German-American Internment, 1941-48

by Michael Luick-Thrams



          German-American internment is one of the least known subchapters of U.S. World War II history, yet perhaps its most disturbing. In a land where the rule of law is thought to prevail, tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children were arbitrarily detained, interned and even deported or “exchanged” by the United States government. (“Excludees”—including American citizens—were individuals banned from living in coastal communities or “high-security zones”, typically due to unproven denunciations veiled as anonymous “tips.”) U.S. citizens as well as “enemy aliens” were deprived of due process, property and their freedom. Their suffering cannot be justified, as no German-American internee was ever convicted of a war-related crime. (Those spies and saboteurs convicted by the U.S. for attempted sabotage were not interned; they were kept in prisons, and then hanged.) As of this writing, Congress has repeatedly refused to acknowledge German-American internment or to compensate those whom it affected. Unwilling to learn from this tragedy, we easily could repeat it.


          During WWII the U.S. government registered some 300,000 Germans in America as “enemy aliens” and interned approximately 11,000 German resident aliens and German Americans. It forcibly brought 4,058 German Latin Americans—including German and Austrian Jews who had fled Nazi terror—to this country in the holds of ships. From 1941 to 1948 Ellis Island served as a prison for German- and Italian-American internees; their caged exercise pen overlooked the Statue of Liberty. (Today’s museum about this national landmark omits this part of its history.) During some of WWII’s fiercest fighting on the North Atlantic, the United States shipped back to Germany more than 2,000 of the 15,000 German Americans it had imprisoned, in exchange for German-held U.S. nationals; after the war President Truman deported more.


          This exhibit explores the larger German-American drama as represented by the experiences of a sample of individuals or families who had lived in the Midwest prior to America’s entry into WWII, were interned in the Midwest or lived there after their release. More than answers, this exhibit aims to provoke questions—including how members of the United States’ largest ethnic group could be singled out and labeled threats to “public peace and safety.” Without being told what the charges were against them, they were refused legal counsel, denied fair trials, put behind barbed wire and, in some cases, denied their freedom until three and a half years after the war in Europe ended. It also begs the question: Why did no one demand that justice prevail and that innocent people live free?


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Biographies for Panels


Panel #1


The Berg Family: Victims of Hawaii’s Martial Rule

Eleven-year-old Doris Berg saw the attack on Pearl Harbor and, in the days that followed, lived the horror of internment and abandonment.

Doris’ father was born in Cologne/Germany in 1902 and graduated from the university there. Her mother came from German immigrants who had worked the Hawaiian sugar fields since the 1880s, when Hawaii still existed as a sovereign country. Doris and her two sisters, like their parents, were US citizens. Still, after Hawaii’s governor declared martial law on the 8th of December 1941, her older sister (then 18) and parents were interned without charge or trial, and only released in 1942 and 1943, respectively. On the day that FBI agents took away their parents, the two youngest girls—eleven and eight years old—assumed their parents were dead and were left to fend for themselves in the family’s nursing home. Apparently with government collusion, a local realtor assumed the Bergs’ properties and coerced Doris’ parents to sign over title. Strangers came into the family’s house and confiscated food, clothing and other personal property.

Hawaii’s government changed overnight. The press and radio underwent rigid censorship. Orders were issued without regard to the provisions of territorial or federal laws. “Citizens are not supposed to be subject to internment” Doris says today. “We were protected by the Constitution. We were entitled to its civil liberties and certain ‘inalienable rights.’ All of that went out the window on December 7th, 1941. Our American citizenship and our Constitution did not protect us after the attack on Pearl Harbor.”


Mathias Borniger and Sigfrid Muntz: Victims of Arbitrary Detention

Mathias Borniger, a photographer who made templates of plane parts for Boeing, was arrested in Wichita/Kansas in the middle of the night, a day after Pearl Harbor was bombed—a week before he was to become an American citizen. He was held for approximately four months at Wisconsin’s Camp McCoy. He later learned that confidential FBI informants accused him of photographing new planes at Boeing and sending the pictures to Hitler.

Twenty-seven-year-old Sigfrid Muntz of San Diego was born in Chile to German parents. In 1939 he emigrated from Germany to the US, where he sought American citizenship and work as an engineer. He was arrested in San Diego the day after Pearl Harbor. He was given no explanation for his arrest. Two weeks later, he was sent by train for internment at Fort Lincoln near Bismarck/North Dakota and then to Camp McCoy.

