internment is one of the least known subchapters of U.S. World War II history,
yet perhaps its most disturbing. In a land where the
rule of law is thought to prevail, tens of thousands of innocent men, women and
children were arbitrarily detained, interned and even deported or “exchanged”
by the United States government. (“Excludees”—including American citizens—were individuals
banned from living in coastal communities or “high-security zones”, typically
due to unproven denunciations veiled as anonymous “tips.”) U.S. citizens as well as
“enemy aliens” were deprived of due process, property and their freedom. Their
suffering cannot be justified, as no German-American internee was ever
convicted of a war-related crime. (Those spies and saboteurs convicted by the U.S. for attempted
sabotage were not interned; they were kept in prisons, and then hanged.) As of
this writing, Congress has repeatedly refused to acknowledge German-American
internment or to compensate those whom it affected. Unwilling to learn from
this tragedy, we easily could repeat it.
WWII the U.S. government registered
some 300,000 Germans in America as “enemy aliens” and
interned approximately 11,000 German resident aliens and German Americans. It
forcibly brought 4,058 German Latin Americans—including German and Austrian
Jews who had fled Nazi terror—to this country in the holds of ships. From 1941
to 1948 Ellis
served as a prison for German- and Italian-American internees; their caged
exercise pen overlooked the Statue of Liberty. (Today’s museum about this
national landmark omits this part of its history.) During some of WWII’s fiercest fighting on the North Atlantic, the United States shipped back to Germany more than 2,000 of
the 15,000 German Americans it had imprisoned, in exchange for German-held U.S. nationals; after the
war President Truman deported more.
exhibit explores the larger German-American drama as represented by the
experiences of a sample of individuals or families who had lived in the Midwest prior to America’s entry into WWII,
were interned in the Midwest or lived there after
their release. More than answers, this exhibit aims to provoke
questions—including how members of the United States’ largest ethnic group
could be singled out and labeled threats to “public peace and safety.” Without
being told what the charges were against them, they were refused legal counsel,
denied fair trials, put behind barbed wire and, in some cases, denied their
freedom until three and a half years after the war in Europe ended. It also begs
the question: Why did no one demand that justice prevail and that innocent
people live free?
Eleven-year-old Doris Berg saw the attack on Pearl Harbor
and, in the days that followed, lived the horror of internment and abandonment.
father was born in Cologne/Germany in 1902 and graduated from the university
there. Her mother came from German immigrants who had worked the Hawaiian sugar
fields since the 1880s, when Hawaii still existed as a sovereign country. Doris and her two
sisters, like their parents, were US citizens. Still, after Hawaii’s governor declared martial law on the 8th of December 1941, her older sister (then 18) and parents were interned
without charge or trial, and only released in 1942 and 1943, respectively. On
the day that FBI agents took away their parents, the two youngest girls—eleven
and eight years old—assumed their parents were dead and were left to fend for
themselves in the family’s nursing home. Apparently with government collusion,
a local realtor assumed the Bergs’ properties and coerced Doris’
parents to sign over title. Strangers came into the family’s house and
confiscated food, clothing and other personal property.
Hawaii’s government changed overnight. The press and radio
underwent rigid censorship. Orders were issued without regard to the provisions
of territorial or federal laws. “Citizens are not supposed to be subject to
internment” Doris says today. “We were protected by the Constitution. We
were entitled to its civil liberties and certain ‘inalienable rights.’ All of
that went out the window on December 7th, 1941. Our American citizenship and our Constitution did not
protect us after the attack on Pearl
Mathias Borniger and SigfridMuntz: Victims of
Mathias Borniger, a photographer
who made templates of plane parts for Boeing, was arrested in Wichita/Kansas in
the middle of the night, a day after Pearl Harbor was bombed—a week before he
was to become an American citizen. He was held for approximately four months at
Wisconsin’s CampMcCoy. He later learned that confidential FBI informants
accused him of photographing new planes at Boeing and sending the pictures to
Twenty-seven-year-old SigfridMuntz of San Diego was born in Chile to German parents. In 1939 he emigrated from Germany to the US, where he sought American citizenship and work as an
engineer. He was arrested in San Diego the day after Pearl
Harbor. He was given no explanation for his
arrest. Two weeks later, he was sent by train for internment at FortLincoln near Bismarck/North Dakota and then to CampMcCoy.
At McCoy, internees like Muntz
and Borniger wore uniforms with POW stamped on them
and adjusted to life in a barracks without running water. They were plagued by
boredom and had little to do but read magazines that were several years old.
