His death, last March as the Covid-19 epidemic progressed in the United States, had gone unnoticed until a relative contacted the Los Angeles Times. Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn, American of Japanese origin and former inmate of American internment camps, died at the age of 80.

His photo, taken in 1942, had moved the whole country. It featured a two-year-old girl, sad looking, sitting on a suitcase in Union Station in Los Angeles, waiting to be incarcerated.

A tragedy for Japanese Americans

At that time, in the midst of World War II, the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base exacerbated the hostility of the American population towards the Japanese immigrants to the United States. Under the pretext of protecting national security, Presidential Decree No. 90600 of Franklin Roosevelt authorized, in 1942, the detention of civilians of Japanese origin present on American soil.

Nearly 120,000 people – two-thirds made up of young people from the second generation of immigrants, holders of American citizenship – were then imprisoned for a period ranging from one to three years, the last prisoners having been released in 1945.

Within these internment camps, the ” families were confined to 6 meter by 6 meter rooms, adults forced to work for a pittance and required to produce their own food »Describes Greg Robinson, professor of history at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

In total, ten Japanese-American internment sites have been established. Yuki Llewellyn was deported with her mother to one of the most famous of them, the Manzanar camp located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in the Owens Valley in California.

Upon his release, Yuki Llewellyn’s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Graduated from a master’s degree in fine arts, the young woman obtained a job in the administration of the University of Illinois. Married, she leaves behind a son and three grandchildren.

Memory and reparations for a tragedy

The memory of Manzanar has remained very present in the life of Yuki Llewellyn. Even if she did not return to the place until 2005, she carried out a lot of research on these detention camps, during which she had also discovered that her father, who had left his mother before their deportation, was imprisoned. on the same site as her.

Long hidden, the history of these camps was the subject, in the 1970s, of requests for reparation. In 1980, a US Special Commission of Inquiry recognized that the incarcerations resulted from ” racial prejudice, hysteria of war and political failures ”. In 1988, the US Congress formally apologized for past injustices and awarded $ 20,000 in reparation to each survivor. Testimony to a still painful memory that resonates in the current American political context, in February 2020 the State of California voted to formulate an official apology for its role in these incarcerations.

Since 1945, the former Manzanar Camp has been transformed into a National Historic Site, reminiscent of one of the darkest periods in U.S. history. An important commemoration for Greg Robinson since it allows us to keep in memory ” the issues of racism “. An opinion shared by Yuki Llewellyn who was, according to his relatives, afraid of seeing history repeat itself. To photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr., she confided: “ the people who are elected to power are the ones who have the ability to do these kinds of things. Today I do not see the figures showing me that young people are voting. It saddens me because it’s the only way to control what can happen ».