At McCoy, internees like Muntz and Borniger wore uniforms with POW stamped on them and adjusted to life in a barracks without running water. They were plagued by boredom and had little to do but read magazines that were several years old. They had no idea what was happening outside McCoy. An elderly German immigrant from nearby Sparta/Wisconsin gave the German internees an old piano, which they used to put on shows for others at the camp.

Mathias Borniger was sent from McCoy to Stringtown, an Army-run internment camp in Oklahoma. After his family’s lawyer vouched for his loyalty, he was released in the fall 1943 and opened a portrait studio in Wichita. Sigfrid Muntz was released after two years of internment and returned to his job with an iron and steel company in San Diego.


Eddie Friede: A Jew Once Again Behind Barbed Wire

Eddie Friede was born of Jewish parents in Hamburg in 1892. “DoktorFriede practiced law until forbidden to do so by Nazi edicts. Eddie and his wife, Liesl, were granted exit permits in 1938. Before they could emigrate, however, Eddie was arrested and imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside Berlin. Relying upon his connections to the legal community, Eddie eventually was able to secure his release from Sachsenhausen and flee to America with Liesl.

In San Francisco his English was insufficient to pursue law, so Eddie found work delivering Viennese pastries door-to-door in the German community. To FBI agents secretly monitoring the Friedes’ activities, this connection to suspicious German Americans indicated that the dejected lawyer was a dangerous Nazi. During the December 8th raids following Pearl Harbor, in which hundreds were arrested, the FBI took him into custody in his San Francisco apartment. Doctor Friede—a Jew who narrowly had escaped extermination in Germany—wound up behind barbed wire at Fort Lincoln.

There, he fought Gitterkrankheit (“fence sickness”) for six months before his protests of innocence finally were heard. He was released and returned to San Francisco, but marked for life by the internment experience. He never practiced law again, and spent thirty-nine years as a door-to-door salesman. He always fixed his deep, sad eyes on his customers and introduced himself, “I am Doctor Friede. Would you like to buy some cookies and pastries?”

Years later, the Friedes were still so terrified by their experience and the FBI’s power that they would not allow their real names to be used when their story was first published.


Panel #3


The Theberath Family: Victims of Forced Separation

The Theberath family was arrested at their Milwaukee home at 2:30 AM by FBI agents on the night of 8 December 1941. The family of five was inexplicably split up. Peter and Marie—the parents—were shipped to Fort Oglethorpe/Georgia, and their children Gertrud (14) and Friedrich (13) were turned over to the Milwaukee County Children’s Home. For several weeks no one knew what happened to the other son, John (17). Six months later, Peter—still in a state of shock—wrote to a relative in Germany from Fort Oglethorpe that


Marie and I were awakened and taken into custody [8 December 1941]. I was in prison for 4 months. Marie was released on Feb. 11th, but everything was gone, no children, no home. In one word everything robbed, the children placed in separate homes, the mother helplessly thrown into the street [writer’s emphasis].

We arrived here on April 9th and no news yet from our family. The last time I saw John and Marie was in the prison on April 5th and I have not seen Gertrude and Friedrich since December 8th. These are ridiculous conditions… All hope that the war will end soon.


The letter never made it past the US National Censorship Office in Washington/D.C. Undaunted, Peter wrote numerous letters to the Swiss Legation in Washington, whose Department of German Interests watched over the fate of German internees. Eventually, the exasperated assistant commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, W.F. Kelly, told Edward Ennis, head of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, to “get to the bottom of the case and really provide a solution which would be best for both parents and the children.” This case, as well as some others, eventually even reached the desk of General Edwin Watson, secretary to President Roosevelt.


Karl Vogt: Victim of Denunciation and False Accusation

Karl Vogt was abruptly taken from his family’s farm home near Spokane/Washington on the afternoon of 9 December 1941. When his American born wife Elsie demanded to know why Karl was being taken away and where they were taking him, she was told “it’s none of your business”.