They had no idea what was happening outside McCoy. An elderly German immigrant
from nearby Sparta/Wisconsin gave the German internees an old piano, which they
used to put on shows for others at the camp.
Mathias Borniger was sent from
McCoy to Stringtown, an Army-run internment camp in Oklahoma. After his family’s lawyer vouched for his loyalty, he
was released in the fall 1943 and opened a portrait studio in Wichita. SigfridMuntz
was released after two years of internment and returned to his job with an iron
and steel company in San
Eddie Friede: A Jew Once Again
Behind Barbed Wire
Eddie Friede was born of Jewish
parents in Hamburg in 1892. “Doktor” Friede practiced law until forbidden to do so by Nazi
edicts. Eddie and his wife, Liesl, were granted exit
permits in 1938. Before they could emigrate, however, Eddie was arrested and
imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp
outside Berlin. Relying upon his connections to the legal community,
Eddie eventually was able to secure his release from Sachsenhausen
and flee to America with Liesl.
English was insufficient to pursue law, so Eddie found work delivering Viennese
pastries door-to-door in the German community. To FBI agents secretly
monitoring the Friedes’ activities, this connection
to suspicious German Americans indicated that the dejected lawyer was a
dangerous Nazi. During the December 8th raids following Pearl Harbor,
in which hundreds were arrested, the FBI took him into custody in his San Francisco apartment. Doctor Friede—a Jew
who narrowly had escaped extermination in Germany—wound up behind barbed wire at FortLincoln.
There, he fought Gitterkrankheit
(“fence sickness”) for six months before his protests of innocence finally were
heard. He was released and returned to San Francisco, but marked for life by the internment experience. He
never practiced law again, and spent thirty-nine years as a door-to-door
salesman. He always fixed his deep, sad eyes on his customers and introduced
himself, “I am Doctor Friede. Would you like to buy
some cookies and pastries?”
Years later, the Friedes were
still so terrified by their experience and the FBI’s power that they would not
allow their real names to be used when their story was first published.
The Theberath Family: Victims of Forced Separation
The Theberath family was
arrested at their Milwaukee home at by
FBI agents on the night of 8 December 1941.
The family of five was inexplicably split up. Peter and Marie—the parents—were
shipped to Fort Oglethorpe/Georgia, and their children Gertrud (14) and
Friedrich (13) were turned over to the Milwaukee County Children’s Home. For
several weeks no one knew what happened to the other son, John (17). Six months
later, Peter—still in a state of shock—wrote to a relative in Germany from FortOglethorpe that
Marie and I were awakened and taken into custody [8 December 1941]. I was in prison for 4 months. Marie was released on
Feb. 11th, but everything was gone, no children, no home.
In one word everything robbed, the children placed in separate homes,
the mother helplessly thrown into the street [writer’s emphasis].
We arrived here on April 9th and no news yet
from our family. The last time I saw John and Marie was in the prison on April
5th and I have not seen Gertrude and Friedrich since December 8th.
These are ridiculous conditions… All hope that the war will end soon.
The letter never made it past the US National Censorship
Office in Washington/D.C. Undaunted, Peter wrote numerous letters to the Swiss
Legation in Washington, whose Department of German Interests watched over the
fate of German internees. Eventually, the exasperated assistant commissioner of
the Immigration and Naturalization Service, W.F. Kelly, told Edward Ennis, head
of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, to “get to the bottom of the case and really
provide a solution which would be best for both parents and the children.” This
case, as well as some others, eventually even reached the desk of General Edwin
Watson, secretary to President Roosevelt.
Vogt: Victim of Denunciation and False Accusation
Karl Vogt was abruptly taken from his family’s farm home
near Spokane/Washington on the afternoon of 9 December 1941. When his American born wife Elsie demanded to know why
Karl was being taken away and where they were taking him, she was told “it’s
none of your business”.
Karl was held in the Spokane County Jail until 21 December 1941, when he was taken by train to FortLincoln, and finally to the camp at Stringtown.
During an internment hearing, authorities asked Karl repeatedly why he had
“sent money to Hitler.” It was only later that he discovered that money he and
Elsie had mailed to her cousin in Germany—via the German embassy in San
Francisco—had been assumed to be destined for the Nazi regime. Still, Karl was
told neither the source of this suspicion, nor the name of the neighbor who had
been an informant against him in hopes of buying the Vogt farm cheaply.
