Review: The Train to Crystal City

The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell recounts the story of the World War II internment camp at Crystal City, a small South Texas town not far from the border with Mexico. Russell interviewed several survivors of the camp, and she uses these personal stories to illustrate not only the betrayal and displacement of the Japanese- and German-Americans interned at the camp but also the complex inter-generational and cross-nationality conflicts at work in the camp and its aftermath.

While I generally knew about the mass arrests and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, I knew very little about the camps, how people came to be interned, and what happened to those put into the camps as the war progressed. The camp in Crystal City was different from many of the other internment camps in that it housed families and primarily those who had one family member labeled as an “enemy alien.” One distinction I had not appreciated is that the U.S. rounded up almost all Japanese-Americans (none of whom had citizenship because of racist laws excluding Asians from citizenship) and put them in internment camps, but some Japanese-Americans and some German- and Italian-Americans were also labeled as “enemy aliens” and interned. In almost all cases, these labels arose from accusations by jealous and/or racist neighbors and colleagues who reported “concerns” about potential disloyalty to the United States. Those accused had brief hearings without lawyers and had no real ability to combat the charges. Generally men were accused, promptly arrested, and interned without their families; their families voluntarily joined them later because it was better to be together than separated for years. The women and children left at home also had little ability to support themselves–they were suddenly left without income, and it was difficult for anyone of Japanese or German ancestry to get a job.

Russell interviewed and used the family stories of two girls, one German and one Japanese, to create a picture of life from the arrest of the fathers through the end of the war. The book opens with the arrests and initial internment, and, as you might imagine, the stories are heartbreaking. The book then turns to life in the camp, where the internees deal with the difficulties of being uprooted from their lives and imprisoned. The physical conditions of the camp were not onerous–it was clean, there was medical care and plenty of food, schooling, etc.–but there is no denying the fact that these people were imprisoned without any due process, based primarily on racial and ethnic biases.

One very interesting aspect of the camps had a strong impact on the outcomes for the children in the camp. The children had almost all been born in the United States and were American citizens, unlike many of the parents, who were legal immigrants but generally not naturalized. These children had lived their lives in the United States and considered themselves Americans. Many of the parents, while posing no threat to the United States, did still consider themselves “German” or “Japanese” and remained somewhat loyal to their native countries. Each nationality had its own elected government in the camp, and those loyal to the home countries generally held the leadership roles. This created conflicts between the children and their parents (and with the parents who considered themselves American), particularly when it came to the question of repatriation.

Russell devotes much of the book to this conflict, the issue of repatriation, and the bizarre outcomes generated by the repatriation program. Parents had the option of electing repatriation to their native countries, which required “repatriation” of their American-born children with them. Many of those who opted for repatriation were used during the war as exchanges for Americans who had been stuck behind enemy lines and captured soldiers. These “repatriates” had had little news of the war while in the camp, and many believed their home countries would win the war. When they arrived, they found total devastation. For those repatriated to Germany in particular, they unwittingly saved a small number of Jews from death. Toward the end of the war, Germany did not have enough Americans to exchange for Germans, so they exchanged Jews who held passports from other countries. Russell highlights the story of one Jewish family, held in Bergen-Belsen, whose lives were saved by the return of a German-American family to Germany. Although the American-born children had to return with their parents, many of them were later able to come back to the United States.

As you can probably tell, I learned so much from this book. The way Russell uses the stories of individual families personalizes this history so much and helped me to see these events from a different perspective. I thought she also did a good job of highlighting all of the different interests at work and the conflicts created by those. I’m not a big reader of war books, but this has relevance far beyond military history, especially for current issues of refugee resettlement and immigration.

My mom gave me this book for Christmas a year or two ago, so I didn’t want to let it linger any longer on my TBR pile, but it also counts for my Reading Women 2020 Challenge!


  1. Thanks for the great summary; really interesting! I think multiple folks in my family will want to read this. Your mom is clearly an excellent book giver. 🙂


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