Karl was held in the Spokane County Jail until 21 December 1941, when he was taken by train to Fort Lincoln, and finally to the camp at Stringtown. During an internment hearing, authorities asked Karl repeatedly why he had “sent money to Hitler.” It was only later that he discovered that money he and Elsie had mailed to her cousin in Germany—via the German embassy in San Francisco—had been assumed to be destined for the Nazi regime. Still, Karl was told neither the source of this suspicion, nor the name of the neighbor who had been an informant against him in hopes of buying the Vogt farm cheaply.

Elsie and Karl’s brother, Bill, tried to cope as best they could and save the farm. The family’s bank account, however, was soon blocked and funds had to be borrowed from relatives or friends. Elsie later hired an attorney who arranged for some funds to be released.

Finally, through a coincidental question from an interrogator, Karl realized the mistaken impression about the funds he and Elsie had sent to Germany. After six months of legal wrangling by Elsie and supporters “on the outside,” Karl was told to pack his bags—he was going home.


The Worner Family: Victims of Malice and Prejudice

          Twenty-year-old Meta Maria Brenner of Worms-am-Rhein/Germany sailed for New York in 1926. Three months later she married her hometown beau, Peter Worner, also a German immigrant, who worked as a factory superintendent and by 1940 had obtained his citizenship. In the summer of 1940 the Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Saint Paul/Minnesota began to receive allegations about the couple.

FBI informants said that Maria Worner was “thoroughly imbued with Nazi doctrines.” Agents arrested Maria at the family’s home in Winona/Minnesota in the late evening of 9 December 1941 and delivered her to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Saint Paul before dawn. The INS put her in the Ramsey County jail, where the presence of convicted murderers and open toilets prompted her to threaten to commit suicide. On 12 December she was moved to the Home of the Good Shepherd in Saint Paul, operated by a French order of nuns who ran cloisters throughout the country and took in female enemy aliens. She remained detained there until her hearing and parole three weeks later. Back home, Maria attempted suicide again, and she remained housebound and reclusive.

Meantime, her husband Peter’s loyalty also was a subject of government interest. On the basis of complaints that were eventually described as “malicious and prejudiced,” denaturalization proceedings were instituted against him, and then dropped. Finally, in April 1956, Maria became an American citizen—but she was only one of dozens of German-American women who were the subject of malicious rumors and prejudice and interned during World War II.


Panel #5


Anna and Horst Schafer: Victims of Indefinite Detention in a Convent

          Karl Frederick Schafer came to the United States in 1927 and completed his naturalization in 1933. He returned to Germany twice before the war and married Anna Maria Boettger, who made the return journey to the United States with her new husband. When the war broke out, Anna was not yet an American citizen, and the FBI arrested her on 9 December, taking her and her infant son Horst to the Home of the Good Shepherd in a Milwaukee suburb. Horst received food and a nightshirt and was put to bed. “Mama” he began crying, “heimgehen, heimgehen.” (“Mama, I want to go home, I want to go home.”) He then vomited everything he had eaten before finally falling asleep, while Maria and five other women tried to stay warm huddled together on the cold stone floor of a locked, unheated room.

Anna endured lengthy FBI interrogations and remained detained at the convent until April 1942. Meanwhile, the FBI investigated her husband Karl. In summer 1943 the Justice Department considered filing denaturalization proceedings against Karl, but decided that the facts were insufficient to do so. In subsequent FBI investigations, numerous witnesses testified regarding the Schafers’ patriotism and loyalty. The embarrassment and hardships of detention, however, remained with her. She became an American citizen in 1952, but rarely discussed internment with her family.


The Greis Family: Interned, with Sons in the Military

In 1923 Joseph Greis—a German WWI vet and a paint chemist—left his wife Francis and newborn son in Germany and traveled to Milwaukee to open a store. The business did not succeed, but Greis’s family eventually followed him to America, where he and his wife had three more sons.

On 9 December 1941 the FBI pounded on the door in the early morning hours and took Joseph Greis away. In December 1945—after Greis had been interned for three years at Fort Lincoln and elsewhere—he was transferred to Ellis Island in preparation for repatriation to Germany. Two of his sons were serving in the US merchant marines, but his wife and two remaining sons joined him at Ellis Island to await repatriation.

