German American Internees in the United States during WWII
by Karen E. Ebel
Codification of Alien Enemy Act of 1798, 50 U.S.C 21-24, permitting
apprehension and internment of aliens of “enemy ancestry” by U.S.
government upon declaration of war or threat of invasion. The President is
given blanket authority as to “enemy alien” treatment. Civil liberties
may be completely ignored because enemy aliens have no protection under this
202- year-old law. Government oppression is likely during wartime.
Various governmental bodies, such as the FBI, special intelligence agencies
of the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the
Army’s Military Intelligence Division compile lists of dangerous “enemy
aliens” and citizens, including the FBI’s Custodial Detention Index (the
The census includes specific listings and location of persons based on their
ethnicity, which may have assisted the U.S. Government in later
identification of “suspect” individuals of “enemy ancestry.”
Alien Registration Act of 1940 passed requiring all aliens 14 and older to
register with the U.S. government.
Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Pursuant to the Alien Enemy Act of 1798, Roosevelt
issued identical Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527 branding
German, Italian and Japanese nationals as enemy aliens, authorizing
internment and travel and property ownership restrictions. A blanket
presidential warrant authorized U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle to have
the FBI arrest a large number of “dangerous enemy aliens” based on the
CDI. Hundreds of German aliens were arrested by the end of the day. The FBI
raids many homes and hundreds more are detained before war even declared on
U.S. declares war on Germany and Italy.
to Presidential Proclamation 2525-2527 and 2537 (issued Jan.14, 1942), the
Attorney General issues regulations requiring application for and issuance
of certificates of identification to all “enemy aliens” aged 14 and
older and outlining restrictions on their movement and property ownership
rights. Approximately one million enemy aliens reregister, including 300,000
German-born aliens, the 2nd largest immigrant group at that time.
Applications are forwarded to the Department of Justice’s Alien
Registration Division and the FBI. Any change of address, employment or name
must be reported to the FBI. Enemy aliens may not enter federally designated
restricted areas. If enemy aliens violate these or other applicable
regulations, they are subject to “arrest, detention and internment for the
duration of the war.”
In cooperation with the military, the DOJ establishes numerous, small
prohibited zones strictly forbidden to all enemy aliens. DOJ also
establishes extensive “restricted areas” in which enemy aliens are
subject to stringent curfew and travel restrictions, particularly on the
Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to
define military areas in which “the right of any person to enter, remain
in or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions” are deemed
necessary or desirable. This order applies to all “enemy” nationalities.
11, 1942 Executive Order 9095 creates the Office of the Alien Property
Custodian, which gives the Custodian discretionary, plenary authority over
all alien property interests. Many internee assets were frozen creating
immediate financial catastrophe for affected families.
ratifies Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imposition of sanctions for
violations of the order. Extensive military zones established on the east
and west coasts, significantly expanding upon those originally created by
DOJ, and in certain areas around the Great Lakes. General John DeWitt issues
a series of Public Proclamations creating Western Defense Command military
areas and outlining curfews, travel restrictions and exclusion provisions,
among other things, applicable to German, Japanese and Italian aliens, as
well as Japanese American citizens. By military order, thousands of German,
Japanese and Italian aliens required leave military areas on the West Coast.
Later, approximately 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans are relocated
from the West Coast to camps administered by the Wartime Relocation
Authority. On an individual basis, “potentially dangerous” U.S. citizens
of German ancestry are also ordered out of military zones and forced to
establish new lives with little or no government assistance.
1942 Wartime restrictions on Italian Americans terminated.
– 1943 Internment camps administered by the military and the DOJ are
established throughout the country. The INS operated the DOJ camps. The
largest were located at Crystal City and Seagoville, Texas and Ft. Lincoln,
ND. There were at least 50 temporary detention and long-term internment
facilities. Internees are transferred from camp to camp under armed guard,
further disrupting their lives and making it even more difficult for their
families to find them.
U.S. Government initiated exchanges of approximately 2,000 internees for
Americans held in Germany. Six exchange voyages carried many families to
Germany, including American-born children and U.S. citizen spouses of German
alien internees. As the war progressed, travel across the Atlantic was
increasing hazardous. Upon arrival in war-ravaged Germany, exchangees were
unexpected and unwanted by their families. Many are suspected of being
spies. Families with young children, some even born during the trip to
Germany, had to make their own way to family homes through hazardous
countryside, frequently in winter, carrying all their worldly belongings.
Some men were beaten and arrested by the Gestapo as spies and put in camps,
leaving families destitute again.
The U.S. initiated a cooperative program whereby Latin American countries at
U.S. direction captured German Latin Americans, including German and
Austrian Jews who had fled persecution. Under U.S. military guard, prisoners
were shipped to the U.S. in the dark, dank holds of boats and rarely
permitted on deck. Open bucket latrines were placed among the prisoners. No
one told them what was happening to them. They were interned and many
forcibly shipped to Germany. General George Marshall stated in a 12/12/42
memo to the Caribbean Defense Command: “These interned nationals are to be
used for exchange with interned American civilian nationals.” By the end
of the war, over 4,050 German Latin Americans were brought to American
1942 – 1945
Thousands of German aliens and German Americans are arrested, interned,
excluded, paroled, exchanged and generally harassed by a suspicious country.
Few know why they are interned or for how long. Internees try to make lives
in camps, attempting to ignore the psychological and physical upheaval to
which they have been subjected. Mental anguish, anger, guilt and shame are
common. Armed guards and guard dogs watch over internees living in huts or
dorms in barren parts of the country surrounded by barbed wire, observed
from guard towers. All mail is censored. Contact with the outside world is
severely limited. Many continually appeal their internment orders. DOJ
generally ignores their requests, requiring unobtainable “new evidence”
for consideration of appeals. Some are granted rehearings, pursuant to which
an even smaller number are released. Internees who are released do not know
why, nor do they ever learn why they were interned. Those released are
generally subject to parole restrictions. Internees are pressured to
repatriate. Hopeless and bitter, many agree and are readily used for
exchange. There were six exchanges with Germany, primarily of civilians, but
also of POWs. One trip of the SS
Gripsholm in January 1945 involves 1,000 exchangees. The government
arranges for “trustworthy” able-bodied men to work outside camps. One
group works on the Northern Pacific Railroad in North Dakota repairing the
railroad tracks and living in boxcars with coal stoves throughout the
winter. Others work for the Forest Service and 3M.
Truman issues a Presidential Proclamation 2655 authorizing the U.S. to
deport all enemy aliens deemed “to be dangerous to the public peace and
safety of the United States.” This affects hundreds, if not thousands, of
internees who remain imprisoned indefinitely.
Many internees released from camps. Parole limitations for most persons
terminated. Internment camps progressively closed and remaining internees
eventually consolidated at Crystal City and Ellis Island.
Crystal City family camp closed. Those still imprisoned, exclusively German
internees and their families, transferred to cramped Ellis Island where
others are held. Virtually all are of German ancestry. Over the next year,
many additional persons are returned to Germany. Others are paroled or
unconditionally released to return to their homes. The barbed wire exercise
cages overlook the Statute of Liberty. The captives contest repatriation and
deportation by pooling their limited funds to finance appeals in court. They
finally find a voice in Congress—Senator William Langer of North Dakota.
Due in large part to Senator Langer’s efforts, among others, the last
person, a German American, is finally released from Ellis Island, three
years after cessation of hostilities with Germany. No internee was ever
convicted of a war-related crime against the United States. Upon release,
most adult internees sign secrecy oaths, many are threatened with
deportation with no prospect of return if they speak of their ordeal. Many
internees, always fearful, take the secret to their graves. Reportedly, camp
employees also sign oath of secrecy. The secret is well kept. Few today know
of selective internment.
Internees and excludees return home to suspicious communities, some have
been interned 6-7 years. Children do not remember life without barbed wire.
Homes and livelihoods are lost. Reputations destroyed. No safety net
protects them. They confront feelings of confusion, anger, resentment,
bitterness, guilt and shame. They try to understand what happened and repair
broken lives. The experience scarred families forever. Those exchanged to
Germany struggled to survive in the extremely difficult postwar years. Some
exchangees returned to the U.S. years later. Frequently, American-born
children left their families behind in order to do so. Many never were
allowed to return. Others, embittered by what they perceived as America’s
betrayal, never wanted to come back.
Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (“CWRIC”)
created. Focused primarily on the relocation of Japanese and Japanese
Americans, the CWRIC did not allow German Americans or other European
Americans to testify or offer written testimony on their wartime
experiences. The final report, Personal Justice Denied, focuses primarily on German American
individual and group exclusion issues under Executive Order 9066. It
identifies only 4 internment camps. The tribulations of German internment
are covered in only four paragraphs primarily discussing the hearing
process. The CWRIC asserts that this process afforded sufficient “rough
fairness” under the circumstances. The CWRIC is wrong. Lacking sufficient
due process protections, this “rough fairness” frequently resulted in
unjustified, painful years of captivity, exchange and property loss for
Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed solely giving redress to and
acknowledging injustices to Japanese Americans and Aleuts. No German
American or other affected European American allowed to give oral or written
testimony on their wartime experience during congressional hearings. Civil
Liberties Education Fund established to fund projects relating to public
education regarding the Japanese American experience. National Park Service
study funded to designate Japanese relocation camps as national historic
landmarks. In January 1999 the U.S. settles Mochizuki class action agreeing
to monetary redress of $5,000 and a presidential apology for Japanese Latin
Americans. In November 2000 the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil
Liberties Act signed into law recognizing only the government’s wrongful
denial of Italian American civil liberties. In February 2001, Wartime Parity
and Justice Act of 2001 introduced to provide for the inclusion of Japanese
Latin Americans in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, among other things.
Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the
European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act, joined by
Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). Reported
favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate in March 2002,
amended and renamed as the Wartime Treatment Study Act.
