Densho Digital Archive
Emiko and Chizuko Omori Collection
Title: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga Interview
Narrator: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga
Interviewers: Emiko Omori (primary), Chizu Omori (secondary)
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: March 20, 1994
Densho ID: denshovh-haiko-02-0012

<Begin Segment 12>

AH: My father died in the camps. He died in a camp called Jerome which was in Arkansas. We had a family, a funeral. My sister who lived in New York City came for the funeral. Oh, there's an, there's an irony to this story. My sister was an alien, she lived in New York City before the war broke out. Since she lived on the East Coast, she was not placed in the camps. And she used to come to visit us who were American citizens imprisoned by our own government. My sister, an alien, used to come to visit us in the camps.

EO: Let's back up now. You are in Manzanar and your parents and the rest of your family are in Arkansas. So tell me now how you found out that your father was ill, and how you got over there.

AH: I received word from my family that my father was quite ill. This was in the summer of 1943, about a year after we had, I had already been living in Manzanar. So I requested a transfer to the camp where my father was, which was Jerome, Arkansas. It took many months for them to finally give me approval. At the time, they said -- they would permit, the government would permit me to take my little daughter, but that they would not permit my then-husband to go because he was only a son-in-law and not a son. So I took my child, and on a four-day train trip, went from Manzanar camp to Jerome, Arkansas camp. That train trip was a nightmare. I was not, I didn't have a seat reservation so I had to sit on my suitcase for two of the four days, and my child had, had pneumonia, or bronchitis at that time She was only eleven months old. Ten-and-a-half or eleven months old. And so here I had a sick baby, sitting on my suitcase, getting across from California to Arkansas on this old train. Fortunately, on the third day, an American soldier took pity on me and let me have his seat. I was ever so grateful for a seat on this train.

I got to Arkansas, and just as I pulled in... on a truck, that's right. I was on a train, the truck met me at the train station and my daughter and I got off and we were assigned a certain barrack. My father was just at that time being put on an ambulance to go to the hospital, so I grabbed my daughter and ran to the ambulance and he just held her for a minute, he had had a heart attack. He had been unwell, but he had had an attack. He held her for a minute and he went to the hosp-, they took him to the hospital. I went to visit him every day, of course, and this was in December of 1943. Ten days later, after I arrived, on Christmas morning, he died in the camp hospital. But at least he got to see my daughter once. For that I was very grateful and he was, too. By that time he had forgiven me for my transgressions. [Laughs]

EO: Describe a little to me, once, about the night he died.

AH: Yes. He, he had an oxygen tank in that room, and the lights for some reason did not work in the whole camp that night. We were told that you could not use candles in, in a room where there was an oxygen tank, with a danger of explosion or something like that. And there were, there was an inadequate supply of flashlights in the hospital. So here we were, groping in the dark and my father said, "I'm thirsty, thirsty." He wanted water. Here I was trying to give him water in total darkness, trying to find the straw, trying to find his mouth. He was pretty immobile. He knew he was dying. I was glad to be there at the time. And it sort of made up a little bit for the trouble I had caused him by my rash elopement. We were, although we didn't communicate a lot because our, the language problem was very big, we, we had a little same wave-, same wavelength communication, relationship. So I was glad to be there when he died.

EO: What state of mind was he in?

AH: I think... he was a religious man, and I believe that he... he told me one time during this ten day's period when I would visit him, he said he'd been searching for God all his life and he said, "You know, I didn't have to look for him, He was always inside of me. I don't know why I was looking all over the place." I managed to understand that much of what he was trying to tell me. And he, he went rather peacefully. But I do recall something that I think my, my Christian family would be not too happy to hear: that just before he died, he was giving a chant, like the Buddhist chant -- I don't know the proper word for it, but it sounds like, namyohorengekyo, something like that. And I thought, "Here's this Christian man, what is he doing, coming out with this Buddhist chant?" It was some childhood memory surfaced, either that or he, he believed that we all, regardless of what religion, we all worship a god and that no matter what house of worship you go to, whether it be Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, that we are just taking different roads to the same destination. Maybe that's why it was no problem for him to be chanting a Buddhist sutra, chant, and still be singing hymns in the next breath. He was a remarkable man, I think.

EO: Can you describe to me about his disillusionment?


AH: My father was not a businessman. He liked to read books, and as I mentioned earlier, he even wrote an autobiography, in Japanese, so I don't know what it said. But he believed so much in education. He felt that this country offered unlimited opportunities for people to use their brains, extend their knowledge. He was a schoolteacher in Japan before he came over. I thought he taught English, but I found out from my sister not too long ago that he taught mathematics. Being a third son, he knew that he could never inherit anything in his family, from his family property, so he decided to try his luck in the United States and when he found out what great opportunities there was for education here, he just thought that this was the best thing for him to do. To place his roots here, because he wanted all of us to take advantage of this opportunity in this country. And he, of course, felt that one of the good things about this country, it was not a monarchy, it was not like in Japan, it was a democratic institution and he felt very strongly that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was God's gift to, to the people. I suppose it had to do with all the social programs that Mr. Roosevelt instituted and helped to get this country out of depression. Therefore he believed, he was happy about the democratic way of life here. But then, when the war started, he was rather disillusioned that Mr. Roosevelt, his idol, would abandon principles and take action upon a people based only on their ancestral background. He was quite disappointed, I'm sure, at Mr. Roosevelt's action.

EO: Do you think it contributed at all to his death?

AH: I don't know how much physical... no, I don't think physically, but of course, our physical welfare has a great deal to do with how we feel emotionally, mentally. And I know that he was affected. So, yes, I guess it is possible that his, he became a little depressed as a result of the incarceration and the unfair treatment of the people. That, of course, meant how would it affect... there was such a question, how was it going to affect the rest of us? His children, after the war was over. He had such high hopes for all of us to be able to go to school, to become, make something of ourselves. So I think it weighed heavily on his mind, the fact that this camp experience would be a horrendous barrier to our future. I guess most of us were, since we didn't know what was going to happen, were worried that we might all be put on a ship and sent to this strange country of Japan we had never been to. I think there was always that fear. I'm sure, I'm sure my father was worried about that, too.

EO: And tell me about, what, about the funeral.

AH: My father's funeral was held in a barrack that served as the church. My, the... since my father was a religious person, he had many friends who were very steeped in religion. It was a very bleak affair, since it was December. It was cold. I'm trying to recall what the coffin was like, where we got the coffin. My oldest brother, I'm sure, arranged for it. I was more worried about my mother and how it would affect her. I don't remember the details about where the coffin came from, what was, who took care of all that, I'm sure my brother did. But my father asked to be cremated. We had, after the service, the coffin was taken to a local town, I think it was Denson, Arkansas. And my mother received the ashes and she carried around the ashes with her for many years. When we moved to New York City I recall the family bought a plot in Queens, Long Island. And I might be jumping ahead, but I think I better mention this story before I forget.


AH: My father had died Christmas, 1943, and my mother had been carrying around his ashes, so twenty years or almost twenty-seven years later when I was working in New York City and my mother decided that she would finally put his ashes into the ground, I asked for a day off from the job that I was working at in New York City. And my supervisor extended his condolences to me and said, "I didn't know that you had, even had a father here. That he had died." I said, "Don't worry about it, my mother's been carrying him around for twenty-something years. We just decided to put him in the ground." The expression on his face was something else. I wasn't very smart to, I wasn't very kind to warn him what the situation was, but it was a sort of a funny story I like to tell my family and friends. [Laughs]

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 1994, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.