Elsie and Karl’s brother, Bill, tried to cope as best they
could and save the farm. The family’s bank account, however, was soon blocked
and funds had to be borrowed from relatives or friends. Elsie later hired an
attorney who arranged for some funds to be released.
Finally, through a coincidental question from an
interrogator, Karl realized the mistaken impression about the funds he and
Elsie had sent to Germany. After six months of legal wrangling by Elsie and
supporters “on the outside,” Karl was told to pack his bags—he was going home.
The Worner Family: Victims of Malice and Prejudice
Twenty-year-old Meta Maria Brenner of
Worms-am-Rhein/Germany sailed for New York in 1926. Three months later she married her hometown
beau, Peter Worner, also a German immigrant, who
worked as a factory superintendent and by 1940 had obtained his citizenship. In
the summer of 1940 the Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Saint
Paul/Minnesota began to receive allegations about the couple.
FBI informants said that Maria Worner
was “thoroughly imbued with Nazi doctrines.” Agents arrested Maria at the
family’s home in Winona/Minnesota in the late evening of 9 December 1941 and delivered her to the Immigration and Naturalization
Service office in Saint
Paul before dawn. The
INS put her in the RamseyCounty jail, where the presence of convicted murderers and open
toilets prompted her to threaten to commit suicide. On 12 December she was
moved to the Home of the Good Shepherd in Saint Paul, operated by a French order of nuns who ran cloisters
throughout the country and took in female enemy aliens. She remained detained
there until her hearing and parole three weeks later. Back home, Maria
attempted suicide again, and she remained housebound and reclusive.
Meantime, her husband Peter’s loyalty also was a subject
of government interest. On the basis of complaints that were eventually
described as “malicious and prejudiced,” denaturalization proceedings were
instituted against him, and then dropped. Finally, in April 1956, Maria became
an American citizen—but she was only one of dozens of German-American women who
were the subject of malicious rumors and prejudice and interned during World
and Horst Schafer: Victims of Indefinite Detention in a Convent
Karl Frederick Schafer came to the United States in 1927 and completed his naturalization in 1933. He
returned to Germany twice before the war and married Anna Maria Boettger, who made the return journey to the United States with her new husband. When the war broke out, Anna was
not yet an American citizen, and the FBI arrested her on 9 December, taking her
and her infant son Horst to the Home of the Good Shepherd in a Milwaukee suburb. Horst received food and a nightshirt and was put
to bed. “Mama” he began crying, “heimgehen,
heimgehen.” (“Mama, I want to go home, I want to
go home.”) He then vomited everything he had eaten before finally falling
asleep, while Maria and five other women tried to stay warm huddled together on
the cold stone floor of a locked, unheated room.
Anna endured lengthy FBI interrogations and remained
detained at the convent until April 1942. Meanwhile, the FBI investigated her
husband Karl. In summer 1943 the Justice Department considered filing
denaturalization proceedings against Karl, but decided that the facts were
insufficient to do so. In subsequent FBI investigations, numerous witnesses
testified regarding the Schafers’ patriotism and
loyalty. The embarrassment and hardships of detention, however, remained with
her. She became an American citizen in 1952, but rarely discussed internment
with her family.
The Greis Family: Interned, with
Sons in the Military
In 1923 Joseph Greis—a German
WWI vet and a paint chemist—left his wife Francis and newborn son in Germany and traveled to Milwaukee to open a store. The business did not succeed, but Greis’s family eventually followed him to America, where he and his wife had three more sons.
On 9 December 1941
the FBI pounded on the door in the early morning hours and took Joseph Greis away. In December 1945—after Greis
had been interned for three years at FortLincoln and elsewhere—he was transferred to Ellis Island
in preparation for repatriation to Germany. Two of his sons were serving in the US merchant marines, but his wife and two remaining sons
joined him at Ellis Island to await repatriation.
After years of being her family’s strength, Francis had a
nervous breakdown and was transferred from Ellis Island
to a Navy hospital. In April 1945 the government transferred the Greises to the “family camp” in Crystal City/Texas, where
they lived in a small house with only bedrooms and a kitchen. Despite Germany’s surrender in May 1945, at least five hundred Germans,
including the Greises, remained imprisoned at CrystalCity after President Harry Truman decided that those still
interned at the war’s end were probably “dangerous” and should be sent back to Germany. Finally, in 1947—two years after the end of the war—the Greises were allowed to leave CrystalCity and return to Milwaukee. They had little money and felt stigmatized by their
internment. Francis was never the same after this ordeal. Meanwhile, Joseph was
refused re-employment at his old job as a chemist. Instead, he borrowed money
and opened the European Relief Store, which provided care packages for those
suffering in Europe after the war.
