…German Americans suffered greatly for their “enemy” ethnicity during and after WW2. The following brief summaries of personal stories show that personal freedoms must be protected most when they are most under assault…
The Human Cost of Wartime Violations German American Civil Liberties
© 2000 Karen E. Ebel
During WWII, America felt it had to act decisively to protect itself from dangerous individuals in its midst. To achieve this legitimate goal, our government ignored civil liberties and trampled far too many innocent lives. The human cost was unconscionable. Rather than protecting potential American-born and foreign-born victims of mounting hysteria, our government used these security concerns to justify oppression. German Americans suffered greatly for their “enemy” ethnicity. The following brief summaries of personal stories show that personal freedoms must be protected most when they are most under assault. The stories show the typical forms of wartime mistreatment by the US government: raids, ransacking of homes, selective internment, exchanges, repatriation and exclusion. In each case, the reader should assess the extreme consequences resulting from abrupt governmental action driven by hysteria.
The Eiserlohs, a family of 5, including 3 young American-born children, ages 11, 6 and 11 months, lived in rural Ohio in a home built by Mr. Eiserloh, a German-born engineer. In December 1941, the FBI took Mr. Eiserloh away. The family didn’t know where he was for weeks. Mrs. Eiserloh tried to survive alone, shunned by her previously friendly community, but finally had to sell their house far below its value. The government immediately froze the proceeds, severely restricting their meager funds. The young family had to live in the basement of a relative’s home for 2 years until finally they were reunited with Mr. Eiserloh in the Crystal City family internment camp in Texas. After several inquiries by the government, in desperation, Mr. Eiserloh reluctantly agreed to repatriation. The family, all slated for exchange for Americans held in Germany, was loaded onto a train in late December with many other internees bound for New York. The SS Gripsholm waited there for its 1000-person cargo, scheduled for a January 1945 departure. This was one of six exchange voyages negotiated between Germany and the US. The government got a bonus. Mrs. Eiserloh gave birth to a boy on the train. The Eiserlohs, now 6 members, crossed the Atlantic during the height of the war. They landed in Marseilles, hitting a harbor mine en route and traveled eventually to Bregenz in boxcars where they were exchanged for Americans, primarily civilians. Virtually all their meager belongings were stolen. The Eiserlohs walked into a world of turmoil and Allied bombs. No one welcomed them back. Their family in Germany, mystified by their return and struggling to survive, hardly expected or wanted them. In the dead of one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record, the young family traveled north toward Frankfurt with their few remaining belongings, constantly in fear of Allied attacks, sometimes walking, sometimes on a train, any way they could. They abandoned one train quickly while being strafed by American planes. In late February, after two months of difficult travel from Texas, they were forced to live in a relative’s cramped basement again. The children, Americans, barely spoke German. The family was viewed with hostility and ridiculed, not unlike their American experience. Understandably enough, the Gestapo suspected Mr. Eiserloh of being an American spy for the advancing US Army. He was questioned, beaten severely by six SS men in front of the young family and dragged away. Mrs. Eiserloh, alone again and bordering on a nervous breakdown, despaired of her husband’s survival. Her mental health was never the same again. Several months later, advancing US Army troops freed those imprisoned in the camps. Mr. Eiserloh returned home and the family managed to survive in the difficult years following the war. Years later, the two oldest children, now teenagers, left their parents to return to the US. Perhaps coincidentally, after brother Lothar received a US Air Force security clearance, his parents and two younger siblings were allowed to return to the US. The baby boy born on the train was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter. Mr. Eiserloh could never find a good job again in Germany or the US. A broken man, he died at age 65 in a supermarket aisle. At 59, his wife was alone again. The deep scars of the experience still color the lives of the remaining Eiserloh children. To this day, the family does not know exactly why Mr. Eiserloh was interned, but they think it was because of his membership in a German musical society.
