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The History of Japanese Americans from the Perspective of a German-American: Mr. Nahan Gluck, docent for the Japanese American National Museum – Part 3 “It All Starts With Knowing”

>> Part 2

Meeting Mr. Nahan Gluck, a volunteer docent at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo for the past 14 years, felt like touching someone who “loyally acts on what he believes in”.

However, being so profoundly involved with the history of Japanese Americans, I wondered what he thought about his own roots and asked him about it. Nahan was born in New York in 1932. His father is German-American, born in New York, and his mother was born in Ireland making him a first generation American. His mother’s story was quite intriguing to me.

Nahan’s mother was the eldest of 11 siblings, born to a poor Irish farmer. Without having the opportunity to formally attend school, his mother was sent to work in a nearby farm. Her job was to take care of the children in that household but after being abused by the landlady, she could not endure the treatment and finally ran away when she was 18 years old. She boarded a ship and came to the United States by herself…as an illegal immigrant.

After that, she met Nahan’s father, got married, was blessed with children, but for a long time, kept a grudge against her mother (Nahan’s grandmother). “Ireland is a poor country and there is nothing good about it. I was treated like a nuisance by my own mother and driven away”, she always said.

In later years, when Nahan had attended a relative’s wedding in England, he thought it would be a good opportunity to visit Ireland next door.

“From Scotland, I ferried to Northern Ireland. My rent-a-car had a British license plate. Everyone tried to stop me from going to Northern Ireland seeing how I can be susceptible to danger. However, I just had to see my mother’s homeland with my own eyes. It’s true in Northern Ireland, people saw my license plate and stopped me. However, when they realized I was American, there were no problems.”

After continuing his inquiry and when he found the Greene’s residence, his mother’s home, he experienced a flashback to the time when he first saw the old barracks from Heart Mountain Internment Camp.

“Even though there were 11 children, there was only a small hut (he described that it was about twice the size of the conference room we were in for the interview), and the floor was made out of dirt. The toilet was outside and there was no electricity. It was such an awful environment.”

However, there was also a big discovery. Someone that knew the Greene’s at that time told him that, “Your mother was the most loved among all the children. But your grandmother thought that even if your mother stayed home, there would be no bright future. That is why she gave her up as an apprentice to a farmer whose wife was a teacher. Your grandmother thought that by working for the farmer’s wife, she can teach your mother and that was the reason why she gave her up.”

Nahan’s mother had kept a grudge against her real mother until this story was revealed. Having her become an apprentice was in thinking about her daughter. When Nahan conveyed this to his mother in America, she was already 94 years old.

“Even then, from my heart, I was glad to have been able to confirm such a fact at the end”, exclaims Nahan.

Obviously, everything starts from knowing the truth. Nahan’s hopes of ‘wanting to know the truth’ and his footwork had melted away the trauma that had been building up in his mother for all these years. His source of energy in volunteering for the last 14 years also exists here as well. That is because he has realized the ‘importance of understanding the truth’.

Nahan had come out with me to the front entrance to bid farewell. He told me that his two grandchildren’s names are engraved in the Children’s Courtyard. This was something that I did not need to ask and somehow knew already.

He also said, “I intend to continue volunteering until I am told not to come here anymore.” I cannot think of a day when he is no longer needed by the museum but just as a reference, he will be 77 years old this March.



© 2009 Keiko Fukuda

community culture docent German American janm JANM Volunteers Japanese American National Museum Nahan Gluck volunteer