Densho Digital Repository

Densho Visual History Collection

Title: Flora Ninomiya Interview

Narrator: Flora Ninomiya

Interviewer: Virginia Yamada

Location: Emeryville, California

Date: March 13, 2019

Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-473-11

[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

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VY: Okay, Flora, so when did your family leave Amache?

FN: We left Amache when school ended in 1945. We left camp, and it was June, and we all got on the train. And there was a special train for us, we were all leaving camp, because I think everybody wanted to wait 'til school was out, and then the families could return. So we left in the middle of June, and we got on the Santa Fe train. You know, I don't remember the process of getting to the train station and boarding the train, but I know that the train was very, very crowded. I know that it was very, very hot. In those days, there was no air conditioning, of course. And then I remember different stops. I remember our train stopped completely in Barstow, California. And if you don't think that day wasn't hot, it was terrifically hot. And I think that the reason that was stopped is that part of the people went on to some other place, so the train was dismantled, and we had to wait for an engine to come. But after what was hours and hours of waiting in the hot train, we finally started moving and the train came to Richmond, California, which was the end of the line for the Santa Fe tracks. So when we got off the train, it was there that Mr. Francis Aebi came to take our family home.

VY: He met you at the train station?

FN: He met us at the train station, he knew exactly when we would be there, so he met us. So he's the one that took us home. And Richmond was a very small town, so we were able to go directly home to our house in our nursery.

VY: Do you know how your family kept in touch with him while they were...

FN: Our family kept in touch with the Aebis through mail, and so we would write letters back and forth. But you know, Mr. Aebi had to work so hard, he took care of our nursery. Well, of course, our nursery, and also the Kawais who were right next to us, and the Sugihara family. So he took care of four nurseries all during the war.

VY: All by himself? Did he have any help?

FN: He had very little help, but he did have help. And I know that it was a struggle, I know that his children -- and they were young, too, at that time. But they had to help, especially during the summers, but they had to help after school and work to help the family. And I know that Mr. Aebi had to do certain things, like in order to get gas rations, he had to remove some of his plants from the greenhouse, and he grew tomatoes so that he could get things like tires for his equipment and also gasoline. Because farmers had special privileges, and he knew that that was the only way that he could survive. So Mr. Aebi was very, very clever, and he was very hardworking, very, very meticulous kind of man. So everything that he did, did very, very well after he studied what the situation could be, and he just was able to get through this war experience. And one thing I'll have to say about Mr. Aebi is that he did this quietly, he didn't expect anything in return, and he did this because he felt that this was the right thing to do. He was truly a man, I think, of conscience, and to this day, his children are just the same. And it's truly remarkable, because I know the feeling that there was in parts of the community, but to him, he always showed that he could make his decisions correctly.

VY: Was Mr. Aebi, was he first generation or second generation, where's his family from?

FN: He told me a story once that... we used to go to meetings a lot together, so we'd just sit and talk. Mrs. Aebi would be there, too, and sometimes his son, Francis, because they were all involved in the nursery business, he told me a story. In World War I, when he was still going to school in Berkeley, he realized that his family was speaking in Swiss. So his mother was Swiss, Mr. Aebi was born in Berkeley, I think Berkeley, and so he was a first generation, I mean, he was a second generation. He told his mother that, "We have to speak English from now on, because our neighbors will think that we are foreigners. They will think that we're not Americans." So he realized, when he was very, very young, and I know this was when he was still probably in grammar school or middle school that he realized this. And so when World War II started, I think it resonated in his mind that this was happening to Japanese and Japanese Americans, I think he realized that, and I'm thankful that he did.

VY: Okay, so he took care of your nursery and other people's nurseries, as well as his own during the world war.

FN: And he also helped pay for our property taxes, because we could not pay property taxes because we had no income coming in.

VY: So how did that work? How did he help you pay for your property taxes?

FN: Well, when you own property, you have to pay property taxes. And it's not just homes, but when you have other properties like a farm, property taxes have to be paid to the county. So realizing this, he was able to pay our property taxes. And I tell this to our people, that in Solano County, there were one hundred Japanese farmers in Solano County. And of those families, less than ten percent of those families were able to return, and one of the reasons is that they could not pay their property taxes. And the thing is that the properties that these farmers had in Solano County, which is right next to Contra Costa County, those properties were large, they were mostly orchardists, they had their homes on their property, and since they were larger pieces of property, they had a lot of equipment on their property, those things were all lost because they could not pay their property taxes. And what made their property really valuable was that when you have an orchard, it's not like truck farming where you plant seeds every season, you get a crop if you treat your plants reasonably well. So those orchards were very, very valuable in Solano County. And the Japanese in 1945, most of those people could not return to Solano County because they had not paid their property taxes. Also, for us, we had a mortgage on our property. And you know, as children, we had no idea that this had happened. And even as an adult, I really did not know this story. There was a mortgage on our property, and this mortgage was held by the Mechanics Bank, a small, local family-owned bank. And many of the other Japanese families did have mortgages with the Mechanics Bank. And I would not say all of the families had mortgages, because by the time World War II started, most of the families had been in Richmond a long time, so some of the families had paid off their mortgage. But most of the mortgage were held by the Mechanics Bank.

VY: Did your family have a mortgage?

FN: Yes, it was held at the Mechanics Bank, and the owner of that bank was Mr. Edward Downer. And he quietly kept all of our mortgages that he had. He did not call any of the mortgage, he could have done that, very easily done. You don't pay the mortgage, you lose the property. He quietly held the mortgage, and he made it possible for all his families to return. Of the twenty families that were in Richmond, all of the families returned, and the one family that did not return had their mortgage in another bank. So, to me, that tells a powerful story of another person who helped us when we really needed the help. I don't know how many people would do this today to help a group of people that are in need, Mr. Downer did not talk to his family about holding the mortgages for all these Japanese families. I know that he did not because Edward Downer III, who is my age, didn't hear this story until he was an adult. And so I'm really thankful for both Mr. Downer and Mr. Aebi, because those two men made it possible for my family to return to Richmond. And I don't know about the Kawai family that was next to us, I don't know about the Sugihara family. But we all did return, I don't know if they had a mortgage, but I know that their property taxes were paid. Remarkable, isn't it?

VY: That is remarkable.

FN: And I think that Richmond was a good place to be from.

VY: Yeah, it sounds like it.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.