The Grabers, two young boys and their German-born parents, lived in New Jersey in an apartment building owned by a Polish landlord. When Hitler invaded Poland, the relationship became strained, so the Grabers moved. The landlord contacted the FBI. Mr. Graber worked on “war sensitive technology” for the International Nickel Company. The FBI began to watch their home. In September 1942, they took him for several hours of questioning. In November, they ransacked the house. Mrs. Graber, several months pregnant, fainted and fell down the stairs. Shortly thereafter, Teddy was born, premature and handicapped, and had to remain hospitalized. The family was advised that they would be interned after Christmas. Mr. Graber wrote to President Roosevelt pleading for mercy. The agents came without notice in mid-January. The family threw together their belongings and picked up Teddy at the hospital. The family was interned with hundreds of others at Ellis Island until they were shipped to Seagoville, Texas, several months later. One and one-half years later they were sent to Crystal City. In despair, after being pressured to repatriate, the Grabers agreed to return to Germany. With the Eiserlohs and many others, they were shipped to New York and set forth on their hazardous journey. In the camps and on the SS Gripsholm, they met many Latin Americans, also to be exchanged. At least one German Jewish man was also sent back. Exchanged and dumped in Germany, they made their way through the ravaged terrain to Mr. Graber’s family. Unable to find work, Mr. Graber and the eldest child, age 5, hitchhiked some distance to Mrs. Graber’s hometown. Along the way, French agents stopped them, tore up Mr. Graber’s American ID and spat in his face. Only young Werner’s American citizenship saved them. Mr. Graber and Werner lived in a wooden barrack temporarily, refugees from the West. Mr. Graber’s application for assistance was denied. How could an impoverished German refugee from America exist? In mid-April Mrs. Graber’s parents’ home where the family was living was destroyed in a tank attack. The post-war years were extremely difficult. Food and medication were scarce. Teddy died in 1948 of pneumonia. Mr. Graber took over his father’s tooling business because a US Army truck accidentally killed his father while he was getting milk from a local farmer for the grandchildren. The boys exercised their birthright and returned to the US in the late 50s. Mr. and Mrs. Graber never returned. Mr. Graber always tried to justify the decision to repatriate to himself. Was it the right thing to do? Did he deprive his children of a normal life? Should he have stayed in the camps and returned to New Jersey again? Who knew how long they would be imprisoned? Would life have been easier had he stayed in the US? Mr. Graber’s lifelong bitterness and self-doubt are another cruel legacy of internment. The Grabers have tried to learn why they had to endure such an experience. What had their landlord said? Was it Mr. Graber’s job?
A Jewish Internee… (I did not copy this one as it is not in my intererst.)
Internee Laborers. Objecting to their [*1] violent militarism and Hitler’s totalitarianism, Max Ebel resisted increasing pressure to join the other boys in the Hitler Youth. He and his family knew he had to get out after he stabbed for his recalcitrance in a knife fight with Hitler Youth members. In 1937 he left, a month before his 17th birthday, to join his father, a German-born naturalized US citizen in Boston. Like so many immigrants, Mr. Ebel rejoiced in America’s promise of freedom. As required, he registered with the Selective Service. Although he agreed to fight in the Pacific, he was classified as 4C, a conscientious objector, because he did not want to fight in Germany against his brother, cousins and friends. In September 1942, months after filing his naturalization papers, Mr. Ebel was arrested. He was not released until June 1944. At a typically hostile hearing with little or no notice, the aggressive US Attorney presented uncorroborated tips as fact. Equally zealous FBI reporters supported the fervent prosecutor’s allegations. With only his father by his side, himself the subject of a contested exclusion order, no counsel was permitted. Mr. Ebel was given no opportunity to question his accusers. He was castigated for not wanting to fight in Germany. The hearing board recommended parole. He awaited the US Attorney General’s decision for three months in the small Boston INS facility, pacing the rooftop barbed wire exercise cage. One internee slit his own throat with a razor. Mr. Ebel helped save his life. In January, the internment order came overruling the board’s parole recommendation. He was shipped to Ellis Island where he lived in the Great Room that had recently welcomed immigrants. Hundreds lived side by side in bunks with blankets hung for privacy. Rats ran freely. Medical care and food was poor. The barbed wire exercise cages overlooked the Statue of Liberty. Weeks later, the military, brandishing their weapons, took charge of internee transfers to Ft. Meade, threatening to take them feet first, if necessary. After required physicals, the hapless internees were shipped in heavily guarded, shuttered railroad cars to Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, Tennessee. The men lived in huts, heated by coal stoves, with black widow spiders. Mr. Ebel volunteered as a medical aide in the camp hospital and was commended for his work. In May 1943, the internees were transferred yet again to Ft. Lincoln, North Dakota, a large, men’s facility. In September, Mr. Ebel was one of 100 men selected for a work detail on the Northern Pacific Railroad. They replaced rails that could accommodate heavy wartime traffic, thereby helping the American war effort. They worked outside braving the frigid North Dakota winter on the plains. The railroaders lived in boxcars heated by single coal stoves, sleeping in cots, with open bucket bathrooms. Here they celebrated Christmas. Mr. Ebel preferred the harsh living conditions to living behind barbed wire guarded by dogs and armed men like a criminal. The Sioux Indians tried to sell their handicrafts to the impoverished railroaders. The railroad gang attended the Reservation’s church. Mr. Ebel helped convince the others to pool their meager funds to save the life of a 10-year-old Sioux princess with tuberculosis. In the spring, acknowledging that the railroaders performed a valuable service for the US, DOJ finally agreed to special hearings to reconsider their internment. The special hearing board recommended Mr. Ebel’s release, surprised that he had ever been interned. Before DOJ’s final determination, he was processed for Army induction, but failed his physical. In June, the DOJ ordered parole the terms of which included a prohibition against walking under or near the railroad.
