Lourdes grew up with grandparents who were modest and reserved. When she interviewed them for her report in 1983, it was the first time they had talked with her about the past. 

In the process, she uncovered a story much bigger than the one she expected.

Her grandfather was the first boy in his family in five generations. According to Lourdes' mom, in order to maintain the family name in Japan, those with no sons would arrange for a man to "marry in" and assume their surname — usually a second son, who wasn't in line to inherit from his own family. Unfortunately, that made for some unhappy marriages. 

"I think that was why my dad's father left his wife and son and came to America," Fumi recalled. "He and his brother ran a little flower stand in downtown Los Angeles.

"When my dad was 16, his mother said, 'Go to America and bring your father back.' That's how my dad came here. He got his dad to go back to Japan, and he stayed."

 

Curator

Kiyotsugu Tsuchiya headed east to Chicago, where he studied at the Art Institute — and crossed paths with an eccentric politician named George Harding Jr., who hired him to take care of one of the more remarkable collections any multimillionaire ever assembled. According to a 1993 article in the Chicago Tribune ("Lost Treasures"), this avid collector managed to acquire: "Frederic Remington paintings, sketches and bronzes depicting the Old West; exotic antique musical instruments; military battle pennants, posters and paraphernalia dating from the Crusades to World War I; … walking canes that doubled as daggers and guns; Napoleon's field kitchen and the sleigh in which he retreated from Moscow; a couch owned by Abe Lincoln; and a huge Persian rug with the faces of the world's important people since Moses."

But the main part of Harding's collection consisted of medieval arms and armor — said to rival the one in the Hearst mansion in California. The entire collection was valued at $30 million in 1976, and in the mid-1920s as it started to grow, Harding needed someone to look after it.

Kiyotsugu became his curator. From 1924 to 1940, he organized, cleaned, repaired and assembled the myriad pieces that Harding accumulated on his frequent trips to Europe. He even created the collection's centerpiece: Four suits of armor sitting astride armored horses. "Bill," as he was called, lived at the mansion, located at 4853 S. Lake Park Ave. in Hyde Park, which was redesigned to resemble a turreted castle, and he often led tours for the curious public — which included, on one occasion, Al Capone. 

According to an article ("Harding Museum Houses Roaring Pageant of Past") in the Nov. 10, 1939 Chicago Daily News, "The public may see these treasures without charge by appointment. Kiyotsugu Tsuchiya, called Bill for short, will take the visitor thru. Bill is a Japanese of indiscernible age [he was 39] who came to the museum 15 years ago to earn money for his education. He has never left because, as he says, he has 'lived with an education.'"

Harding died in 1939, but the museum stayed open through the '40s and '50s, finally shutting down when the house was condemned and razed in the '60s to make way for an expansion of Lake Shore Drive. The collection went into storage, though some of it was sold off on the black market.

Kiyotsugu and Chie (who were married on Dec. 7, 1936) moved back to Los Angeles in late 1940, though he had thoughts of returning to Japan. His mother was ill and his brother-in-law had been telling him about great opportunities in Manchuria, which the Japanese had recently conquered.

But they hesitated because of rumors that any Japanese American who traveled to Japan would not be allowed to return to the U.S. (Chie was born in Sacramento). They were still in L.A. on Dec. 7, 1941, their fifth wedding anniversary.

By then it was too late.

 

Internment

The Tsuchiyas, along with 11,000 other Japanese Americans, were sent to Manzanar, located in the high desert of eastern California about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco — a desolate stretch between the sparsely populated towns of Lone Pine and Independence, with snow-capped mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. They were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard towers with spotlights, and the hardships were very real. 

But the internees embraced the Zen Buddhist philosophy known as "gaman," which means "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity."

Dignity wasn't easy to maintain with so little privacy. Multiple families shared barracks and the bathrooms and showers were communal and wide open. Lourdes' mother, Fumi, was born at Manzanar in 1945 (a few months before they left), where the only dividers between families were sheets or blankets. 