Family: Victims of Forced Repatriation
The Eiserlohs—a family of five,
including three American-born children—lived in a rural Ohio home built by
Mathias, a German-born engineer. In December 1941 the FBI took him away and
didn’t inform his family of his whereabouts for weeks. The young family lived
in the basement of a relative’s home for two years until they were voluntarily
reunited with Mathias at the so-called “family camp” in Crystal City/Texas.
In January 1945, the Eiserlohs
suffered forced repatriation to Germany, in exchange for Americans held in Germany. The family crossed the Atlantic
during the height of the war. After traveling to Bregenz/Austria
in boxcars, they were exchanged for Americans. From Bregenz,
the Eiserlohs traveled north toward Frankfurt—sometimes
on foot, sometimes in boxcars that were strafed by American planes.
In late February, they were forced to live in a relative’s
cramped basement again. The family was viewed with hostility and ridicule. The
Gestapo suspected Mathias of being an American spy for the advancing US Army.
He was questioned, beaten severely by six SS men in front of his family, and
dragged away to a camp. Months later, US Army troops freed those in the camp.
Mathias returned home and the family managed to survive the postwar
difficulties. Mathias, however, never found a good job again in Germany or the US. A broken man, he died at age 65 in a supermarket aisle.
The Eckardt Family: Victims of
Albert Eckardt came to the US when he was fifteen and eventually found work in Panama, where he helped to dredge the great canal. Eckardt died in 1938, a naturalized US citizen. His son Ted—also a US citizen—was only eight
years old when in 1942, by direction of the US government, his mother Ruth, his
sister Emilie and he were taken from their village
home near the Canal by Panamanian police. Authorities auctioned off their
belongings and pocketed the receipts. They also kept the family’s real estate.
Young Ted Eckardt and his family were taken by ship to New Orleans. After being processed at the Federal detention center at
CampSeagoville near Dallas, they were sent to CrystalCity, where they spent the next three years.
In 1944 the
family once again was uprooted and sent to Ohio, where Ted and his sister lived in the Lutheran Orphans’
Home Society of Toledo, under conditional guardianship of the superintendent of
the orphanage. Their mother lived and worked in the Old Folks’ Home on the
grounds of the orphanage.
until after the war that the family was reunited, but the Eckardts
continued to live and work at the orphanage because it was the only home they
had. Eventually, they rented an apartment in the city and the children
graduated from ToledoHigh
They never recovered their real estate or belongings in Panama, and the US government has never apologized for its illegal abduction
of the Eckardts from the Canal Zone.
EberhardFuhr: Victim of Abandonment after Parental Internment
In August 1942 the US government interned seventeen-year-old EberhardFuhr’s parents, who were
German resident aliens. After his older brother left for college, “Eb” lived alone while attending high school in Cincinnati, and supported himself delivering newspapers.
On 23 March 1943
two FBI agents arrested Eb in class. Pistols drawn,
the agents handcuffed him and took him to a Cincinnati police station, where his older brother also had been
taken. The two were booked, fingerprinted, then taken
to the county prison, where they were locked in separate cells.
Eb and his brother soon faced the same Civilian Alien
Hearing Board that had interned their parents seven months earlier. “What
would you say to your German cousin” they asked him, “if he came to you for
sanctuary after coming up the Ohio
River in his German U-boat?” “A sub
couldn’t come up the Ohio
answered. “It only drafts four feet.”
The board did not appreciate his answer, and after further
questioning the brothers again were handcuffed and driven to Chicago, where they spent three months detained in a former
mansion housing in-transit internees. Meanwhile, the contents of their Cincinnati home were looted and the home was lost to foreclosure. In
July 1943 the Fuhr brothers were sent to CrystalCity, where they were reunited with their parents and younger
brother. They remained at CrystalCity until 1947, when they helped close the camp. Finally,
they were shipped to Ellis
Island. In September 1947—two-and-a-half
years after the cessation of hostilities with Germany—the Fuhr family was finally
released from internment.
Max Ebel: Victim of Rumor,
Hearsay, and Gossip
Max Ebel objected to Nazi
Germany’s militarism and resisted joining the Hitler Youth. He and his family
knew he had to flee Germany after he was stabbed in a knife fight with angry Hitler
Youth members. A month before his seventeenth birthday in 1937, he left Germany to join his father, a German-born naturalized US citizen in Boston.
