Letters from Home: Love and Friendship in Times of War; with Books and Moral Support, a Children's Librarian Helped Young Japanese Americans Endure Internment during World War II. (Library History)

Article excerpt

Librarians celebrate the power of the written word and its ability to change lives. Whether rallying against censorship or finding the perfect book for a reluctant or burgeoning reader, library professionals have a rich history of helping people through the written word.

There is perhaps no more poignant example of this kind of dedication than the story of Clara Estelle Breed, children's librarian at the San Diego Public Library during World War II. Miss Breed, as she was known to her young patrons, knew and loved the many Japanese-American children in her library's service area. On April 8, 1942, she went to the San Diego train station armed with self-addressed, stamped postcards to give to those children as they, with their families, were sent away to internment camps.

In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, establishing "military areas" on the West Coast from which "any or all persons" could be excluded--the first step in the eventual relocation of as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to inland camps.

For internees far away from their homes, the delivery of U.S. mail served as a crucial tie to the outside world. Miss Breed received more than 250 letters detailing her young patrons' experiences and day-to-day life in the Poston Relocation Center in the Arizona desert. She treasured these letters and continued to correspond with many of the former internees after the end of the war until her death in 1994 at age 88. Miss Breed gave her cherished collection to one of her correspondents, Elizabeth Yamada, who donated it to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

It was because of this generous donation that the world got a glimpse of the powerful relationship between a librarian and "her" children. Digital exhibits, including transcripts of some of the letters, tell Miss Breed's story on Web sites of the Japanese American National Museum (www.janm.org/breed/title.htm) and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum (www.si.edu/postal/far/exhibit.html), and her story was featured on the May 9, 2001, edition of National Public Radio's Morning Edition (www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/may/010509.japanesecamp.h tml) as well.

Although the children were often frustrated by their experiences in the camps, patriotism was a recurring theme in many of their letters. The older boys spoke of their eagerness to enlist, and the difficulties endured were often viewed as contributions to the war effort. After describing the terrible dust and heat in an August 27, 1942, letter, Louise Ogawa wrote, If American soldiers can endure hardships, so can we!

The children spoke of kinship with the American soldiers. On December 23, 1943, Tetsuzo Hirasaki wrote, Now I know how soldiers feel about mail. …


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