After years of being her family’s strength, Francis had a nervous breakdown and was transferred from Ellis Island to a Navy hospital. In April 1945 the government transferred the Greises to the “family camp” in Crystal City/Texas, where they lived in a small house with only bedrooms and a kitchen. Despite Germany’s surrender in May 1945, at least five hundred Germans, including the Greises, remained imprisoned at Crystal City after President Harry Truman decided that those still interned at the war’s end were probably “dangerous” and should be sent back to Germany. Finally, in 1947—two years after the end of the war—the Greises were allowed to leave Crystal City and return to Milwaukee. They had little money and felt stigmatized by their internment. Francis was never the same after this ordeal. Meanwhile, Joseph was refused re-employment at his old job as a chemist. Instead, he borrowed money and opened the European Relief Store, which provided care packages for those suffering in Europe after the war.


The Eiserloh Family: Victims of Forced Repatriation

The Eiserlohs—a family of five, including three American-born children—lived in a rural Ohio home built by Mathias, a German-born engineer. In December 1941 the FBI took him away and didn’t inform his family of his whereabouts for weeks. The young family lived in the basement of a relative’s home for two years until they were voluntarily reunited with Mathias at the so-called “family camp” in Crystal City/Texas.

In January 1945, the Eiserlohs suffered forced repatriation to Germany, in exchange for Americans held in Germany. The family crossed the Atlantic during the height of the war. After traveling to Bregenz/Austria in boxcars, they were exchanged for Americans. From Bregenz, the Eiserlohs traveled north toward Frankfurt—sometimes on foot, sometimes in boxcars that were strafed by American planes.

In late February, they were forced to live in a relative’s cramped basement again. The family was viewed with hostility and ridicule. The Gestapo suspected Mathias of being an American spy for the advancing US Army. He was questioned, beaten severely by six SS men in front of his family, and dragged away to a camp. Months later, US Army troops freed those in the camp. Mathias returned home and the family managed to survive the postwar difficulties. Mathias, however, never found a good job again in Germany or the US. A broken man, he died at age 65 in a supermarket aisle.


Panel #6


The Eckardt Family: Victims of US-Government Kidnapping

          Albert Eckardt came to the US when he was fifteen and eventually found work in Panama, where he helped to dredge the great canal. Eckardt died in 1938, a naturalized US citizen. His son Ted—also a US citizen—was only eight years old when in 1942, by direction of the US government, his mother Ruth, his sister Emilie and he were taken from their village home near the Canal by Panamanian police. Authorities auctioned off their belongings and pocketed the receipts. They also kept the family’s real estate.

          Young Ted Eckardt and his family were taken by ship to New Orleans. After being processed at the Federal detention center at Camp Seagoville near Dallas, they were sent to Crystal City, where they spent the next three years.

          In 1944 the family once again was uprooted and sent to Ohio, where Ted and his sister lived in the Lutheran Orphans’ Home Society of Toledo, under conditional guardianship of the superintendent of the orphanage. Their mother lived and worked in the Old Folks’ Home on the grounds of the orphanage.

          It wasn’t until after the war that the family was reunited, but the Eckardts continued to live and work at the orphanage because it was the only home they had. Eventually, they rented an apartment in the city and the children graduated from Toledo High School. They never recovered their real estate or belongings in Panama, and the US government has never apologized for its illegal abduction of the Eckardts from the Canal Zone.


Eberhard Fuhr: Victim of Abandonment after Parental Internment

In August 1942 the US government interned seventeen-year-old Eberhard Fuhr’s parents, who were German resident aliens. After his older brother left for college, “Eb” lived alone while attending high school in Cincinnati, and supported himself delivering newspapers.

On 23 March 1943 two FBI agents arrested Eb in class. Pistols drawn, the agents handcuffed him and took him to a Cincinnati police station, where his older brother also had been taken. The two were booked, fingerprinted, then taken to the county prison, where they were locked in separate cells.

Eb and his brother soon faced the same Civilian Alien Hearing Board that had interned their parents seven months earlier. What would you say to your German cousin” they asked him, “if he came to you for sanctuary after coming up the Ohio River in his German U-boat?” “A sub couldn’t come up the Ohio RiverEb answered. “It only drafts four feet.”

The board did not appreciate his answer, and after further questioning the brothers again were handcuffed and driven to Chicago, where they spent three months detained in a former mansion housing in-transit internees. Meanwhile, the contents of their Cincinnati home were looted and the home was lost to foreclosure. In July 1943 the Fuhr brothers were sent to Crystal City, where they were reunited with their parents and younger brother. They remained at Crystal City until 1947, when they helped close the camp. Finally, they were shipped to Ellis Island. In September 1947—two-and-a-half years after the cessation of hostilities with Germany—the Fuhr family was finally released from internment.