Max savored America’s promise of freedom. As required, he registered with the
Selective Service. Although he agreed to fight in the Pacific, he was
classified as 4C—a conscientious objector—because he did not want to fight in Germany against his brother, cousins and friends.
In September 1942—just months after filing his
naturalization papers—Max was arrested by the FBI. Subsequently, at a hostile
hearing, with only his father at his side, an aggressive US Attorney presented
uncorroborated tips from FBI informants as fact. Although he was scolded for
not wanting to fight in Germany, the hearing board recommended parole.
For three months, pacing a rooftop barbed-wire exercise
cage in a Boston Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] facility, Max
awaited the US Attorney General’s favorable decision. In January 1943, though,
Max was ordered interned and was shipped to Ellis Island,
where he lived in the Great Room that had recently welcomed immigrants seeking
freedom and opportunity. In May 1943 he was transferred to North Dakota’s FortLincoln. There, Max was one of one hundred men selected for a
work detail on the railroad, thereby helping the American war effort. In the
spring, acknowledging that the railroaders performed a valuable service for the
US, the Department of Justice [DOJ] agreed to reconsider the
railroaders’ internment, and Max Ebel eventually was
paroled. The terms of his parole included a prohibition against walking under
or near railroads.
The Franke Family: Victims of “Exclusion”
A US-born citizen of German parents, Otto Franke came under suspicion in 1940 in Baltimore when the FBI got an unsigned, semi-literate letter
accusing him of coordinating “German underground work.” The FBI opened a
dossier on Otto and soon filled it with hearsay and rumors.
Otto’s citizenship status, the FBI finally realized that he wasn’t an alien and
couldn’t be interned. It sent his case to another DOJ branch for his
prosecution as a subversive. The 1940 tips were reviewed but could not be
corroborated, so no prosecution resulted. Then, in February 1942, President
Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to exclude both
US citizens and aliens from coastal areas. A military review
board was established in each military district. Otto Franke’s
file was forwarded to a military review board and in October 1942 Otto appeared
before the review board. Relying on still unconfirmed FBI information, the
board ordered him out of the Eastern Defense Command along the eastern seaboard.
As he was trying to resettle in Lima/Ohio, he was ordered
fired as a subversive. After another aborted hiring and months of unemployment,
Otto found a job in another Ohio town and his family moved again. In July 1944 that
company moved to New
York, but Otto had to
decline the position they offered because of his exclusion order. Isolated and
discouraged, Otto Franke, his wife Roberta and their
children were not able to return to Baltimore and resume a normal life until May 1945.
Teenage Victim of Detention in a Convent
As a German-American teenager growing up in the Upper Midwest,
Hildegard corresponded with German WWII-air ace Werner Moeller. She was
arrested at her home in Iowa by two FBI agents on 21 October 1942. During questioning, the district attorney for northwest Iowa implied that Moeller was a German spy. Hildegard was
fingerprinted and photographed as an enemy alien, given a brief hearing and
taken to the Good Shepherd Convent in Omaha/Nebraska, where she remained for
three months. She then was sent to the Seagoville/Texas camp for internment
with other enemy aliens.
Later Hildegard was sent to Ellis Island
in preparation for deportation. There, she and other enemy alien women shared
dormitory rooms rank with the smell of urine from European refugees and
infested with cockroaches. From their Ellis
Island windows, she watched several
Japanese internees jump into the Hudson
River and commit suicide; days later,
their bloated bodies would be recovered and returned to Ellis Island,
strapped on the back of Coast Guard cutters. Hildegard was ordered deported to Germany, but in August 1946 the order was lifted and she was free
to return to her home in Iowa.
Adolf Hamann: Victim of
Adolf Hamann was born in
Hamburg/Germany in 1884. At age 20 Adolf sailed for South America,
settling first in Chile, then in Peru, where he ran a hardware export-import business. In 1939
his name was added to the ListaNegra, a “black list” that kept potential clients and
customers from patronizing names of businesses or individuals on it.
In early 1944 Adolf Hamann
quietly submitted to deportation from Peru by the US government. An American embassy official described the
operation as “one of the most successful of the various deportation proceedings
undertaken with very few last-minute escapes.” Adolf’s
wife was among approximately fifty German wives who chose not to accompany
their husbands because they feared being sent to Germany.