Feb. 5, 2003 Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced H. Res. 56 calling for National Day of Remembrance on February 19 and supporting the goal of the German, Japanese and Italian American communities to increase public awareness of the World War II violations of civil liberties by the U.S. government.
Mathias, who had also studied architecture, designed and drew up plans for a home, which the couple literally built with their own hands, while living in a tent on the property. With the help of friends, they dug the basement, mixed and poured cement for the foundation, and built a fine house. They bore three children between 1930 and 1941—all U.S. citizens.
Naively, they had considered themselves
thoroughly American since their arrival in this country. They were to learn
quickly that this mistake and, apparently, their club membership, would cost
harassed with nasty taunts and insults from schoolmates
referencing their German heritage.
In desperation, Johanna was forced to sell their home
after a few months. Fearing the proceeds from the sale would be frozen,
Johanna insisted on a cash sale and found it necessary to accept the paltry
sum offered by an opportunistic buyer. Before she could move out, a masked
intruder attacked her during the night, demanding “the money” from her.
She fought him off with a piece of lead pipe, which she kept under her
pillow for protection. Just days earlier Johanna was unnerved because
someone shot their two German shepherds. Terrified and badly shaken, she was
left partially paralyzed. Mathias’ sister gave the family shelter in her
cellar and took care of the children while Johanna slowly recovered. A
basement fire forced the family to find yet another home. The children were
traumatized and missed their father terribly. Despite Johanna’s many
pleas, the government gave no indication when or if he would be released.
Reluctantly she petitioned the government to be allowed to join him in the
camp, believing the family would be better off together.
After two long years of suffering the strain and
hardship of separation, the family was reunited at the Crystal City, Texas
internment camp. Although Johanna and the children were “voluntary
internees” they could not leave “voluntarily.” They lived in small
quarters with very basic necessities. They soon learned from other families
in the camp that their story was not unique. Most had been suddenly uprooted
and imprisoned, losing home and possessions. Becoming increasingly despaired
and bitter, they finally agreed to repatriate to Germany in response to the
more than subtle pressures by government officials. In January 1945 they
were transported to New York Harbor to
board the S.S. Gripsholm
under a wartime exchange program between Germany and the United States,
which provided for U.S. citizens held in Germany to be released in exchange
for “Germans” sent back from the United States. The “Germans” being
exchanged included many US-born children and spouses who were either US-born
or naturalized citizens.
Amidst bombings and air raids, in dead of a record-breaking
winter, they traveled by train when possible, but often they had to walk
because the railways were destroyed. Food was hard to come by and they
could only hope to find shelter among Johanna’s relatives. Their relatives
did not expect them, as no communication had been possible since the start
of the war.
During the last leg of their journey, U.S. planes
strafed their train. Frightened, they huddled under the seats until train
stopped. They ran with the other passengers into the adjoining woods as the
planes continued gunning the train. An anti-aircraft gun on the last train
car was put into action and the family watched, with mixed emotions, as
smoke filled the sky where two of the American planes were shot down.
They arrived in Idstein during the first days of
March, hungry and exhausted from two months of difficult journeying. They
were greeted without enthusiasm and felt most unwelcome. The relatives, like
the rest of the country, did not have enough food for themselves, never mind
another family of six. Johanna’s aging parents could only offer them a
small corner in their cellar for living quarters. What little food could be
had was primarily bartered for on the black market. The family was by now
suffering the symptoms of malnutrition. They were often ill treated, having
just arrived from America, and were under constant suspicion by local Nazis
and townspeople who could not comprehend why they had returned from America
at this time.
visas to the United States shortly
thereafter, in November 1955.
The physical, emotional and psychological trauma the
family suffered throughout the years of separations and a deprivation had
long lasting effects on all of them and is still being felt by the remaining
three children. Ingrid, Lothar and Ensila are still trying to learn why
their father was interned but have as yet not been successful in obtaining
the government records, which would hopefully answer their questions. They
now tell their story to help others understand the travesties permitted
under America’s “enemy alien” laws in the hope that it will lead to a
better understanding and the instituting of measures that will prevent such
a recurrence. Those laws, which some argue are necessary during wartime, do
not adequately protect innocent immigrants from flagrant miscarriage of
justice by overzealous government officials operating under the guise of
In August 1942 the U.S. government interned both my
parents, German resident aliens. My 12-year-old brother was interned with
them, even though he was an American citizen, having been born in
Cincinnati. Had he not joined my parents, he would be sent to an orphanage,
a fate shared by other internee children. My brother (18) and I (17) were
allowed to stay home, but had to fend for ourselves. My brother soon left
for an Ohio college where he had an athletic scholarship. I lived alone. I
went back to Woodward High School in Cincinnati where we lived for my senior
year. I was actively involved in student life. I lettered, belonged to
student clubs and was even on the civil defense Bomb Squad.
I earned enough from my newspaper route to survive.
Periodically, an FBI agent called to question me. Once they picked me up
about 8 PM, took me to their offices and questioned me for two hours under
bright lights while toying with their guns. Their questions concerned family
friends, attitudes about relatives in Germany and my parents’ internment,
what some neighbors (unnamed, of course) were saying about me, and the like.
I clearly was being watched. In January 1943, my brother dropped out of
college and went to work in a Cincinnati brewery.
On March 23, 1943, while in class at Woodward High
School, two FBI agents arrested me. I was 17. When passing through the
doorways, one would precede with a drawn pistol, while the other held my
left arm. When we got outdoors, I was handcuffed. I never returned to school
and did not graduate two short months later. I lost not only belongings in
my school locker, but my dignity.
The FBI Agents then took me to my brother’s place
of employment where he was arrested. We were taken to the city police
station where we were booked on suspicion, fingerprinted, and taken to the
Hamilton County Prison. This was built in the mid-1800s and had a medieval
look of turrets with very high walls. A 5-tiered cellblock dominated the
interior. Each cell was about 5’ x 10’ with a metal bucket as a toilet,
a bed hung from the wall by two chains, and walls about 2’ thick. We were
given prison clothes and locked into separate cells some distance apart.
Soon after the barred doors clanged shut, the
prisoners—convicted criminals—began yelling vicious threats about Nazis,
Krauts, Huns and what we could expect just as soon as the cells would open
in the morning. We hardly slept. We were brought to the Federal Building for
our hearings. No witnesses or counsel were permitted. While my brother had
his hearing, I was given the Cincinnati
Enquirer. In shock, I read: “Two brothers interned. They will have a
hearing and they will be interned.” We hadn’t had our hearings yet, but
the newspaper announced our arrest and internment.
After my brother, I had my hearing before the
“Civilian Alien Hearing Board” to face the same people that interned my
parents seven months earlier. There were five or six members on the board.
One question concerned a statement I supposedly made about Hitler when I was
twelve. Another question concerned my attendance at Coney Island German
American Day and German American picnics in 1939 and 1940. They even had
glossy photos of me from the picnics. The high point was when they asked
“What would you say to your German cousin if he came to you for sanctuary
after coming up the Ohio River in his German U-boat.” I said a sub
couldn’t come up the Ohio River; it only drafts four feet. Of course, they
didn’t like that response. Then they went into raw data, which is the
“evidence” people call in and requires no substantiation because the
informant is guaranteed anonymity. Any answers I gave seemed totally
unacceptable, and I already knew that we were to be sent to Chicago for
internment. I’d read it in the paper.
After questioning, my brother and I were again
handcuffed and taken home. We were advised to take only enough clothes for
about two days and to make sure all doors and windows were locked. This was
the last time we ever saw the house. The contents were later looted:
pictures, stamp collection, violin, piano, furniture, keepsakes,
irreplaceable family memorabilia—all treasured by my mother and gone
forever. The house was lost to foreclosure. My parents could not afford to
make the mortgage payments because they were interned. This was not unusual.
Many homes were lost during internment. The government was not concerned
about such matters. Incredibly, the elders of our church even stopped by
after my parents were interned to demand their pledge. When we couldn’t
make payment, my parents were dropped from the rolls of the church.
We were taken back to the county prison and
immediately locked into our cells. The next morning Federal Marshals picked
us for an auto trip to Chicago. This time we were each handcuffed to a front
ring in a belt buckled in the belt. Additionally, we were handcuffed to each
other and, when we stopped for the usual offices, one of the marshals cuffed
himself to one of us. These were needlessly intimate, embarrassing
experiences. We were cuffed to a belt and cuffed to each other, which
required us to almost face each other to move in any direction, never mind
take care of necessities.
We arrived late at night at 4800 South Ellis Avenue
in Chicago, but the other internees gave us a heartfelt welcome. We were
there approximately three months. There were about 20 inmates. This number
stayed fairly consistent as internees were periodically sent to camps in
North Dakota and Texas, occasionally released, or newly interned. Definitely
no longer luxurious, the building was formerly a small mansion complete with
turrets, an 8’ wrought iron fence, and a garage that formerly was a
Ten days after my arrival, I turned 18. I knew by law
that I was required to register for the draft and I was anxious to do my
duty. The internment facility director disputed this. The Department of
Justice advised him, however, not only that I had the right to register, but
also that all males of 18, regardless of circumstances, were required to do
so. Thus I registered at the Cook County Jail, which became my draft board
In July 1943 we were sent to Crystal City, Texas,
close to the Mexican border, on a heavily guarded train with about another
1,000 internees. The good news was that we were finally reunited with our
parents and our younger brother. The bad news was that the fences were 12
feet high, with guard towers every 50 yards and, except where irrigated,
this was a harsh desert environment. Temperatures were often well over 100
degrees and the camp was filled with insects and scorpions. We received
letters from friends and relatives, but these were heavily censored with
much information cut out. Living conditions were tolerable at best.
In Crystal City I met Japanese for the very first
time. The internee population was almost equally German and Japanese.
Although the Japanese had their own cultural affairs, and events, we did
compete in some sports. We generally had mutual access to all facilities.