Individual Exclusion. The Franke family experience provides ample evidence that once one came into its sights, the government had many techniques to rid itself of the danger the suspect presented. It was relentless. Living contentedly in their Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood, Otto Franke, his wife and 2 children did not know that the FBI was watching them closely. Mr. Franke, a US-born citizen of German parents, came under suspicion in 1940 when the FBI got an unsigned, semiliterate letter accusing Mr. Franke of coordinating “German underground work.” His FBI dossier was opened and through diligent gumshoe work, the FBI got other unsubstantiated tips. Little was done to confirm any of the serious allegations and their work was so sloppy that it took more than a dozen tries for the FBI to get his address right. In June 1941, with the apparent prodding of the FBI, Mr. Franke was asked to resign from his draftsman’s job. His supervisor’s recommendation letter stated that he was a “man of excellent character and integrity.” Confused about his citizenship status, the FBI finally realized that he wasn’t an alien and couldn’t be interned. It sent his case to another DOJ branch for his prosecution as a subversive. The Attorney General’s office demanded verification of what it deemed insufficient FBI evidence. In January 1942, an FBI search of Mr. Franke’s home yielded no incriminating evidence. The 1940 tips were reviewed, but could never be corroborated. There was no prosecution. In February 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the military to exclude citizens and aliens from militarily sensitive coastal areas. This order provided the legal basis for general exclusions from military zones, relocation and individual exclusions. A military review board was established in each military district giving the appearance of due process. Mr. Franke’s file was forwarded to the military. On October 1942, having already lived for months in fear of the government’s next tactic, Mr. Franke appeared before his review board. Relying on spotty FBI information which now actually included some countervailing facts, the board still ordered him out of the Eastern Defense Command—the eastern seaboard. No government assistance facilitated the move. Fortunately for Mr. Franke, his company had a Lima, Ohio facility, so he and his family transferred there in March 1943. By June 1943, as they were trying to resettle, the Army’s Continuous Security District Office ordered him fired as a subversive. After another aborted hiring and months of unemployment, Mr. Franke found a job in another Ohio town and the family moved again. In July 1944, that company moved to New York. Mr. Franke had to decline the position they offered in New York because of his exclusion order. Isolated, discouraged, stigmatized and in difficult financial straits, the Frankes continued trying to return to Baltimore. In May 1945, the Army lifted its order. The family quickly returned to Maryland and attempted to resume a normal life after years of upheaval. Based on the article “Excluded” by Lewis H. Duiguid published in the Washington Post Magazine, January 3, 1999.
The Latin American Roundup. Hugo Droege emigrated from Germany to the Guatemalan highlands to find a better life. He married and lived quietly for 20 years far from Germany. He established and managed a coffee farm as he raised his family. One night, six Guatemalan police arrived with guns drawn to take him away. Mr. Droege told his wife to save the farm. Forty-eight hours later, the Guatemalan government forced her to abandon it. Pregnant with their third child, she, her two children and a mule, carrying the belongings they were allowed to take, left the farm to live with friends. The Guatemalan police turned Mr. Droege over to American soldiers. He did not see his family again for five years. In December 1942, General George Marshall initiated the secret operation that led to Mr. Droege’s capture by sending a secret order to the US Caribbean Defense Command: “These interned nationals are to be used for exchange with interned American civilian nationals.” Pursuant to Marshall’s order, thousands like Mr. Droege from 12 Latin American countries were forcibly kidnapped and shipped to the US guarded by armed American soldiers. After being told he was going on a boat, he was strip-searched six times. Soldiers held him and hundreds of others in darkness below the ship’s deck for what ended up being a month-long voyage to America. After six days in the dark, they were allowed to go on deck for a half an hour to see daylight. They were locked up like criminals and did not speak to each other. Open buckets were placed conveniently among the prisoners for bathroom use. The stench eventually stifled their hunger. Terror reigned. One man died. Many first saw the US in New Orleans. Until their exchanges were scheduled, the Latin Americans were held in various US internment camps. Hugo Droege begged not to be sent back. He was told you have to go, tied up or on your own two feet. One month later, he was shipped to Germany at the height of the Allied bombing. During the five years he was away from Guatemala, survival was very difficult. Mr. Droege believes that the Latin American countries cooperated with the United States so that they could confiscate the property of those kidnapped. When he finally returned to Guatemala, the family had nothing left. The government had taken the farm. Countries throughout Latin America profited the same way, seizing farms and businesses from those they turned over to the United States. Although the American government settled financially with and apologized to similarly treated Japanese Latinos, the plight of German Latinos has never even been acknowledged. Soon to be 100 years old, the patient Hugo Droege knows he is running out of time.