Twelve hours after disembarking in New Orleans, Adolph was on a train bound for the CrystalCity internment camp in Texas. To secure funds still held in German banks, Adolf was
required to sign a loyalty statement to the German Reich and indicate his
willingness to return to Germany.
In September he and other internees left for FortLincoln in North
January 1945 Adolf was sent back to Germany on the Swedish ship, the SS Gripsholm.
He settled in northern Germany. In April he went to Hamburg to visit his sister, who had been wounded in a bombing
raid. While at the hospital there he had a heart attack and died on 25 April.
His family did not find out about his fate until a full year later, in May
1946, when mail was re-established with Germany.
The Jacobs Family: Victims of Deportation
The Jacobs lived in Brooklyn for
years. Lambert and Paula Jacobs were German-born resident aliens. Their two
boys were American citizens. The FBI raided their home on three occasions, but
never found contraband. Still, Lambert was arrested at his job in November 1944.
He was taken to Ellis Island and interned, even though his hearing board recommended
Though ill, in February 1945 Paula packed up her family
and joined Lambert at Ellis
Island. The family arrived at CrystalCity on May 1st 1945, where they lived until they agreed to be repatriated.
They left the United
January 1946 and arrived in a devastated Germany in the dead of winter. They were transported to Hohenasperg in a guarded, stench-filled unheated boxcar.
Once there, a still-ailing Paula was sent elsewhere, while Lambert and his sons
were sent to a military prison and placed in separate cells. Convinced that the
prisoners had been dangerous spies in America, Army guards treated young Arthur and his brother like
Nazis. As they marched Arthur to meals they passed what was called “the hanging
tree,” and they threatened the boy with death if he did not behave.
Eventually, the family was released and reunited, and
lived with Lambert’s parents. Arthur worked with American GIs living in Germany and eventually found sponsors in Kansas and became a US Air Force major. For the past twenty
years he has researched the government’s wartime treatment of German Americans,
sought to include them in legislation recognizing injustices done to Japanese
and Italian Americans, authored a book on his internment experiences, and
created a related internment web site. He has devoted himself to public
education on the events, laws and attitudes that destroyed his family life and
that of tens of thousands of others.
Art dedicates his tireless work to “the memory of my
loving and patriotic parents, Lambert Dietrich Jacobs and Paula Sophie nee Knissel Jacobs, and to the thousands of other innocent
Arrest is an
instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault
from one state to another… The gate to our past life is slammed shut once and
for all… It’s a blinding flash and a blow, which shifts the present instantly
into the past and the impossible into the omnipotent actuality… That’s all. And
neither for the first hour nor for the first day will you be able to grasp
anything else… The traditional image of the arrest is also trembling hands
packing for the victim—a change of underwear, a piece of soap, something to
eat; and no one knows what is needed, what is permitted, what clothes are best
to wear; and the Security agents keep interrupting and hurrying you: ‘You don’t
need anything. They’ll feed you there. It’s warm there.’ (It’s all lies. They
keep hurrying you to frighten you.)… The traditional image of arrest is also
what happens afterward, when the poor victim has been taken away. It’s an
alien, brutal and crushing force, totally dominating the apartment for hours on
end, a breaking, ripping open, pulling from the walls, empting things from
wardrobes and desks onto the floor, shaking, dumping out and ripping
apart—piling up mountains of litter on the floor—and the crunch of things being
trampled beneath boots. And nothing is sacred in a search!...
Nothing is so stupid as to be inadmissible during a search!
WWII the U.S. government felt
compelled to act decisively to protect the country from potentially dangerous
individuals in its midst. To achieve this legitimate goal, our government repeatedly
violated civil liberties and disrupted tens of thousands of innocent lives: the
human cost was unconscionable. Rather than protecting our vulnerable immigrant
population and their American-born families, our government used security
concerns to justify an oppression based not on “race” but culture. German
Americans suffered greatly for their “enemy” ethnicity through various forms of
wartime mistreatment by the U.S. government:
unauthorized raids and searches, the ransacking of homes, detention, internment,
losses of property and jobs, exclusion and relocation, and finally forcible
exchange and deportation.