People came and went from the camp constantly, including Latin American
Germans and Japanese who were brought from their countries primarily for
exchange for American prisoners held by Axis countries. Many German and
Japanese interned from America were also exchanged for American prisoners
and suffered untold difficulties after the exchange. A marker commemorates
only the internment of the Japanese at the camp. In general, the internment
of German Americans is ignored, although at least 11,000 were interned, as
well as a few thousand German Latin Americans.
After VE Day, we thought we would be released, but
after VJ Day we were sure it would happen. It was not to be. President Harry
Truman decided that those still interned at the end of the war were probably
still “dangerous” and should be sent back to Germany. To my knowledge,
this affected only the remaining several hundred persons of German ancestry
still in custody. Everyone but internees of German descent left Crystal City
by 1946. Those remaining, including my family, actually helped disassemble
and close down the camp. Finally, in 1947, we were shipped to Ellis Island.
The conditions were cramped, dirty and stultifying. I would never go back to
Ellis Island. I spent too much time facing the back of the Statute of
Liberty. I always felt that even though she had welcomed immigrants
promising the American dream, she turned her back on us just because of our
Finally, after a great deal of legal wrangling and a
Congressional hearing, the Attorney General granted release to those
remaining in custody in September 1947, two and a half years after the
cessation of hostilities with Germany. My family had to start from scratch,
burdened with the stigma of internment. For me, although not an even
exchange, old friends were replaced with new friends. I met my wonderful
wife, Barbara, in Crystal City. Lost time and opportunity was supplanted by
an obsession not to waste either one. I completed high school and graduated
from Ohio University with highest honors. After 12 years with Shell Oil, I
earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and held responsible jobs
I was interned when I was 17 and released when I was
22. I did 4 ½ years of time for being German. Without experiencing
internment, no one can appreciate the intense terror of government power and
the despair of hopelessness and endless time one feels. In addition, an
internee must suffer humiliation, stigmatization and suspect “friends”
who may have given damning “evidence” to the FBI, like whether one said
something about Hitler at age 12. Understandably, many bear the
psychological scars throughout their lives. Many have gone to their graves
never speaking of their internment to their families, my brother included. A
large majority of internees still do not speak out. We in the German
American community must support and encourage these people to tell their
stories at last without fear of recrimination. They are not criminals, but
persons caught in a web of wartime hysteria. German Americans must support
their people like the Japanese and Italian Americans before them.
A government has the right and duty to protect itself. But in America, civil
liberties should not be cast aside so freely, even in times of war.
Frequently, as a result of rumor and innuendo, families were torn apart and
homes lost. Those who were a real threat to the U.S. could have been
controlled by means that did not violate civil liberties so severely. No
internee was ever convicted of a crime. Spies and saboteurs were not
interned. They were executed after receiving due process, the same due
process internees, who were here legally, never received. The tragedy of
Japanese American relocation is well known primarily because of the
tremendous effort of their people. Are our people less deserving of
recognition? German Americans and our organizations must insist that our
government finally acknowledge the wrongs committed against our people
because of our ethnicity. No one will do it for us. Likewise, we remaining
internees, much as we would like to keep these experiences locked away in a
dark corner, owe it to others to publicize the whole story so that what we
suffered never happens again.
by Guenther Greis, with assistance from Walter Greis, Karen E. Ebel and Arthur D. Jacobs
My parents, Peter Joseph and Franziska Greis, were
born near Cologne, Germany on April 9, 1891 and May 20, 1897, respectively.
My father was a WWI veteran. They married in Germany after WWI and in 1922
my older brother Siegfried was born. My father was employed as a paint
chemist. His employer sought to open a company in Milwaukee and asked my
father to start up the company. Joseph saw this as a great opportunity for
his family. In 1923, even though it meant leaving his wife and newborn son,
he traveled to the United States to follow the American dream. Francis, as
she was known in this country, and Siegfried followed several months later.
Unfortunately, the business plan did not work out and Joseph had to scramble
to make ends meet for his new family. This included washing railroad cars
and other odd jobs until he found a job in his profession as a paint
these early difficulties, my family settled well in Milwaukee, where there
were many other Germans. It gave them comfort to be in a place with many
familiar German traditions. Joseph, always interested in music and drama,
joined the Karnival German social/musical organization shortly after his
arrival. Three more sons were born: Guenther in 1924, Paul in 1926 and
Walter in 1927, all American citizens by virtue of their birth in the U.S.
Like most women during those days, Francis never worked outside the home and
relied solely on her husband for support. She had her hands full trying to
raise four boys. We went to school in Milwaukee and thought of ourselves as
Americans. We lived in a rented house in Milwaukee. Neither Siegfried, nor
my parents became American citizens during those years. Everyone was working
so hard raising a family; perhaps they didn’t have time to go to school to
become citizens. Who would have ever predicted what would happen to my
family because of that mistake? Citizenship papers or not, my parents
thought of themselves as Americans right from the beginning. But they also
loved the culture and traditions they were raised with and sought out the
company of other German Americans by joining various German social
organizations in Milwaukee.
the years passed my father became more and more involved with such
organizations, particularly those with connections to the arts. He never had
political inclinations. Like so many German aliens in this country at that
time, he had left Germany long before Hitler’s rise to power. He knew no
more of him than any other American and cared little for him. Like all
immigrants, though, he did love the culture of his homeland. He was an
active participant in and director of musical and dramatic productions. He
was popular and well known in the area. He even wrote plays. My mother was
busy raising her four active boys. By December 1941 Siegfried had graduated
from high school, was working, but lived at home. The other three boys were
still in school. I was an honor student and lettered as a gymnast. My family
life was like that of any other American family and we thought of ourselves
as Americans. Despite our beliefs, others, who considered themselves “true
Americans,” did not consider us Americans. Where were our parents’
citizenship papers? Why hadn’t they become citizens after all this time?
Our German ancestry, Dad’s job as a chemist and family activities with
German clubs probably made us suspect. We have never known why the FBI
became interested in us, but that interest caused immeasurable pain in our
details of my father’s arrest and subsequent internment are difficult to
recall because they occurred 60 years ago. His arrest initiated a six-year
period of great turmoil for my family and for my mother, especially. She was
never the same afterwards. The FBI took my father from our home on the night
of Dec. 9, 1941 about three in the morning. Everyone in the house was asleep
when the FBI agents pounded on our door. My father went to the door,
half-asleep. The FBI agents demanded that he come with them. He was not
allowed to bring anything. My mother was horrified and begged them not to
take him. That was the last we knew of Dad for six weeks. The FBI took him
away and he never returned home. We had absolutely no idea why or where he
Dad, we had no source of income. My mother did the best she could, but
eventually applied for welfare. She was told that she had four boys at home
and they could work. She got no aid whatsoever and we boys worked nights,
doing the best we could at school during the day. I was a senior in high
school. I worked the 4-11 night shift at a local sausage house. My younger
brothers helped as much as they could. Luckily, two men came to our aid.
After begging him for help, my mother got my Dad’s boss to at least give
us his Christmas bonus while he was interned. Another kind man gave us money
sometimes, so we could keep our home. I have never known his real name, but
we owe him our gratitude. My grades went down immediately, not just because
of my work, but because of the emotional upheaval. Eventually, I met with
the principal of the school and he helped me so I could graduate. My
brother, Paul dropped out of school and worked at Coca-Cola. Mother was very
industrious. She cleaned houses, made aprons for sale and even did home
canning, up to three hundred jars of fruits and vegetables at a time. After
one trip to the farmers’ market, my youngest brother, Walter and Mother
could tell immediately the house was ransacked. You could easily unlock the
rear door and enter through the milk chute. Another day, a newspaper
reporter showed up at the back door and forced his way in. My mother got rid
of him using a broom. She was always a sensitive woman and suffered greatly
during this period.
was nervous about Dad, but equally frightened because the FBI had taken many
people away in the middle of the night right after Pearl Harbor. The
Milwaukee news media covered everything and helped add to the hysteria.
Naturalized citizens who were German-born were even fired from their jobs.
Naturally, our community knew that Dad had been taken away and everyone was
suspicious of us. Going back to school was really difficult. Few of our
friends wanted to have contact with us. One girl refused to go out with
Walter because she “didn’t go out with Nazis.” A good family friend
parked a block away when he came to visit. We even felt like outcasts at our
own church because of our German blood. Many were afraid of associating with
us because it might mean they, too, would become suspects of the FBI. Fear
ran rampant. That is what happens when people are snatched from their homes.
searched desperately for my father as the weeks wore on. My older brother,
Siegfried, made numerous attempts via letters, as well as local inquiries,
trying to find him. Rumors flew and he tried to trace every one. No one
would help us. Incredibly, after a month and a half we located him right in
north Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Municipal Barracks. He had not even been
allowed to tell his family where he was! Once we found my father, we were
permitted to visit him for short periods of time on certain days. There were
about 50 men with him. In fact, there was a bus that went up to the barracks
once a week with all the wives so they could visit their husbands. The
conditions, while livable, were not good. Physical exercise was nonexistent
and time dragged. Eventually, Dad’s internment was ordered and he was sent
to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, then to Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
He ended up in the large Fort Lincoln internment camp for adult males
outside Bismarck, North Dakota.
went on for my father and for us. My mother continued cleaning houses. Paul
joined the armed services as a Merchant Marine in 1943, despite Dad’s
internment. I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Extension Division in
Milwaukee. I went to school fulltime and worked the 11 pm to 6 am shift at
Lakeside Labs helping with production. When I could, I napped on the
catwalks in the lab. The boss would let us sleep periodically and 20 minutes
before quitting time, he’d wake us up to leave. I tried my best to keep up
my grades. Walter graduated from high school and joined the Merchant Marine.
He completed his basic training at Sheepshead Bay, New York in September
1944. He then was accepted at the Cadet Radio Officer Training School on
Gallups Island in Boston. Meanwhile, at Fort Lincoln, Dad immediately
started providing entertainment to the hundreds of other internees. He wrote
plays, directed productions and generally made life a little easier for his
fellow internees, as well as for himself. My mother and we boys each visited
him once. The visits extremely difficult given the distances involved.
