The American Internee Experience in Nazi Germany
by Lynn Grove
In An American Island in Hitler’s Reich: The Bad Nauheim Internment, Charles Burdick has taken the history of the times as described by George Kennan and Louis P. Lochner in the American Experience and elaborated on the details of events in December 1941, when Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. Berlin contained the American Embassy—under the direction of George Kennan and Leland Morris—, American citizens still in the city, and American correspondents waiting to see what Hitler would do next. The embassy staff was busy destroying records and all vital information, pending the decision of their future. After the decision by American authorities to arrest the German correspondents in the United States, American correspondents were placed under “house arrest” in Berlin by Gestapo guards.
On December 14 approximately 115 Americans gathered at the American embassy. George Kennan took charge amid total chaos and confusion, and organized their departure. Train accommodations were not what the Americans had expected. It was only when Kennan saw the luncheon menu, headed Berlin – Bad Nauheim, that their final destination became obvious. The largest portion of this historical account describes the accommodations in Bad Nauheim, as well as the life of the party of Americans. The hotel, Jeschke’s Grand Hotel, became their residence while the group was to remain in Bad Nauheim for some five months. The hotel had been closed with the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and its staff had dispersed. The hotel director, Gustav Zorn, had remained in residence since its closing, but without staff, this summer hotel had burst water pipes, no heat or electricity. Furniture, linens, silver and curtains, as well as other accoutrements, were placed in storage. The hotel was not prepared for sudden wartime occupancy.
The hotel was surrounded by Gestapo guards, therefore limiting the Americans’ access to necessary exercise. Kennan worked with the Captain Valentin Patzak, the German authority for operations at Bad Nauheim. Being an agreeable officer, Patzak proved cooperative with Kennan and therefore they agreed to areas where the Americans could walk around the hotel. It was with Patzak that Kennan was able to negotiate life around the hotel and during their internment. Kennan had his hands full, however, dealing with the Americans, who were full of complaints about food, general conditions, heat—in short, everything.
At the time, meals served to the Americans were generally the equivalent to what Germany’s citizens were getting. The situation worsened, though, so Kennan and Morris met with representative groups—military attaches, journalists and diplomats, including representatives from Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen—for consultation, the exchange of opinions and recommendations. Kennan and Morris drafted a strong protest, then submitted it for confirmation by members of this council. They directed these notes to the State Department, through the Swiss representatives. Before they could get a response, the Germans doubled the Americans’ rations to 200 percent of the normal civilian allotment. Food preparation improved to the point that it at least was edible, and Patzak made greater efforts to find eggs, fruit, fish and fresh vegetables.
Another primary, upsetting issue was heat. The hotel lacked the plant and the coal for proper heating. The temperatures in January 1942 dropped to below zero. Again a protest was lodged through the Swiss that the heating be improved. Patzak again used his position to commandeer supplies supposedly meant for a neighboring town. He and his Gestapo techniques were praised for the resulting heat. As April arrived with warmer weather, calisthenics began to be an eager activity, and baseball and other outdoors activities followed. A newspaper was mimeographed and gave the journalists an opportunity to use their skills; it also served as a source for all kinds of humor and sarcasm.
The most successful collective endeavor was education. Through the efforts of Perry Laukhuf and Phillip Whitcomb, Bad Nauheim University was formed. There were 14 instructors and the most popular course was George Kennan’s Russian history course. Many other courses were offered with enthusiastic enrollment.
On the 25th of January 1942, an eight-person American group from Copenhagen arrived at Bad Nauheim with news that a Portuguese ship had sailed for New York to bring back the first German internees from the United States. The news was full of conflicting rumors. On March 29th Morris and Kennan received confirmation that the Swedish ship Drottningholm would transfer them. Then on April 23rd a notice appeared on the bulletin board that the Drottningholm had sailed to New York and would return to Lisbon with German internees on May 5th and arrive in Lisbon on May 14th, then leave for New York with the Americans in Bad Nauheim ten days later.
The group left Bad Nauheim on the 12th of May 1942 after much celebration and arrived in Lisbon on May 14th. They boarded the Drottningholm on May 22nd with numerous other Americans and arrived in New York City on May 30th. There was a feeling that they were returning to a country at war, but freedom felt much different.
The freed internees (left) depart Lisbon, Portugal aboard the Drottningholm, May 1942. The below map shows the route they took from Berlin to Bad Nauheim and, later, to Lisbon between 14 December 1941 and 14 May 1942.
The rich detail and many photographs make the book seem complete. The notes and other sources provide helpful information. I finished reading the book and was concerned about what had happened to Werner John, the son of an American mother and a German father, who was detained by the Germans in order to fight in the German army. Reading the notes helped find the answer: after the war, he was able to immigrate to the United States, where he became an American citizen and later joined the American army.
There were plenty of interpersonal conflicts and relationships described in the text that provided the background of these American internees and added much color to an already dramatic story.
Burdick, Charles B. An American Island in Hitler’s Reich: The Bad Nauheim Internment. Menlo Park, California, Markgraf Publications Group, 1987