Max Ebel: Victim of Rumor, Hearsay, and Gossip

Max Ebel objected to Nazi Germany’s militarism and resisted joining the Hitler Youth. He and his family knew he had to flee Germany after he was stabbed in a knife fight with angry Hitler Youth members. A month before his seventeenth birthday in 1937, he left Germany to join his father, a German-born naturalized US citizen in Boston.

Max savored America’s promise of freedom. As required, he registered with the Selective Service. Although he agreed to fight in the Pacific, he was classified as 4C—a conscientious objector—because he did not want to fight in Germany against his brother, cousins and friends.

In September 1942—just months after filing his naturalization papers—Max was arrested by the FBI. Subsequently, at a hostile hearing, with only his father at his side, an aggressive US Attorney presented uncorroborated tips from FBI informants as fact. Although he was scolded for not wanting to fight in Germany, the hearing board recommended parole.

For three months, pacing a rooftop barbed-wire exercise cage in a Boston Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] facility, Max awaited the US Attorney General’s favorable decision. In January 1943, though, Max was ordered interned and was shipped to Ellis Island, where he lived in the Great Room that had recently welcomed immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity. In May 1943 he was transferred to North Dakota’s Fort Lincoln. There, Max was one of one hundred men selected for a work detail on the railroad, thereby helping the American war effort. In the spring, acknowledging that the railroaders performed a valuable service for the US, the Department of Justice [DOJ] agreed to reconsider the railroaders’ internment, and Max Ebel eventually was paroled. The terms of his parole included a prohibition against walking under or near railroads.


Panel #8


The Franke Family: Victims of “Exclusion”

A US-born citizen of German parents, Otto Franke came under suspicion in 1940 in Baltimore when the FBI got an unsigned, semi-literate letter accusing him of coordinating “German underground work.” The FBI opened a dossier on Otto and soon filled it with hearsay and rumors.

 Confused about Otto’s citizenship status, the FBI finally realized that he wasn’t an alien and couldn’t be interned. It sent his case to another DOJ branch for his prosecution as a subversive. The 1940 tips were reviewed but could not be corroborated, so no prosecution resulted. Then, in February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to exclude both US citizens and aliens from coastal areas. A military review board was established in each military district. Otto Franke’s file was forwarded to a military review board and in October 1942 Otto appeared before the review board. Relying on still unconfirmed FBI information, the board ordered him out of the Eastern Defense Command along the eastern seaboard.

As he was trying to resettle in Lima/Ohio, he was ordered fired as a subversive. After another aborted hiring and months of unemployment, Otto found a job in another Ohio town and his family moved again. In July 1944 that company moved to New York, but Otto had to decline the position they offered because of his exclusion order. Isolated and discouraged, Otto Franke, his wife Roberta and their children were not able to return to Baltimore and resume a normal life until May 1945.


Hildegard: Teenage Victim of Detention in a Convent

As a German-American teenager growing up in the Upper Midwest, Hildegard corresponded with German WWII-air ace Werner Moeller. She was arrested at her home in Iowa by two FBI agents on 21 October 1942. During questioning, the district attorney for northwest Iowa implied that Moeller was a German spy. Hildegard was fingerprinted and photographed as an enemy alien, given a brief hearing and taken to the Good Shepherd Convent in Omaha/Nebraska, where she remained for three months. She then was sent to the Seagoville/Texas camp for internment with other enemy aliens.

Later Hildegard was sent to Ellis Island in preparation for deportation. There, she and other enemy alien women shared dormitory rooms rank with the smell of urine from European refugees and infested with cockroaches. From their Ellis Island windows, she watched several Japanese internees jump into the Hudson River and commit suicide; days later, their bloated bodies would be recovered and returned to Ellis Island, strapped on the back of Coast Guard cutters. Hildegard was ordered deported to Germany, but in August 1946 the order was lifted and she was free to return to her home in Iowa.


Adolf Hamann: Victim of US-Government “Exchanges”

Adolf Hamann was born in Hamburg/Germany in 1884. At age 20 Adolf sailed for South America, settling first in Chile, then in Peru, where he ran a hardware export-import business. In 1939 his name was added to the Lista Negra, a “black list” that kept potential clients and customers from patronizing names of businesses or individuals on it.