Visits were very short, strained and always conducted under guard.
December 1944, after Dad had already been interned for three years, we
(Mother, Siegfried and I) were notified we were being deported to Germany
with my father. I was horrified. Why would we ever go back to Germany? It
was blown to bits and besides, I was an American, not German! We tried
unsuccessfully to let Walter and Paul know we were leaving. We left
Milwaukee on January 1,1945 for Ellis Island via train. We had little or no
time to prepare for our departure. We were only permitted to take along
several boxes measuring 2’x 2’ x 4’. We left behind most of our
belongings, furnishings, clothes and irreplaceable family memorabilia. Upon
arrival at Grand Central Station, we tried again to contact Walter and Paul.
We finally reached Walter on Gallups Island.
reported to Ellis Island a couple of days before the S.
S. Gripsholm was to depart for Germany with its human cargo, most of who
were slated for exchange. The repatriation was part of an America-Germany
exchange program in which civilians from this country were exchanged for
Americans held in Germany. My father was nowhere to be seen. Were we being
sent back without him? We had no idea how we would survive. Ellis Island was
filled with people and emotion. Siegfried and I were assigned cots in the
Old Record Room, the huge hall in which immigrants were processed years
earlier. Men were crammed in everywhere. My mother was assigned a cot in the
January 6, 1945 at least a thousand people were loaded onto the Gripsholm
to cross the northern Atlantic at the height of the war. By this time, I was
so numb I hardly remember what happened. The military oversaw the transport
of hundreds to the ship via Coast Guard cutter. Women and the children were
in the cabin, but the men and older boys were outside on the rear deck. When
we left, it was a very snowy, freezing cold night. My mother was a nervous
wreck. Where was my father? Upon reaching the Gripsolm,
the Greis family was told to stay on board. We stood outside on the rear
deck bobbing up and down in the water, waiting. Finally, someone told the
captain of the cutter to bring us back to Ellis Island. All of our
belongings, those we had carefully selected from untold items left behind in
Milwaukee, went on to Europe. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs
and what we carried with us onto the cutter for the trip to Germany. We
never got our other belongings back.
following morning, we were ecstatic to be reunited with my father who had
come from Fort Lincoln. My mother was clearly suffering under the strain of
the situation. The conditions at Ellis Island were tense and difficult.
Unsuccessfully, we continued trying to contact Paul on his merchant ship
through the Red Cross. We were pretty sure his ship was in a war zone and we
were all very worried about him. During the following weeks, government
authorities interrogated Siegfried and me extensively. My mother was very
upset about it and demanded to sit in as a witness. The intense questioning
stopped finally. Whether it was my mother’s efforts or because it became
clear that we didn’t know anything, I don’t know. We were happy when
they left us alone.
Walter was finally able to visit us on Ellis Island. He still has trouble
describing how he felt when he learned that the government he and Paul were
serving was deporting his family. As soon as he got his first weekend pass,
a teenager proudly dressed in full cadet officer’s uniform, he took the
train to New York to visit us imprisoned at Ellis Island. During the entire
trip he wondered how people would react when he arrived in full uniform at
Ellis Island and told them that he was there to visit his family? As he
suspected, his visit created quite a stir.
made several trips from Boston to New York to visit. It was not easy. His
funds were limited and his time short due to his studies. During that time
an FBI agent visited him. He believes he came up from New York. He was
shocked and remembers asking him, “What do you want of me, a 17-year-old
cadet?” The agent did not answer his questions. Shortly thereafter,
without warning or a complete explanation, he was stripped of his cadet
uniform, and relieved from the training school at Gallups Island. His
commander implied that because his family was interned, he was not allowed
to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. He was mortified
and upset. Immediately thereafter he was ordered to return to Sheepshead
Bay, where on April 5, 1945 he completed merchant vessel engine and boiler
training. In a way, he views his transfer back to Sheepshead Bay as a
blessing, because he could go to Ellis Island every weekend to visit us.
passing his examinations, Walter was granted a ten-day leave. He visited my
family and returned to Milwaukee. This was a mistake. He was miserable. Our
home was no longer ours and our belongings were gone. He was then
transferred to Long Beach, California. From May through November 1945 he was
assigned to ships in the Pacific War Zone in
support of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, spending time in the Philippines.
Both ships, the SS Fort Niagara and the SS
Edward Nickels played integral roles in the Pacific War Zone of
Operation. It was anticipated that the Nickels’
final mission in the Pacific War Zone would be part of elaborate plans for
the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands pursuant to two massive
military undertakings. In the first attack, American combat troops were to
land on Japan by amphibious assault early on November 1, 1945. The Nickels, among others, would have been in direct support of this
invasion. During Walter’s service, the deck of the Nickels was covered with P-38, Lockheed Lightning fighter planes.
The invasion was not necessary due to the atomic bomb attack on Japan.
Walter fully participated in the war effort while we were interned.
on Ellis Island, my parents lived in an area for married couples. We were
able to visit them. Siegfried and I stayed in Old Record Room with hundreds
of other men. I remember Italians at Ellis Island, as well as German Latin
Americans, including a man who had been in the coffee business in the cot
next to me. We had no privacy whatsoever. I was happy to find a job in the
officers’ mess because there wasn’t much to do. The only physical
activity possible was a brief walk in a fenced exercise area near where the
ferry docked. Once we saw a boatload of people delivered. The tide was low
and the military personnel heaved the luggage up onto the shore. Some of the
suitcases burst open to reveal their contents, including fine musical
instruments. Little care was taken with anyone’s personal belongings.
years of being our family’s strength, my mother had a nervous breakdown.
Everything finally got to her. She was transferred from Ellis Island to a
Navy hospital where she stayed for several weeks. We were very worried about
her, but not surprised at her collapse. It was predictable considering what
she had been through.
was not the only woman to suffer in this way. Mothers were under incredible
stress. My father felt very guilty about what happened to us. He blamed
himself, but he could never figure out what he had done wrong.
April 1945 my mother was finally well enough to leave the hospital. We all
wanted to stay together, so the government agreed to transfer us to the
family camp in Crystal City, Texas. The Greis family and the Jacobs family,
with two young boys, Arthur and Lambert, were escorted by border patrol
personnel on a troop train to Crystal City. We were always under guard, but
by then we were starting to get used to it. After Ellis Island, Crystal City
seemed great even though it was a heavily guarded internment camp. It was
clean and well organized, with good programs in place for smooth operation.
We lived in a small house with bedrooms and a kitchen. Most importantly, we
lived together again like a family. My father helped to entertain the
internees. The Japanese and Germans were kept sharply divided and rarely
came into contact. Many German Latin Americans were also at the camp. They
had been torn from their homes by their government at the encouragement of
the United States. I do not recall meeting any Latin Americans in the camp
who even spoke German. Many had Latino wives.
surrendered in May 1945, shortly after we arrived in Crystal City. We
thought we would all be released, but only Siegfried was. He requested
release shortly after our arrival. After some deliberation, the authorities
agreed to release him. He happily returned to Milwaukee to work. I think he
was merely paroled and was still subject to many restrictions on property
ownership and travel. Happily, Paul returned safely to Milwaukee after
having being stationed in the Indian Ocean with Merchant Marine for most of
the war. Walter also returned to Milwaukee briefly and worked. They would
not release my parents and me. In camp, I tried to get work in the lab
hospital, but had no luck. I did work in the community dining room and,
later, on a milk route. My mother’s health was never good. I recall that
during my stay at Crystal City there were about 800 Germans and 1000
Japanese incarcerated. All the Japanese were released in 1946, but at least
500 Germans remained imprisoned at Crystal City. None of us could understand
why we weren’t released. We learned that President Truman had decided that
whoever was interned at the end of the war must be dangerous. He said that
if we were deemed dangerous enough to intern before the war, we still were.
That rule seemed to apply to mostly Germans.
remained with my parents until the fall of 1946. Over a year after the war
with Germany ended, I finally was allowed to leave. I felt terrible for my
parents. My father had already been imprisoned at that point for almost five
years. When I left, I was asked to chaperone two Japanese children to
Chicago via train, which I did. Relatives met them. I continued on to
Milwaukee where I lived with my brothers, continued my schooling and worked.
Walter volunteered for additional duty with the Merchant Marine in 1946. Our
parents were still interned—17 months after the war in Europe ended. His
duty included the transport of grain from New York City to Venice, Italy, up
the Adriatic, which was still quite dangerous at that time due to extensive,
residual heavy mining from the war.
in 1947, two years after the end of the war, my parents were allowed to
leave Crystal City and come home to Milwaukee. It was very difficult to
start over again. They had little or no money and felt stigmatized by their
internment. My mother was never the same after her ordeal. Eventually, we
managed to rent a small flat until we could get organized. My father had a
hard time finding a job doing anything but menial labor. He was refused
reemployment at his old job as a chemist. My father never quit. I have to
admire his stamina and determination after all he had been through. He
borrowed some money and opened the “European Relief Store,” which
provided care packages for those suffering in Europe after the war. At
night, we helped him pack boxes. He sent up to 200 packages per day. This
store eventually grew to become J.P. Greis Imports. In 1948, the Greis
brothers bought a chemical business. I left college without graduating to
help with the business, which Walter and I own to this day.
the Merchant Marine is now considered military service, at the time, it was
not. My brother Walter was drafted back into the service in 1948. He joined
the Air Force shortly after we bought the business. Again his German
heritage affected his military career while serving his country. He was in
his third week of radio cryptology training at Brooks Field in San Antonio
when he received notice to report to his squadron commander. He was relieved
of duty from the cryptology school and assigned to overseas duty. Although
little detail was given, the commander indicated that he was relieved
because his German background might adversely influence the performance of
his duty. This was another heart-wrenching episode in Walter’s young life.
