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'Then They Came For Me' exhibit explores history of Japanese-American internment

Dorothea Lange
National Archive
Lined up for evacuation. May 2, 1942, Turlock, California

Eighty years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order stripped Japanese Americans of their civil rights, forcing them to leave behind their lives and move to internment camps.

A new exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee explores this history through archival photos and firsthand accounts of the devastating impact of this unjust incarceration. The exhibit, called “Then They Came For Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties,” explores the history of anti-Asian legislation and its enduring impact on U.S. culture.

Evacuees of Japanese Ancestry. May 20, 1942, Woodland, California
Dorothea Lange
National Archieves
Evacuees of Japanese Ancestry. May 20, 1942, Woodland, California

"This particular exhibit promotes understanding and dialogue and commonalities between Japanese Americans and Jews, and at its heart examines the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans and documented immigrants from the West Coast into exclusion zones and incarceration camps, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor," says curator Molly Dubin.

Dubin says the exhibit is part of the museum's goal of contextualizing history to explore contemporary issues and a shared history among many groups that have faced a loss of civil rights. Japanese families were forced to leave their lives, sell their belongings and move into prison camps — based on their race and ethnicity.

"One of the reasons that [the exhibit] certainly resonates with [the Jewish Museum Milwaukee] is the idea of a people being prejudiced against and being incarcerated solely based on their ethnicity is something that rings true for our community," she explains.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee has worked with the Japanese American Citizens League of Wisconsin chapter to add a local dimension to the exhibit. "We have an original oral history project, we have artifacts, and it's really adding to the national canon," she adds.

"Then They Came For Me" is at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee through May 29, 2022 with free admission throughout its run.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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