These actions were
undertaken without formal charges against the accused, and without legal
representation, jury trials or the opportunity for appeal. “Witnesses” were not
live and subject to cross-examination, but written and unnamed. “New evidence”
could not be gathered, since no one on the “outside” represented the interned,
and all correspondence was censored. Also, the accused usually were not present
during sentencing. Forced into a situation from which those affected could not
free themselves, thousands landed in camps across the country, behind barbed
wire and guard towers—some for as long as seven years—in detention centers and
internment camps across the country. And, they were the “lucky” ones, for
untold hundreds of the forced repatriates either ended up in Soviet-occupied
eastern Germany, where many were
imprisoned again or shot.
The law of 1798
sanctioning such injustices—enhanced by the so-called “Patriot Act”—still
exists and could be used at any time, against any individual in this country,
“aliens” or citizens. Indeed, internment could
happen to YOU!
Lincoln was a small city. We had teachers of every kind: artists, musicians, cooks, carpenters—you name it. If you
accepted that this was it for the present, you could survive well. We’d still
have guys who would lie in their bunks, staring at the ceiling all day long and
driving themselves slowly nuts, but I managed to find work of some sort all the
I went out on a farm for a while
because it was fun to look at the camp from the other side of the fence; at
least we were physically active. You could sneak a vegetable occasionally. They
had a large vegetable garden and a couple of beef cattle, but the farming thing
didn’t last very long. We immediately told them “Listen, you can take this rake
and shove it. We don’t have to stand for this at ten cents an hour.”
Then, I worked in the laundry for a
while, which was a great winter job because it was
nice and warm. I also painted for a while, then went
into business for myself, making costume jewelry out of soup bones. You boil a
soup bone until it’s white and looks like ivory. I made jewelry for myself,
eventually for sale, and for the girlfriend. Later, when we couldn’t get enough
bones, we went into plastic.
Occasionally, a hearing board would
come out, either from Washington or from New York; I think one even came from the West Coast. You’d be
lined up for hearings; some guys got very excited and dressed up. Most of us
accepted this as “Well, these guys need something to do.” You went through the
motions, told them the same things. They wanted to know whether you had changed
your mind about anything…
I made friends with many Austrians,
who were nearly all ski instructors. They decided it would be terrific if we
skied, so we ordered skis. When I say “we,” it’s always a couple of us young
guys who did these things together. My brother didn’t get into the skiing part,
but many of my other friends did. Sears, Roebuck people came in once a month,
and you could order stuff. When we got the first snow, we skied around the
camp. Then somebody said “We need somewhere to maneuver a little bit, and
slide.” Somehow, we got permission from the authorities; they brought in a
couple of loads of timber, and we built a ski “slope” by hand, no power tools
at all. We put up this roughly forty-foot structure that you climbed and skied
down. My kids laugh when I tell them this because, first, nobody skied at the
time. Second, it’s flat in North Dakota. The payoff came when we had the first snow and all were
elated. In the evening, it started to snow, and in the morning we skied. I did
my first downhill skiing on that damn thing….
We were active in sports. That was a
major thing: soccer teams, tennis groups and skiing. I was also very much
involved in swimming, which was just great. FortLincoln had been a cavalry base before we got in, and they had a
fine pool outside the fence. We were escorted out there twice a day if we
wanted, once during the day and once in the evening. I swam every day. I’ve
never enjoyed swimming as much in my life as I did then, because it was always
available. They let us know when the season was over: they stopped heating the
John, as told to Stephen Fox
inAmerica’s Invisible Gulag
CrystalCity: “Hell Incorporated.” The way I understand it, they
repatriated the braceros [Mexican
contract laborers], strung a barbed wire fence around it and put up guard
towers. You know the pictures that you see of concentration camps in Germany
with the guard towers, machine guns and all that stuff? That’s CrystalCity. The first people that they moved in there, who were
Germans, helped in fixing up the shacks and making them livable. When those braceros got through with them, they weren’t fit to live in. Even
when we came there, in May 1943, it was barely livable. We had to build
boardwalks to stop struggling in mud and, back in those days, you didn’t have
air conditioning. Most of us were from a more moderate climate, and that place
out there near Del
Rio was hotter than
Hades, to say nothing of how cold it could get in the winter. There was no
grassy area. It was all mesquite and cacti with sandy places between.
We ripped most of the old stuff out
and planted gardens and yards. We lived in a frame house, two very small
bedrooms, one kitchen called a combination kitchen-dining area—all very
primitive. The whole thing was covered with waterproof sheet rock on the
outside and no wall covers at all on the inside, just tarpaper sheeting. The
bathroom included a toilet only. If you wanted to take a shower or use the sink
or something like that, you’d have to go down to the center of the area. The
community swimming pool was on the other side of the camp, which was not bad.