Not only was he hurt and mortified, he still had to live in the barracks
with his buddies until he was transferred. They knew what had happened and
were forbidden to talk to him about anything “official.”
a short furlough home to Milwaukee, in the spring of 1950, he was shipped by
a military troop transport to Anderson Field, Guam and Marianna Islands.
Shortly thereafter, North Korea invaded South Korea. He was transferred to
the 30th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group (B-29s)
at Kadina Air Base in Okinawa. He was promoted to radio operator with flying
status and served on several dangerous bombing runs. In 1952, having
honorably served his country for another four years, he left the United
States Air Force. For his combat duty, he was awarded the Air Medal with
four oak leaf clusters for two 1950 and two 1951 missions. Walter served the
United States through WWII and the Korean Conflict a total of eight years.
the fact that their parents and siblings were wrongly interned, Walter and
Paul honorably served this country. They put their lives on the line during
combat operations and missions for the cause of freedom while their own
family was deprived of that freedom at home. Nevertheless, the government
still believed that Walter could not be trusted as a commissioned officer or
a cryptology radio operator because of his German heritage.
years have passed since these events. Our mother is 104. We wish the
government would admit what it did during her lifetime. We speak out now
because as we grow older we realize how important it is for future
generations that Americans know what occurred during the war to persons of
“enemy” ethnicity. It is hard to imagine such things happening again,
but they could. The laws that authorized these actions still exist. We feel
the government must acknowledge the whole story. Although much is known
about relocation from the West Coast, virtually nothing is known about the
destructive forces of internment on families and communities. Paul and
Walter gave years of their lives protecting our valuable, but fragile,
liberty. All Americans must know the dreadful consequences of liberty lost,
so they can ensure that it does not happen again.
story of Karl Vogt, civilian internee of war, by members of the Vogt Family,
edited and compiled by Ursula Vogt Potter: the following are excerpts from
Ursula’s book The Misplaced American© Ursula
Vogt Potter 2002; used courtesy of Art Jacobs, Karen Ebel and John Christgau
Karl Friedrich Vogt, my father, was born on February
18, 1906, the firstborn of Kasper and Anna Marie at Dunne near Bunde in
Westfalen, Germany. He was the oldest of eight children—three boys and
five girls. In 1923 Kasper, Anna Marie and their children decided to
emigrate to America. An old uncle had been begging Kasper for years to come
to America and take over the uncle’s small farm, which was located south
of Spokane in the fertile Palouse country of eastern Washington State. They
left Germany on April 9, 1923 and arrived in Spokane on May 1. Soon after
their arrival on the farm, the family realized that conditions were not as
rosy as the uncle had painted them. The farm was run down and debt ridden,
making it necessary for Kasper and his two older sons, Karl (my dad) and
Wilhelm (Bill), to work at outside jobs until the farm became productive
enough to support the family.
My father, Karl, met my mother, Elsie Reifenberger,
in 1924 at Zion Lutheran Church in the neighboring community of Fairfield,
Washington. Elsie and her siblings were born in America, but her father and
mother had emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s. The two families, the
Vogts and the Reifenbergers, became good friends. Elsie’s mother had died
when she was only six years old, so Jenny Gelber, a cousin who was a nurse
in Germany, had been persuaded to come to America to help raise Elsie and
her sisters. Later, after Elsie graduated from college and had taught school
for several years, she and Karl fell in love and became engaged. At this
time it was decided that Karl and Bill would remain in America and the rest
of the Vogt family would return to Germany. Employment opportunities for the
younger Vogt siblings were now better in Germany than here in America. Also,
the family had kept their small German landholding, renting it out while
here in America, making it easier to resume their lives in Germany. Elsie
and Karl were married on October 20, 1935 and a few days later the remaining
Vogts (except for Bill) began their journey back to Germany. The next
spring, 1936, Elsie and Karl took a delayed honeymoon trip to Germany. Most
of the time there was spent visiting relatives, but they also took a short
tour with a German-American group from Spokane. One of the people that they
met on this tour was the editor of the Washington
Post, a German-American newspaper in Spokane. His name was Heinrich
Hesse. Karl kept in contact with Mr. Hesse after this trip and it was he who
advised Karl and Bill to put the farm into Elsie’s name. Hesse told them,
“You are not citizens. They’ll take the land away from you if war starts
with Germany.” Karl and Bill took his advice, hired a lawyer and the farm
was sold to Elsie.
When Elsie and Karl took their trip to Germany in
1936, Elsie’s cousin, Jenny, went with them. She had decided to return to
her former home near Seigen in Northern Germany. The Reifenberger girls were
adults now, and no longer needed her, and she had a sister in Germany who
was ill and needed Jenny’s help. While she was here in America, Jenny had
managed to build up savings in the Fidelity Bank in Spokane. During the
Depression the account was blocked, but later the bank paid out a certain
amount each year. Jenny gave Elsie and Karl Power of Attorney in 1936, so
when the Fidelity made these payments, they cashed the checks and sent the
money to Jenny by money order. When the war broke out between Britain and
Germany, they knew that it would not be safe to send it the regular way any
longer. Someone suggested that they should send the money to the German
Consulate in San Francisco. There the Consulate would keep the American
dollars for its own expenses and pay out the sum in German marks to Jenny in
Germany. Karl did just that, and a couple of weeks later received a paper
signed by Jenny stating that she had been paid the money. When Pearl Harbor
was attacked, the Consulate was raided and Karl’s letter was evidently
found. Later, it was revealed that the head of the Consulate from 1939 until
July 1941 (Capt. Fritz Wiedemann) had been involved in espionage activities
and was expelled from this country late in the summer of 1941.
After Karl was picked up and he had a “so-called”
hearing, some of the above events were held against him. “Why did your
family go back to Germany? Why did you sell the farm to your wife? Why did
you take a trip to Germany in 1936? Why did you send money to Hitler?”
were some of the questions posed to him over and over. It never occurred to
him that the basis for the money question was the money he had sent to Jenny
My first night after being picked up by the FBI was
spent in the county jail in Spokane. This was one of the lowest times of my
life. It was if I had died and gone to hell. The shock of being uprooted so
suddenly for no good reason was still fresh and unreal to me. How long would
this go on? What would become of me? And what about Elsie? Would she live
through this? Would I ever see my family again? Over and over in my mind I
kept seeing the stricken faces of my family. Even little Ursula was not
consolable when they took me away—and Armin, that feisty little fellow,
was shouting at those F.B.I. men as we left, “You bad men! You bad men!”
I was held in the county jail until December 21,
1941, when they finally shipped me off to Fort Lincoln, Bismarck, North
Dakota. At Fort Lincoln, on January 19, 1942 I had a “so-called”
hearing. I was not allowed to have an attorney and had to appear before the
Enemy Alien Hearing Board of Eastern Washington. I was grilled for hours.
Later on February 3, the hearing was completed in Spokane where witnesses
and affidavits could be presented. I was not allowed to attend this part of
the hearing. Many people testified or sent affidavits in my defense. Later I
heard that three people had testified against me. We had land hungry
neighbors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the farm. Of course,
they didn’t know that the farm had been turned over to Elsie. The Board
chose to listen to the three and ignore the rest.
From Fort Lincoln, I was transferred to Camp McCoy,
Sparta, Wisconsin and then, finally, to Stringtown, Oklahoma. I arrived
there on June 17, 1942. Although I was never physically tortured or starved,
life behind a barbed wire fence, separated from home and family, was an
ordeal. Nevertheless, I decided early on to make the best of the situation.
I was still alive, my wife and children seemed to be coping and I could only
hope that this would all end soon. Soon, I also found out that my internment
story was not nearly as tragic as many others in the camps. On the plus side
for me, while I was interned I met and became friends with many wonderful
and interesting people. These people were not Nazi sympathizers and
certainly did not in any way pose a threat to America. They were simply
victims of the hysteria of wartime.
Many of the men I met at Fort Lincoln were
transferred with me to Camp McCoy and then finally to the permanent camp at
Stringtown. They all had interesting stories to tell of their lives and the
circumstances of their internments. One of my friends at Fort Lincoln was
Erich Braemer. He and I were both from Washington State and both of us had
been “arrested” on December 9, 1941. Erich was a friendly, interesting
person whom I liked immediately. He told me that he had a son who was in the
U.S. Army Air Corps. One day near the end of February 1942, the head of the
camp called Erich to the office and told him he would be going home in a few
weeks. Many of us were really excited about this, because we thought there
might be some hope for us too. He promised that he would write and tell us
why he had been released so soon. Later he sent news clippings from a
Seattle, Washington newspaper. These news articles told about the Braemer
son who had been part of the Doolittle Raid. General James Doolittle had led
sixteen B-25 bombers from the deck of the U.S.S.
Hornet (a feat in itself for the usually land-based bombers) to a very
dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo in April of 1942. Fred Braemer, Erich’s
son, had been the bombardier on the lead airplane piloted by James Doolittle.
[Editor: Click here to view the Doolittle
to say it would not do for the father of one of these brave men to be behind
barbed wire in an internment camp!
My other fellow internees were a cosmopolitan group.
There were lawyers, engineers, professors, farmers, and sailors. There were
a number of Austrian ski champions who happened to be working as instructors
at places like Sun Valley and Aspen when the war broke out. There were two
Lutheran ministers and several Catholics priests. One priest, Dr. Heinrich
Hoffmann, was the head librarian at the Vatican! He was in the U.S. studying
our library system. He was one of my best friends in camp. Another good
friend was Frank Wiegner, a diesel engine design engineer who, after the
war, bought and operated an apple orchard near Chelan, Washington.
