Chilling reminder of shattered lives in a Seattle hotel basement

Chilling reminder of shattered lives in a Seattle hotel basement
It's an old building, built in 1910, designed by a Japanese American architect, Sabro Ozasa.

There is a green neon sign hanging in front, the kind you don't see much anymore.

On the front door, in old-fashioned gold leaf lettering, the words Panama Hotel are written.

There's a coffee shop on the first floor, with old photos of the building on the wall, and past the coffee counter and the pastry shelf, down in the middle of the polished hardwood floor, is a window.

Strangely, the window looks down into the basement.

For those who know the story, the existence of it all, the building, the door, the hole in the floor ... nags at us like a whisper of guilt.

"Remember," they say. "Remember or repeat."

The photos are immediately recognizable, more than 70 years later. Massive towers of black smoke rising from crippled ships.

One look, and you know what it is. Pearl Harbor.

We think we can imagine how it was then in America, after the attack. But unless we were there, alive and breathing, angry and scared, we have no idea.

It wasn't hype. It wasn't empty fear-mongering from Chicken Little skeptics.

It was legitimate concern: "Would the Japanese land in a week? Would the United States exist in a year?"

Only this was known: the whole world was coming unglued.

She is an elderly woman, but the brilliance of her smile makes her look impossibly young.

"I've had an exciting life!" exudes Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. "It's been a GOOD life!"

Mary is an American of Japanese descent, raised on Vashon Island. She was 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Knowing what we know about the Japanese internment camps, it feels strange to hear her describe the times with these words: "The emotion that swirled around that time is truly understandable. This is war! People didn't know if Japanese airplanes would come and bomb the West Coast!"

Talking to Mary, you quickly realize that she is incapable of lying to anyone about anything.

And so, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, decisions were made. Decisions that, in the hysteria of the moment, seemed logical. Decisions that, in time, would become stains on the conscience of a great nation.

Sometimes when she talks about those days, her eyes look past you into the distance.

"I knew that my face would betray me," she says simply, without a hint of bitterness. "I was a non-white. I was Japanese."

What the history books have taught us, she lived. Tens of thousands of citizens of Japanese descent were yanked from their homes and sent away to internment camps.

Lost in the fog of war, of course, was the fact that they were Americans.

Mary remembers the evacuation orders nailed to telephone poles. "We were told we'd have to leave on May 11th, so we had eight days. On this notice it indicated the things that we should take."

For the most part, they were each allowed two suitcases.

How do you pack a lifetime into two suitcases?

Or, for that matter, 120,000 lifetimes?

And the Panama Hotel, on South Main Street, stood silent witness to it all.

Mary continues, "So, the question becomes, 'What do we take? How long are we going to be gone? What kind of climate are we going to have to adjust to?' All these questions, so ... we did the best we could."

Her eyes look past me again, as if she's watching herself pack those suitcases.

"I took a Bible. And of course we took our eating utensils. Plate. Bowl. Cup."

Someone asked Takashi Hori, the owner of the Panama Hotel if they could leave some belongings in the basement, the stuff they couldn't take to the camps.

He said, "Yes."

Word spread in the frantic, frenzied rush of the moment. Soon, the basement of the hotel was filled with trunks. Boxes everywhere, stuffed full of lives put on hold.

There's an unmistakable "click," and a naked hanging light bulb goes on.

The room is illuminated, and if you know the story the sight is chill-inducing, because the miracle of the Panama Hotel is that the trunks and boxes are still there today, stacked and piled around the room, still waiting to be retrieved.

Jan Johnson, the owner of the Panama hotel since 1983, has kept it this way. She touches nothing. Keeps the air consistently the way it's been for 70-plus years.

"I think it's something that needs to stay here in American history," she says. "It's very much a teaching tool."

She glances around the room. "I can't imagine the basement without it. It's sacred."

Some Japanese Americans returned for their belongings after the war.

But some had died. Some had moved on. Many never came back to the basement again.

And so their trunks remained.

When I ask Jan Johnson about her role here, she brushes it off. "Just kind of passing through," she says, "... the caretaker."

She runs the hotel, and fixes it when she needs to.

She carries a ring with about 50 keys jangling on it, and only she knows which one fits which door.

Jan thinks of her hotel as a living museum. It's as if 70 years never happened.

"I don't know why I do it," she says to herself out loud. "I have a different answer every day."

The soul of the Panama Hotel is in the basement.

The hole in the floor is for the world to peek down into the sacred place to see what prejudice and panic looks like.

Eugenia Woo, Director of Preservation Services for Historic Seattle, scans the basement and says, "This is all everyday life stuff. You start to think about why this is here, and how people's lives ... American's lives ... were uprooted from their homes."

Eugenia played a role in getting the hotel National Historic Landmark status.

A few years ago, the Japanese American National Museum out of Los Angeles, went through most of the trunks. They documented the contents, and then put them back.

They rest there still, covered mostly in bubble wrap now, surrounded by the stuff of life.

There is a set of golf clubs leaning against a wall.

There is a box of fishing tackle sitting on a desk.

And a child's plastic cowboy holster, unused for the better part of a century, rests on a box.

Jan pulls a record album out of a dusty box. It's the Boston Symphony's take on Bolero.

Close to it is a small box containing oil paints and brushes. The tools of an artist.

And across the room, stacked against a wall, are some framed photos. One is of a handsome Japanese man in his early 30s, proud and strong. His name is lost to time.

I wonder to myself about his fate in the internment camps of the 1940s.

I ask Jan is she ever feels ghosts in the room.

She doesn't hesitate, "I think I AM one."

There is one trunk, the one you see from the hole in the floor above, that no one, not even Jan, has ever gone through. It has somehow gone unmolested since 1942.

Until now.

Jan moves a heavy box that sits on top of it.

And for a moment, as we prepare to open it up, there is a moment of trepidation, as though we are about to partake in some kind of unspoken betrayal. Perhaps we shouldn't open it. Perhaps the laws of history are somehow about to be broken.

Curiosity overpowers doubt. Carefully we open the lid. It groans, and we peer into lives unknown to see what they treasured.

Jan looks inside and says, "Oh! OK ..."

There is a fringed satin pillow on top, with a painting of Mount Rainier on it. A souvenir from a distant day trip.

Underneath it, a neat leather purse with metal initials attached to the front.

There is a small woman's shoe next to the purse, resting on top of a thick, warm, brown kimono.

Under that, neatly folded, is an assortment of clothing, most of it for a woman. There is a tan coat that looks brand new, except for the fact that it's been folded for the better part of a century, and you wonder if any amount of ironing could ever erase those folds?

There is a floral print dress, and the colors still leap out at you. I half expected the contents to be in black and white, so the colors come as a shock.

A purple satiny women's swimsuit comes out next, followed by a red swimsuit for a man.

And as the items come out, I piece together in my mind a youngish couple, very much alive, swimming in Lake Washington, visiting the mountains, living their lives.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald has been to the basement of the Panama Hotel. She has seen the trunks. I ask her what they mean, what they symbolize.

"To put those things in the basement of the Panama Hotel," she says quietly, "indicated their sense of faith and hope ... that something that was precious to them would endure over time."

It is a powerful thing for anyone to walk amongst the trunks. What must it be like for her?

"I think it is a sacred place," she says.

Time heals. Pain slips away like half-remembered dreams.

But there is a place, hallowed ground, really, where time is frozen and pain is boxed up, piled high like the hopes of generations.

It is the Panama Hotel, where a hole in the floor nags at us like a whisper of guilt.

Jan pulls the string and the hanging light bulb goes black. The basement of the Panama Hotel is quiet once again.