Repatriation. The Jacobs lived in Brooklyn, New York for years. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs were German-born aliens. Their two boys were American. The family home was raided and ransacked on three separate occasions by the FBI. They never found any contraband (firearms, propaganda, or short-wave radio receivers). Mr. Jacobs was arrested at his job in November 1944. Like many whose spouses were arrested, the family did not know where he was for some time. He was taken to Ellis Island. He was ordered interned even though his hearing board unanimously recommended release. Mrs. Jacobs was ill and unable to maintain the household by herself. Not able to survive alone, she packed up her family’s belongings, left her home and arrived at Ellis Island with her two young sons asking for mercy. They were reluctantly admitted. Eventually, the family was sent to the Crystal City family internment camp where they lived until Mr. Jacobs finally agreed to be repatriated under threat of deportation. They were transferred to Ellis Island, bordered the SS Aiken Victory in January 1946, months after the cessation of hostilities with the Axis nations, and returned to Germany. When the family arrived in the dead of winter, they were transported to Hohenasperg in a frigid, locked, heavily guarded boxcar. The bathroom was an open bucket in the corner. Once there, Mrs. Jacobs, still ill, was sent to another facility. Mr. Jacobs and his sons were sent to a military prison and each placed in separate cells. The boys, 12 and 14, were treated like Nazis by the US Army guards. The younger son, Arthur, celebrated his 13th birthday alone in his cell. The guards marched the American boy to meals by the hanging tree, hands above his head, threatening him with death if he did not behave. His fellow inmates included high-ranking officers of the Third Reich who were being held for interrogation and denazification. Eventually, the family was released, reunited and lived with Mr. Jacobs’ parents. Arthur was industrious and soon began working with the American GIs living in Germany. An officer’s wife worked on the boys’ behalf and arranged for them to live in America. Their parents never returned to the US and Arthur didn’t see them again for 11 years. Arthur became a major in the US Air Force. For the past 20 years, he has researched the government’s wartime treatment of German Americans, sought to include German Americans in legislation recognizing Japanese and Italian Americans, networked with other internees, authored a book on his internment experiences and sponsored an informational web site. He has devoted himself to public education on the events, laws and attitudes that destroyed his family life and that of thousands of others. His work continues.
Karen E. Ebel
November 7, 2000
[gv*1] Germany was NOT violent militarism, at all. That’s a misconception and American media lies or misinformation of brain washed Germans Ms. Ebel has been indoctrinated with. Hitler was not a totalitarian in a way what we mean when we say a totalitarian leader, namely a cruel, brutal man. He was caring for his people to the utmost, noble, honorable, and awakening Germans to free themselves from the money bondage of the Jews and protecting them from the planned Soviet Communist overthrow. He was however, the leader. He had the power of a king but he had many advisors and everything he did and planned he discussed with his leaders and often presented his plans in a speech or lengthy newspaper article to the German people. By the way, he was a Christian and had many churches build in his days. Churches in those days ran through the state.
THE MISPLACED AMERICAN
© Ursula Vogt Potter 2002
The 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 the book, The Misplaced American, by Ursula Vogt Potter.
I’m not sure what is real memory and what is second hand memory for me. I was very young when it happened—I was about just over a year old. My brother, Armin, had turned four on October 28, 1941, so his recollection is probably more real than mine. I do think that I remember my mother standing by the big round oak dining table and crying. My brother remembers the scene by the table with the two strangers, by then identified as FBI agents, removing pictures from the family album and taking them, along with my father, off to places unknown to us. This happened late afternoon on December 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one day after the U. S. declared war on Japan and two days before the U. S. declared war on Germany. The next clear memory I have is of my dad coming home sometime during the month of August 1943.
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 immigrate 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 Siegen 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 Gelber.
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 Ft. 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 Ft. 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: Visit the Doolittle Crew 1 page for a photograph of this crew.] Needless 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.
I never had felt so alone, afraid and desolate as I did on the night of December 9, 1941 after the F.B.I. took Karl away. Our closest neighbor, Mrs. Keevy, came to stay with me and her brother, George Davis, did the chores. Little Ursula had not yet learned to walk and crawled around the house calling for “Da. ”She did this for days afterwards. Armin “cussed” those men quite vividly.
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 camp. ”
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 goodbye.
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 destinations.
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 camp.
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. To view a photograph of both of them in Missoula please click here >>> 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 3 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 Misplaced American”.
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 justice.
As 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.
A photograph that includes Karl Vogt, Father Hoffmann, and Erich Braemer may be found at this link >> Karl Vogt