Men were interned for many reasons. Most were German
nationals who were in the U.S. for a variety of reasons at the outbreak of
the war. Some were visiting professors, some were students, and some were on
the crews of ships. Some were there because of the ill will of
neighbors or business associates. It was easy to accuse someone of being a
Nazi! One Lutheran pastor was interned because he had objected to putting
the Christian and American flags in the church: “The church is no place
for flags.” He was labeled un-American and reported. There was even a
small group of men from far away Samoa. Some of the Samoan islands, the
eastern ones, belonged to the U.S., but before World War I, the western
Samoan islands were a German colony. In 1914, New Zealand was given control
of Western Samoa and later administered it under the auspices of The League
of Nations and still later as a UN trusteeship until its independence in
1962.The internees from Samoa did not speak a word of German and had never
been to Germany. Incredibly too, there were also people from Latin American
countries in the internment camps. One of these fellows told me that he was
working in the field one day when the authorities came to him, handcuffed
him, placed him in a car and took him to a waiting ship bound for America.
We internees ran our own camps under the direction of
the camp commander. Group leaders, who were elected by the internees, were
responsible for seeing that all of the camp rules were carried out. We did
our own cooking, and at Stringtown, Rudy Wolf was the head cook. He had been
a chef in one of New York’s finest hotel restaurants. I often worked with
him when on K.P. duty. One day the colonel came to the kitchen and said,
“I’m having a dickens of a time getting sauerkraut for you people every
day.” He was very relieved when we assured him that we didn’t need
sauerkraut all that often.
The next day, I called my sister, Rose, and she and
her husband came to stay with the children while Pastor Reitz took me to
Spokane where we found that Karl was housed in the county jail. On the way
home we stopped at Sacred Heart Hospital on the off chance that my
brother-in-law, Bill, might still be there. He worked as an orderly there
during the winter when things slowed down on the farm. We had assumed that
all German nationals had been picked up and so were amazed when we found him
at work there in the hospital. He immediately gave up his job and came home
to the farm.
The following day we contacted the Immigration
Service and the U.S. District Attorney to try to find out why Karl was being
held. The D.A., Lyle Keith, a very unpleasant person, said that Karl was a
prisoner of war. There was no answer to our “why?” Bill asked him,
“Why didn’t you take me? Why a man with a family?” No answer. We then
asked, “If Karl is a prisoner of war, what right have you to keep him in
jail? What about the Geneva Convention rules?” His answer was cryptic,
“Where else would I keep him? Eventually he’ll be sent to an internment
We were finally allowed to visit Karl just once at
the Spokane County jail. Mr. Walter, a white haired gentleman from the
Immigration Service, sat in on our meeting. He, at least, was kind and
considerate, which was a welcome change from the cold Mr. Keith. Karl and I
tried to comfort each other as best as we could, but soon had to say
While Karl was at Ft. Lincoln and Camp McCoy, we at
least knew where he was and could write censored letters to each other. In
April of 1942 Karl wrote that he was to be transferred to a permanent camp
but didn’t know where. An attempt was made to keep the new place of
detention secret from the internees’ families. We were given a New York
address and all my mail to Karl was sent to this number: ISN-23-46-G-19-CI,
Postal Censor, 244 Seventh Ave., N.Y. There was a terrific uproar from the
families and the destination leaked out anyway, so thankfully this plan
didn’t work out. For quite some time, however, mail was routed over New
York for censorship and letters were weeks old before they reached their
The permanent camp that Karl was transferred to from
Camp McCoy turned out to be Stringtown Internment Camp, Stringtown,
Oklahoma.He arrived there on June 17, 1942. Stringtown was also a prison
camp for U.S. soldiers, which was entirely separate from the internment
Toward the last, at Camp McCoy, wives had been
visiting their husbands, so Karl was longing for a visit from the children
and me. When he was transferred to Stringtown he found it was possible
there, too. Two visits a month were allowed, and if scheduled at the end of
the month and the beginning of the next, we could have four days in a row.
Arrangements were made and we left Spokane by train at the end of July. The
first day of our visit was unbelievable! We were evidently the first
visitors any internee had had, and they must have been expecting some real
gangsters. Karl was brought under guard to a small building where an officer
sat throughout our visit. At each door stood a soldier with his bayonet
pointed toward us. Armin was highly interested and didn’t hesitate to
voice a lot of questions: “Why are they pointing those guns at us? Why is
Dad wearing such crummy clothes?” Anyway, I ignored the guards who looked
embarrassed by this time, and Karl got reacquainted with Ursula, who, of
course, was very shy with him at first.
Armin was right at home with his daddy. He hadn’t
forgotten him and had spent many hours “writing” letters to him
decorated with pictures of trucks and airplanes with a few letters sprinkled
here and there. These were never given to Karl because censors thought they
might be some sort of code! After the first day, there was only one guard
who no longer pointed his gun at us and after that only an officer was
present at out meetings.
I was almost five years old when we visited Dad at
Stringtown. I remember with absolute clarity the high fence and several
strands of barbed wire at the top and the gate through which we had to pass
inspection before we were allowed to enter. The guards all had rifles and
side arms. The officers only carried side arms. An armed guard escorted us
to a small one-room building. In the center of the room there was a small
square table and four chairs. In the corner of the room was another chair
that was occupied by an armed guard. There may have been another guard also,
but I particularly remember the one in the corner because, on the first day
of our visit, his rifle was held at ready. Literally pointed in our
direction—not directly, but over our heads. On the second day of our visit
this guard parked his weapon in the corner. I guess my curiosity regarding
his weapon on the first day and my many questions regarding his gun were
disconcerting to him. Dad did tell us later that the guards were unhappy
about the situation. Guarding little kids with a rifle was too much for
them. Dad also told us later about a nearly unbelievable incident that
happened in the camp. A new guard was randomly assigned to guard an internee
whose family was visiting him. This guard turned out to be the son of this
internee! This, of course, caused quite a stir among the military personnel
assigned to the camp. [Editor: During the summer of 1943 Armin at age
6 and Ursula at age 3 visited their father at Fort Missoula, Montana. Click
on their names to
view a photograph of them in Missoula: Armin
and Ursula ]
Karl went through the trauma of being an enemy
internee and I went through the trauma of being the wife of an internee.
This was a very bitter pill to swallow, especially considering that I had
three nephews and a brother-in-law in the U.S. Armed Services, and knowing
that Karl had done nothing to warrant this treatment. Then too, both Karl
and I were worried about relatives on both sides of the war. Besides friends
and relatives on the American side, Karl’s brother, Henry, and many
cousins were fighting on the German side, and his sisters and father were in
constant danger from the bombing raids in the cities where they lived. It
was like the Civil War for us.
We did have so many loyal friends that it was truly
heartwarming. There were instances, of course, that were not heartwarming.
Some people looked the other way when they met us on the street. I’m sure
our place was monitored for short wave equipment and our phone was tapped.
Our church, in Fairfield, was searched from top to bottom. Karl was an elder
there when he was picked up. One night some neighbors painted our farm
machinery with swastikas.
It is not easy being falsely accused. My health was
definitely undermined. I lost weight so quickly that I was left with a
floating kidney and constant backaches.
In the late fall of 1942 we went through an
especially bad time. Suddenly I was receiving no mail from Karl. I was
frantic with worry. I wrote regularly but received no answer. Finally, I
sent a telegram. Karl happened to have a small amount of cash (they were
issued script) and got one of the guards to send a reply. Just before
Christmas I received the telegram saying he was OK. This was the best
Christmas present! It was several weeks before mail service was restored. We
never did find out what this was all about.
Further harassment awaited us. On January 21, 1942 we
suddenly received an order from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
blocking our bank account. We had to obtain a special license to carry on
our farming operations. It took months to obtain the license and if hadn’t
been for relatives who lent us money and business people who gave us credit,
we would have been in real financial trouble. We hired Mr. Richard Munter as
our attorney and he went all out for us. I spent many hours in his office.
When we finally received the license, it was for $2,250.00 for six months.
How we were expected to pay our debts, run a farm and live on that amount
only Herbert Armstrong of the Federal Reserve Bank knew! Mr. Munter managed
to secure us a larger license and we were soon able to operate as usual,
except that every cent we spent had to be reported in triplicate to the
Federal Reserve Bank. This was done through August of 1944; a year after
Karl was released. Why was our bank account blocked? We can only conjecture.
In the winter of 1943, family camps were being
established for our families and us internees, some in Texas and elsewhere.
I wrote to Elsie and asked if she and the children would join me in Family
Camp. She wrote back immediately and said, “Yes, please.” Our letters
were all censored, of course, and perhaps someone did not want American
wives and children joining their husbands in a family camp setting, because
soon after I received Elsie’s letter an F.B.I. agent visited me. “Why
did you send money to Hitler?” I was asked again. “I’ve never sent
money to Hitler. I’ve never wanted to send money to Hitler. Why am I being
asked this same old question again?” And then, “Did you send money to
someone named Jenny Gelber through the German Consulate?” A light went on
in my brain as I answered, “Yes, I did and let me tell you why.” Two
weeks later he returned, “your story checks out. You should ask for a
rehearing.” I answered, “I’m not appearing before that ‘kangaroo
court’ again.” He just laughed and said, “You’d better think it
over. Get your wife to work on this.” I wrote to Elsie about what had
happened. She was overjoyed and immediately started proceedings to obtain a
rehearing for me.
Mr. Edward Connelly was the new U.S. District
Attorney in the Spokane, Washington area. He had replaced Lyle Keith, who
had joined the army. Mr. Connelly was a fair-minded person who was not
easily swayed by wartime hysteria. I think his appointment definitely worked
in my favor.
My rehearing was held in Spokane on March 23,
1943.Dozens of people—business acquaintances, friends and relatives came
to visit me and many were called in to testify. On the day of the hearing,
we all met in a big room in the D.A.’s offices and could visit freely. The
Board met in a smaller room next door and called witnesses one by one.
The next day I was taken to Fort Missoula in
Missoula, Montana to await the results of the hearing. The Board had
recommended my release but the final approval had to come from Washington
D.C. Fort Missoula was an internment camp for the Japanese and the Italians.
I was the only German there. Mr. Connelly sent me to Missoula because it was
near home and he expected me to be released soon. As it turned out, it was
several months before I was finally allowed to go home. On August 20, 1943 I
arrived in Spokane and finally home on the farm late that night. What joyful
reunion! We were a family again.