They dug everything up by hand, poured all the concrete and everything else all
by themselves. All the government did was to furnish the concrete and tools.
When we kids played, everything was
said in English, except for the ones who were there from South and Central America… Quite a few of my teachers in school in CrystalCity were from Lima/Peru. You’ve probably heard of these
diplomatic schools overseas? They have English ones; they have German ones,
where the diplomats’ kids go to school? That’s where these people came from.
They just arbitrarily closed those schools, took all the teachers and shipped
them to CrystalCity. They weren’t asked. We had people… from practically
every country south of the Texas border.
—Alfred Plaschke, as told to Stephen Fox
inAmerica’s Invisible Gulag
Crystal City/Texas—my favorite place. I met my wife there.
As my dad and I left North
Dakota, we wore winter coats
and suits. The further south we got the more apparel we shed. What a change
from the military and Border Patrol establishments. Yet, there were familiar
sights: barbed wire fences, guard towers and sentries… I worked first as a milk
truck driver, then drove the ice truck, and lastly busied myself as an
operating-room orderly, which I truly loved. Our pay in all camps amounted to
ten cents an hour plus $3 per month coupon book. Wow! But, where in heck were
we going to spend this stuff? You also were given a certain number of tokens in
red and green and gray pressed fiber or cardboard. Each color showed either food, clothing or canteen money. You never were
allowed American money; that’s the first thing they took away from you. They
put it on deposit, and you could draw from it to send
to Sears, Roebuck or something like that, but you never could have it in your
hand. That way nobody would have money to escape with.
—Alfred Krakau, as told to Stephen Fox
inAmerica’s Invisible Gulag
At some point, a class action was
started by a lawyer named [George] Dix. [Senator William] Langer visited the
Island a couple of times; he was always very understanding, being from North Dakota [with its large German-American population]… That
January, we were sitting playing cards, and a guard came up: “Listen, Werner:
you can go home, and if you hurry and pack you can catch the last ferry.”
“First, let me finish my hand.
Second, I’m not in a rush. I’ve been here four years. I’m going to worry about
the last ferry now?”
So, we finished out the hand, and
everybody came running over: “Hey, Werner; you’re going home? You got
released?” That was always the big news.
“How do I know why?” You were in
without knowing why, and you were out without knowing why. It was like somebody
threw up a handful of cards, picked one out and said “Hey, this one says
‘Werner.’ Let’s let him go!”
I packed my stuff; I didn’t have too
much. And, the next morning, I left. Believe me, it was one of the saddest
moments of my life, because all my friends—these were the friends I had lived
with close to four years—my brother and everybody, were standing there waving
goodbye, and I was the only one on the ferry going the “wrong” way. It was the
weirdest sensation. You wondered: “Why were you
going? Why were they staying?” The guilt thing. Honest
to god, for two cents I would’ve stayed. This sounds crazy as hell, even now.
I couldn’t get myself to go down
into the subway, although I had grown up in New York. I walked, and I walked, because I “knew” everybody could
tell I was an enemy alien who had just been released.
I just kept walking and walking and
finally got home. I didn’t have the keys to the apartment but, luckily, a
neighbor across the hall knew the situation, and she said “Your mother went
shopping. Leave your suitcase here.” So what do you think I did,
the first thing? I went to the Bronx courthouse and applied for a new driver’s license! I had
nothing better to do, you know? When I got back Mom was just coming down the
street. She dropped her shopping bags and ran and hugged me, and her first
words were “Where’s Heinz?” She wanted to know why I was home, and I said I
didn’t know. I contacted my friends, and we went out that night and met some of
the old crowd for dinner.
I saw Heinz every few weeks. He was
still running the canteen; after all those years he was sort of a trustee.
They’d take a guard in one of the immigration cars and go into Yorkville [a
heavily German section of Manhattan] and shop for the canteen. The guard loved it because it
was a day off for him. I was driving a cab at nights then. I’d meet them and
we’d spend the day together. He’d go to different stores and buy things, and
they would either take them along or have them shipped to the Island. That happened every couple of weeks, besides my visits to the Island.
Occasionally, we’d meet my mom and we’d all go out to eat for lunch. We’d also
meet Heinz’ ex-girlfriend for lunch; the guard was perfectly trusting. Heinz wasn’t
going to cause a problem; all they’d do is turn around and grab his mom and dad
and his brother and bring them in again.