Soon after they arrived in 1942, Kiyotsugu was asked to create a Visual Education Museum. It was modest compared to the Harding Museum, but camp residents were hungry for cultural stimulation, and the museum became very popular. Since they had no idea how long they might be imprisoned, the residents felt their children needed a museum as an educational resource to be able to "see" the outside world.

Kiyotsugu had a staff of assistants, including Toyo Miyatake, who later became a photographer of considerable renown. He managed to smuggle a camera into the camp and eventually published a book of photos chronicling life there. 

According to a report that Kiyotsugu submitted to the administration about the development of the museum, "Our department began with a pile of old magazines for a picture file, one live owl, and a mouse. While we collected insects to be mounted, Mr. [Kango] Takamura painted the local wildflowers.

"In our early days, the walls and the floor were unlined. Dust and wind blew through the open seams of our building. We worked with our coats on because the heat was inadequate. To add to our misery, the owl, the sparrow and the snake died of cold. The mouse escaped and ate up our collection of insects. Yet we were not discouraged.

"After five months of hard toil, our first exhibition on Dec. 5, 1942 was a great success. Since then, we have held special exhibits every month."

When the internees left the camps at the end of the war, they were given $25 and a bus ticket to wherever they wanted to go. Kiyotsugu was eventually hired by the U.S. Army as a translator during the war crimes trials in Japan. When the family returned to the U.S. in 1949, they settled in Los Angeles and struggled to find work. Chie, who till then had been a housewife, worked her way up the ladder at Goodman Bros. Yarn Co. (which later became Super Yarn Mart, a chain of yarn stores in California). She eventually became manager of the warehouse operation and retired at the age of 78. Kiyotsugu tried selling vacuum cleaners for a few weeks, then became a gardener and opened a nursery. In 1960, he started a picture frame business, learning a whole new trade. He retired in 1980 at the age of 80.

Fumi described him as "embittered and depressed about the camp experience. I think it made him see the effects of racism so clearly that he felt the cards were stacked against him. I think he felt there was no use hoping for more for himself but to just work to try to give his daughters a better life than he had." Fumi, now 70, became an attorney.

 

 The Chicago connection

When Lourdes visited her grandparents in 1990, she intended to tape her grandmother, who was ill.

"But she wouldn't really talk," Lourdes recalled, "so [my grandfather] ended up taking over."

Good thing. 

"That was the last time I saw him," she said. He died later that year.

The six hours of tape provide a wealth of detail that gives context to two thick albums full of photos of the Harding collection, showing how it was displayed in the mansion.

In 1991, life led Lourdes to Chicago, a place she never expected to go. She was engaged to Andy Kaczkowski, who had landed a job there after college. By then, what remained of the Harding Museum had been acquired by the Art Institute. Lourdes stopped by and asked to speak to the curator of the arms and armor collection so she could show him her grandfather's photos. But she was told the curator, who had been working on a book about the collection, had just died in an auto accident.

"All that knowledge was gone," Lourdes said.

At that point, she put the past on a back burner and looked to the future, raising her family in Oak Park. 

Meanwhile, a movement was building in the Japanese American community to draw attention to the internment experience. It began at Manzanar, which is now a National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. Since 1969, internees from all the camps and their families have gathered for an annual "pilgrimage," an effort to educate the general population on what happened back then. Lourdes and her mother attended for the first time in 2009 and again in 2014. 

That movement eventually led to reparations. Kiyotsugu Tsuchiya's was one of the first checks issued. It arrived in 1990, shortly after he died.

The visits to Manzanar revived Lourdes' desire to tell her family's story. She contacted Gloria Groom, chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute, a fellow Oak Parker, about her grandfather's photo albums. Groom was thrilled because their background on the arms and armor collection was sketchy at best. She also met with Jonathan Tavares, curatorial fellow of European Painting and Sculpture, and Jane Neet, collection manager and research assistant in that department. 