Amazingly, throughout his ordeal, and later, Dad
continued to be pro American—anti-Roosevelt certainly, but strongly
pro-democracy. He understood that the measure of a great democracy is in
part its willingness to make itself vulnerable. He would sometimes lecture
us on how the Founding Fathers wrote this vulnerability into the
Constitution, but that they did so with trepidation as evidenced by the
heated debates surrounding the drafting of the Constitution. Guaranteed
constitutional freedoms can be dangerous in a society, but more dangerous,
they argued, is the repression of these freedoms. My dad, I think,
understood clearly the paradox, that these freedoms are valued and feared
all in one breath, and that during times of national crisis, this tenuous
balance can easily be skewed toward fear. This kind of fear caused America
to send a large number of its loyal citizens and residents to barbed wire
enclosures, and it sent my father away from his family for nearly three
years. How ironic that one of Roosevelt’s famous statements during this
time was: “the only thing to fear is fear itself!”
Even more amazing, perhaps, is that my family on the
other side of the ocean remained pro-American. My uncle Henry, who was in
the Nazi army, saved the lives of a number of Jewish people, at great risk
to himself. Near the end of the war, he positioned himself so that he was
captured by the Americans, and because of his good command of the English
language, was able to work for them as an interpreter. My aunt Marta, who
was a censor for the Germans during the war, began working as an interpreter
for the Americans after they occupied the town where she resided. These
connections with the Americans saved my European family from starvation—a
fate common to many Germans for several years after the war. Several stories
about the experiences of Uncle Henry, Aunt Marta, Aunt Lisbeth and Aunt Mina
in Germany during the war are told in the book, The
My family in America resumed a normal life after the
war. Dad finally received his final naturalization papers in July of 1954.It
was thrilling for all of us. After the war my parents became very
“valued” members of the community, serving on school boards, church
councils and political committees. As a grown-up, I was told several times
by people in the community that my parents were wonderful people and that
what had happened to my dad during the war was a real miscarriage of
for me, I think that I have finally faced the anger that has been a part of
me since 1941. I also have worked through the sense of abandonment that has
lurked in my subconscious since the day my dad was suddenly taken away. Most
of all, I have come to terms with what it means to be a German-American.
During my whole life, it seems, the Germans have been the bad guys, and the
message has often been, that not just Hitler and his crew, but all Germans
are guilty of mass murder. Putting together the story of my family during
World War II, learning about the stories of other internees as well as other
people who lived through the War in Germany, has convinced me that the
majority of Germans was and is just as honorable as the majority of
Americans. My German family on both sides of the ocean did what they could
to maintain their dignity and humanity amidst impossible circumstances. We
can only hope that the world became a better place because of the lessons
learned during the years 1941-1945.
too, were Imprisoned
January 23, 2000
M. Earle of the Monitor staff
Pushing back the sleeve of his light blue cardigan,
80-year-old Max Ebel showed off the wounds he received as a 17-year-old Boy Scout fighting off a gang of
Hitler Youth: two ghost-white puckers in his weathered skin, phantoms of the
knife blade that sent him to America.
“They stabbed me in the hand,” he said in an
accent that, like the scars, has faded but never disappeared. “They were trying to force me to join.”
The rest of Ebel’s story has been slower in
revealing itself. There are parts he can’t remember and parts that never seemed worth telling. Other parts
he’ll never understand, much less explain.
For more than 50 years following his release from a
U.S. alien enemy internment camp, Ebel, who lives in Effingham, talked little of his experiences. Now
and then he’d tell stories of the months he spent toiling on the railroad, the
sick little Indian girl he bought medicine for or the Japanese prisoner he helped save
But “there just wasn’t that much to say,” he
said with a shrug.
The rest of the country has shrugged along with him.
Or so it seems to Ebel’s daughter, Karen. For the past year, she’s been searching the Internet,
scouring government documents and corresponding with officials in an attempt to piece
together the strange, scattered history her father shares with some 30,000
other immigrants and to secure them a paragraph or two in the nation’s
What she’s found is a largely overlooked piece of
history, a group of people hardly unique in that they suffered during World War II, but unique in that
their suffering has gone unrecognized.
“We feel it’s important for people to know that
the internment occurred and that it wasn’t just the Japanese who were affected,” Karen Ebel said.
So, with his daughter’s prodding, Max Ebel is
finally telling his story in full.
It is a story that begins where perhaps it should
have ended. The stab wounds that marked Ebel’s Nazi defiance might have secured him a peaceful life in
the United States had anyone cared to ask about them. But this was 1942 America,
a country at war on multiple fronts, a nation frightened by every foreign
face and accent. And Ebel’s scars meant less than his foreign accent, his German
In 1937, Ebel was a young cabinetmaker’s apprentice
in Germany, helping support his family after his parents’ divorce, devoting his free time to
the German version of the Boy Scouts. At the same time, Hitler was rising to power, and
with the decree that the Boy Scouts be dissolved, Ebel felt the first jolt
Ebel isn’t sure why he didn’t give in. “I think it was because I was being forced. It wasn’t my free will,” said Ebel, sitting in his daughter’s home in New London.
When that force threatened Ebel’s life, he decided
it was time to get out of Germany. After the attack that ended in a stab wound, Ebel made arrangements
to move to America to live with his father, who had emigrated to the United States eight years earlier.
“I remember stepping off the wharf (at Ellis
Island), and my first impression was to turn around and go home because it was so filthy,” Ebel said. He
remembers pointing in bewilderment to the worm-like strands hanging from the fire
escapes in downtown New York. They were spaghetti leftovers, his father explained,
Despite those first impressions, Ebel stayed,
settling in Cambridge, Mass, where his father had a small woodworking business. A black man named Johnny, one
of his father’s employees, taught him English, leaving him with a Southern
accent that people in Germany still tease him about. He went to school and got a
high school degree, enrolled in the Boy Scouts and filed a Declaration of
Intention to become a U.S. citizen.
“I was an American right from the beginning, and I always will be,” he said. “I think I appreciated my freedom as much as a fish let out of a bowl.”
That freedom was short-lived, however. The very
influence Ebel had fled Germany to escape had in fact followed him, in the form of a cloud of
suspicion. “I left Germany because of the Nazis, and I came over here and I was a
Nazi,” he said.
The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,
the United States tightened its cinch of citizenship in an effort to purge and protect itself against
foreign enemies within its borders. The results have yet to be fully sorted out.
Historical accounts and expert opinions differ widely on the subject of foreign
“It’s very convoluted,” Karen Ebel said. “The
lines of authority are so blurred.”
What is generally agreed upon is that some 100,000
people of Japanese descent were ordered to evacuate specific West Coast military areas following the
Pearl Harbor attack. An additional 16,000 Japanese—non-citizens and those who had renounced their citizenship—were interned in camps around the country.
The treatment of these prisoners has been a subject
of sore debate in recent years, as has the very fact that thousands of people of other nationalities
were also interned. Controversy continues to rage over who was interned and why,
and whether the government had a right to corral its own citizens, as well
“For the most part, the history of internment has
been either quieted or distorted,” Joseph Fallon, co-author of the five-volume German Americans in the World
Wars, writes on his Web site. “The majority of the best-selling
collegiate and secondary school history texts in the United States claim that, unlike
Japanese Americans, the German and Italian Americans were not arrested and interned;
and both the print and electronic media have propagated this myth.”
Drawing on 10 years of research obtained primarily
from such sources as the National Archives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fallon claims
that 56 percent of all internees were, in fact, Europeans and European Americans.
Other researchers cite similar statistics.
All Max Ebel knows is what happened to him. In
September 1942, FBI officers came and searched the Ebels’ house. Ebel remembers one officer instructing
him to open a little table he’d made with a secret compartment on top. As he
unlatched the hook, the man sprang for his gun.
Ebel just chuckles now to think of the officer’s
fear of his nightstand.
“You were a real threat, huh,” Karen Ebel teased
But then, it was no laughing matter. Though the
officers found nothing but some German books, a calendar and a radio, they returned a few days later and
He still doesn’t know why.
An alien still awaiting citizenship, Ebel was legally
internable under both the “Enemy Alien Act of 1798” and international law, which permits a country
to intern those aliens residing in its territory who are subjects or nationals
of a country with whom they are at war. But why the government would feel the
“If you were part of the German community . . . you
were all of a sudden under suspicion,” Karen Ebel said. “A little comment here, a little comment
there, and they were all over you.”
Karen Ebel has obtained some of the official records
related to her father’s internment and used them to form a couple of theories.
Apparently, Ebel stated on his draft questionnaire
that he was willing to fight with the Americans in the Pacific but didn’t want to fight in Germany
because he had so much family there. There is also mention of a pacifist remark in one
of Ebel’s court records and reference to a compliment he made of the road
One or all of those “crimes” sent Ebel to prison.
And it was a prison, not just according to Ebel’s
memory, but numerous documents, pictures and personal stories.
“The military viewed these civilians as Prisoners
of War,” wrote John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton. “Internees were housed
in four-man tents, several of which routinely flooded after heavy rains. . . .
Barbed wire, ‘off limits’ signs, and machine guns surrounding the prisoners
completed the scene, along with guards who viewed these men as potentially dangerous,
rather than the typical butchers, bakers, mechanics and common folk that most of
Ebel remembers the ever-present barbed wire and armed
guards, as he was bounced from camp to camp for the next 18 months.
He was first held in an Immigration and
Naturalization Services office for three months while he awaited a hearing. Dozens of people of different
nationalities were packed in a small room, all awaiting an unknown fate. One night, Ebel
heard the toilet flush repeatedly and peeked into the bathroom to see what
was going on. A Japanese prisoner had slit his throat and was flushing the blood
down the commode.
“We saved his life,” Ebel said.
Ebel could certainly understand the man’s
desperation. “They never told me why I was there,” he said. And when he finally stood before a judge, his pleas
were futile. “That was such a mess, I can’t even remember,” he said.
Though the hearing board recommended Ebel be released
and kept under watch, according to court documents, he was sent to Washington, D.C., where the
Department of Justice decided to intern him anyway. He was sent to Ellis
Island, the very symbol of America’s open arms to immigrants. There he was kept in
bunkers and let out for exercise only periodically in a cage on the roof.
“If you wanted privacy, you had to hang a blanket
down from your bunk . . . and the food was terrible,” he said.
From there, Ebel was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland,
where he was given a physical and held for several days. “And the food there was great,” Ebel
“Well, you were hungry by then, boy,” Ebel’s
wife, Doris, reminded him.
Fate then shipped Ebel to Camp Forrest in Tennessee,
where he spent two or three months. That camp was emptied out and turned into a POW camp, and
Ebel was transferred to Fort Lincoln in North Dakota.
He might have been better off staying behind. Fort
Lincoln was filthy, crowded and dismal. “I’ll tell you, that was hell,” he said.
As the war progressed, the government tapped the
internment camps for workers. Ebel volunteered to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad, placing
himself once again under Nazi pressure. Legitimate Nazis, who made up a
small portion of the camp’s population, raged against the volunteers for helping
Certainly, Ebel didn’t align himself with the
Nazis. But at that point, he wasn’t exactly concerning himself with national loyalties. “I just wanted to get
the hell out of there,” he said.
For the next eight or nine months, Ebel worked on the
railroads on the great windswept plains of North Dakota. All through the winter, he and his team
pulled up the old rails and laid new, sturdier ones, weighing up to 250 pounds
apiece. Working their way across half the state, they slept in boxcars and chipped
through inches of ice to get water.
For food, “we would get rotten liver, which was
frozen,” Ebel recalled. “Once in a while, we got a chicken.”
And though they were now getting paid a couple of
cents an hour for their toils, they were still kept under close guard. Occasionally, the guards let them go
into town for an evening, but they could tell they were being followed by the
tracks in the snow.
For Christmas that year, the crew rode one of the
train cars down to a field full of pheasants and harvested their own dinner.
“We got ourselves a beautiful meal . . . and it was
no thanks to the government,” Ebel said.
Among his musings of his months on the railroad, the
memory that imbues Ebel’s vivid blue eyes with the most emotion is the Indian community the crew
The whole team attended a church near an Indian
reservation, where an Indian pastor lambasted them for his people’s plight. “He would give us hell
because we were white,” Ebel said. Then he would turn around and ask for money for
The crew obliged and pooled their pennies to bring the little church up to date on their rent. In return, the Indians held a party for them at their reservation.
“The poverty there was beyond belief,” said Ebel,
who has been involved with various Native American organizations ever since the war.
As the bond between the two forgotten communities
grew, the Indians would come to the railroad to barter with the workers. And when a little girl in
the village became sick, they called on the crew once again for help. “We
pooled our money to get her medicine,” Ebel recalled. “The government would have
His sympathy for the Indians’ plight aside, Ebel
harbored little bitterness against his country throughout the ordeal. In April 1944, after incessant
petitioning by the leader of Ebel’s crew, a U.S. citizen, the government granted Ebel a new
On the basis of his good behavior and lack of
evidence against him, the board determined that he was not a threat to the government. But before he could
board a train for home, Ebel was drafted and sent to Fort Snelling in
Minnesota. In another odd twist, he failed to pass his physical and was sent home at
There, he remained under restrictions for several
more months. “Here I was, I’d worked for all these months on a railroad, and back in Boston, I wasn’t
allowed to walk under a railroad track,” said Ebel, who married and settled in New
Hampshire shortly after the war, opening a woodworking business and organizing a Boy Scout troop.
“Well, you know, you could have planted a bomb or
something,” Karen Ebel teased.
“It just shows you the stupidity of it,” Ebel
The government has owned up to that “stupidity,” in part. In the
Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the government offered an apology and granted compensation to
75,000 Japanese Americans who were interned or relocated against their will during the war.
Recently, efforts have been made to address the internment of other nationalities. In November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the
Wartime Violations of the Italian American Civil Liberties Act,
acknowledging the wrongful treatment of Italian Americans who were classified as “enemy
aliens” during the war. A companion Senate bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee for review.
But the Germans have once again been overlooked. Karen Ebel has
written letters to New Hampshire’s senators, Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, and to the
bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, proposing an amendment to
include German internees as well as those of other nationalities. Her
efforts have been paralleled by other activists, as well as officials like U.S. Rep. Matt
Salmon of Arizona, who urged the House to pursue “a full historical accounting of
the experiences of all Americans who suffered discrimination during the Second
World War,” shortly after the original bill was passed.
In addition, America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in
the internment period thanks to books such as David Guterson’s Snow Falling on
Cedars, which tells the experiences of a young Japanese internee and has
made into a movie.
Former German internee Arthur Jacobs has told his own story in The
Prison Called Hohenasperg, drawing national interest to people who shared Ebel’s
plight. The American Library Association’s Booklist offers the following
review: “There has been very little written about the
terrible punishment that was meted
Karen Ebel thinks it’s about time. “If the government continually
singles out one group to recognize while excluding others identically treated, the injustice
is perpetrated yet again,” she said.
Whatever else comes of it, Max Ebel seems to have enjoyed dusting off
his box of mementos—a railroad spike, a photo of the little Indian girl,
the German penny he carried in his pocket—and finally telling his story.
“Life brings along a lot of different things in 80 years,” he said. “I have absolutely no malice . . . but it’s just history, and there was never any mention of it. And that’s what got me going.”
closing note from Karen Ebel:
My father's entire family remained in Germany and he had cousins and a brother who were drafted into service for the Third Reich. In an extraordinarily bizarre twist of fate, his first cousin from Germany, who was shot down in France or Belgium, I believe (he was a paratrooper), ended up at Camp Forrest as well. He's still in Germany.
The following column appeared in the
Concord Monitor (NH) on Sunday January 30, 2000. It is published here courtesy of the Concord
It’s Time to
Sunday, January 30, 2000
by Karen Ebel
A jagged razor and blood. Ellis Island’s rooftop exercise cage
overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Men shot in a Tennessee camp. Prowling dogs. Howling
North Dakota winter winds and a boxcar home. Hungry Sioux selling meager
wares from a buckboard wagon.
Vivid images remain with my German immigrant father, 56 years after
his release from internment by the United States.
During World War II, the land of hope and freedom harassed and
imprisoned many of the immigrants it had beckoned to its shores. Civil rights were
trampled, even the rights of a teenager running from Hitler’s tyranny, while our
soldiers fought for freedom. America still has not faced what it did. It still
Growing up, I sensed that my father was imprisoned for being a German
in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shrugging, true to his generation, he said,
“Well, that’s in the past.”
Maybe he had good reason to be silent. Suspicious looks met my
telling of his story. Nazi! My high school history teacher reddened. Lies! Neighborhood
children taunted: “Kraut!” “Hitler’s daughter!” Even in the 1960s
and ‘70s, our German heritage weighed heavy.
America cannot promise perfect justice, but justice is its noble
goal. America has stood taller in its admission of guilt for past wrongs. Civil rights
legislation is but one example. My goal is illumination of a dark corner of our history and an
apology to my father, who was wrongfully imprisoned. But most important,
In 1941, groping back to a bigoted 1798 law passed to
handle British sympathizers, FDR colluded with the Department of Justice in branding
persons of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry as enemy aliens. He legalized their
mistreatment for domestic security’s sake.
For years, the FBI had watched, gathering rumors. War was declared.
True, many enemy aliens suffered little discrimination. Others probably deserved
what they got. And, in fairness, America had to protect itself. But too
frequently, hysterical theories of guilt led to roughshod ransacking, confiscation,
At long delayed hearings, those rumors became evidence with no
lawyer’s protection. Even when hearing boards recommended release, as in my
father’s case, Washington knew better. The lords of the Department of Justice locked
the doors on the internees and threw away the keys.
Too many husbands and fathers were plucked from their homes without
good cause. Desperate families knocked at internment camp doors, unable to
survive alone. Homes were lost and lives destroyed in answer to a possible
No, I wasn’t there, but I can still ask these questions: Was this
justified by wartime hysteria? Was this what our soldiers were dying to preserve? Is this
your image of America? I think not.
Some have labored far longer than I have for government
acknowledgment of wartime internment of Europeans. They have been rebuffed. Their work
continues and I have joined them.
Years ago, apologizing for mistreatment of the Japanese, Congress
convinced itself that sham hearings had provided European internees with sufficient
due process. Our government made no apology for their internment. That it evened
happened remains obscure. Without government acknowledgment like that
Recently, I thought I saw light at the end of the tunnel. In October,
the U.S. House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the proposed “Wartime
Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act,” sponsored by Rep.
Rick Lazio. His bill identified only Italians, not all European enemy aliens
We are pushing again for an all-encompassing bill. How can Congress
say no? The bill itself asserts that to discourage the future occurrence of similar
injustices and violations of civil liberties, the story of the World War II treatment
of Italians must be told. These virtuous words are a cruel joke. Why tell half the
Sadly, although we have right on our side, without an interest
group’s support, we cannot be confident of success. Perhaps still cowering in the long, dark
shadow of Nazi guilt, Germans do not step forward. Most have nothing to hide, but
still they fear. Why open a can of worms?
My father knew this fear, but for last week’s Sunday Monitor he
dared to tell his story to shed more light in that dark corner. All Americans, including the
Japanese, should call for a full accounting of the discrimination.
Urge Congress to stand tall by passing the law that will finally put this shame behind us. Only then can we feel more secure that our civil rights won’t be cast aside unjustly. Don’t do it for my father. Be selfish. Do it for yourself. Next time, it might be your turn.
In October 2001 Max Ebel's daughter Karen wrote a moving plea to avoid such "travesties" in the future.
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