As it happens, I had dinner that night with Gloria and her husband, Joe Berton, and she mentioned the meeting, which is how I entered this story, just one of many coincidences that keep occurring as this story has developed. 

For instance, one of our former co-workers here at Wednesday Journal, Sky Hatter, grew up in Independence, California, next to the Manzanar Historic Site, where she previously worked. In fact, she remembered scanning in the items that Lourdes and her family donated to the interpretive center in 2009.

"I believe in signs," Lourdes said. "What are the odds that we would turn up working at the same company in Oak Park?" 

 Another fortuitous coincidence is that the Art Institute's arms and armor collection is in the process of being revamped and re-installed in March of 2017. 

"We had no knowledge of her grandfather," said Tavares. "Very little in the way of records, receipts or archival material came with the collection when it was ceded to the Art Institute by court order in 1982. We have very limited information about how the collection was put together or arranged, and virtually no institutional memory of how Harding kept his collection.

"Not only was Lourdes' grandfather's story inspirational, but his photo albums filled a huge gulf. They show the castle as it was lived in during, and just after, Harding's day. The photos offer vantage points we had not seen and, most importantly, they tell how the pieces were distributed and organized. 

"In the new arms and armor installation, we will have a large-format (wall size) text panel that will speak about the legacy of the Harding collection, its importance to Chicago as one of the leading collections of this material in the U.S., and also show some images of the interior of the castle itself. 

"I have no doubt some of Mr. Tsuchiya's stories on tape will be pivotal in that text. This could have been completely lost to time if Lourdes had not come forward."

Bittersweet journey

Looking back, Lourdes describes her exploration into her family's past as "bittersweet," but she recommends taking the journey. 

"It has always been evolving and will continue to change me as a person," she said. "I feel like I learn new things about my family all the time. Luckily, my mom has been there to help me."

Fumi, though, was reluctant at first to take the journey. Like many in her generation, she preferred to put it all behind her. But her daughter persisted. 

"Going to Manzanar for the first time with her in 2009," Lourdes recalled, "we thought it would be a sad place, but surprisingly it turned into a really positive experience. They do an incredible job at The Pilgrimage to reflect, remember and raise public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. I think we were both shocked that a place that brought a lot of pain and sadness to our family could be positive, helpful and beautiful. I believe my grandparents would be pleased with all the things they are doing there."

Of all the coincidences that keep nudging Lourdes to tell her story, Dec. 7 looms largest. Her grandparents were married on Dec. 7, 1936. Pearl Harbor took place on their fifth wedding anniversary. Lourdes' grandmother died on Dec. 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the day that lived, for them, in infamy.

And five years later, Lourdes and Andy's first child was born on December … 5th (close, but even coincidences aren't always exact). Mari, as she was known throughout her childhood, was not particularly interested in her ancestry when she was young, especially when Lourdes made her attend Japanese school.

"At first she was not thrilled," Lourdes recalled. "But in the last three years, we hosted a dozen students from Japan, and that has changed her life."

Fumi noted, "It's so interesting. Mari has gone to Japan twice, and she loves it. She comes back and says, 'I'm so proud to be Japanese.' It would have just been unthinkable for me to have been able to say that."

Mari, who now goes by her full Japanese name, Mariko, is majoring in Japanese and has been pushing her grandmother to relearn the language. Lourdes said Mariko may even end up living in Japan someday.

You just never know where family history might lead you.  

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Doc Heeb  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 9:40 AM

Great story!

Doug Deuchler from Oak Park  

Posted: January 14th, 2016 2:19 PM

It always makes me nuts that we were at war with both Germany and Japan yet only the Japanese-Americans were "relocated" into internment camps. My family was 100% German yet they went on about their business. Racism, indeed.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: December 24th, 2015 9:28 AM

good for you Lourdes. What a great story - what our country did was wrong.

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