In early 1944 Adolf Hamann quietly submitted to deportation from Peru by the US government. An American embassy official described the operation as “one of the most successful of the various deportation proceedings undertaken with very few last-minute escapes.” Adolf’s wife was among approximately fifty German wives who chose not to accompany their husbands because they feared being sent to Germany.

Twelve hours after disembarking in New Orleans, Adolph was on a train bound for the Crystal City internment camp in Texas. To secure funds still held in German banks, Adolf was required to sign a loyalty statement to the German Reich and indicate his willingness to return to Germany.

In September he and other internees left for Fort Lincoln in North Dakota. In January 1945 Adolf was sent back to Germany on the Swedish ship, the SS Gripsholm. He settled in northern Germany. In April he went to Hamburg to visit his sister, who had been wounded in a bombing raid. While at the hospital there he had a heart attack and died on 25 April. His family did not find out about his fate until a full year later, in May 1946, when mail was re-established with Germany.


Panel #10


The Jacobs Family: Victims of Deportation

The Jacobs lived in Brooklyn for years. Lambert and Paula Jacobs were German-born resident aliens. Their two boys were American citizens. The FBI raided their home on three occasions, but never found contraband. Still, Lambert was arrested at his job in November 1944. He was taken to Ellis Island and interned, even though his hearing board recommended release.

Though ill, in February 1945 Paula packed up her family and joined Lambert at Ellis Island. The family arrived at Crystal City on May 1st 1945, where they lived until they agreed to be repatriated. They left the United States in January 1946 and arrived in a devastated Germany in the dead of winter. They were transported to Hohenasperg in a guarded, stench-filled unheated boxcar. Once there, a still-ailing Paula was sent elsewhere, while Lambert and his sons were sent to a military prison and placed in separate cells. Convinced that the prisoners had been dangerous spies in America, Army guards treated young Arthur and his brother like Nazis. As they marched Arthur to meals they passed what was called “the hanging tree,” and they threatened the boy with death if he did not behave.

Eventually, the family was released and reunited, and lived with Lambert’s parents. Arthur worked with American GIs living in Germany and eventually found sponsors in Kansas and became a US Air Force major. For the past twenty years he has researched the government’s wartime treatment of German Americans, sought to include them in legislation recognizing injustices done to Japanese and Italian Americans, authored a book on his internment experiences, and created a related internment web site. He has devoted himself to public education on the events, laws and attitudes that destroyed his family life and that of tens of thousands of others.

Art dedicates his tireless work to “the memory of my loving and patriotic parents, Lambert Dietrich Jacobs and Paula Sophie nee Knissel Jacobs, and to the thousands of other innocent victims.”


Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state to another… The gate to our past life is slammed shut once and for all… It’s a blinding flash and a blow, which shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into the omnipotent actuality… That’s all. And neither for the first hour nor for the first day will you be able to grasp anything else… The traditional image of the arrest is also trembling hands packing for the victim—a change of underwear, a piece of soap, something to eat; and no one knows what is needed, what is permitted, what clothes are best to wear; and the Security agents keep interrupting and hurrying you: ‘You don’t need anything. They’ll feed you there. It’s warm there.’ (It’s all lies. They keep hurrying you to frighten you.)… The traditional image of arrest is also what happens afterward, when the poor victim has been taken away. It’s an alien, brutal and crushing force, totally dominating the apartment for hours on end, a breaking, ripping open, pulling from the walls, empting things from wardrobes and desks onto the floor, shaking, dumping out and ripping apart—piling up mountains of litter on the floor—and the crunch of things being trampled beneath boots. And nothing is sacred in a search!... Nothing is so stupid as to be inadmissible during a search!


—Alexander Solzhenitzyn

The Gulag Archipelago



           During WWII the U.S. government felt compelled to act decisively to protect the country from potentially dangerous individuals in its midst. To achieve this legitimate goal, our government repeatedly violated civil liberties and disrupted tens of thousands of innocent lives: the human cost was unconscionable. Rather than protecting our vulnerable immigrant population and their American-born families, our government used security concerns to justify an oppression based not on “race” but culture. German Americans suffered greatly for their “enemy” ethnicity through various forms of wartime mistreatment by the U.S. government: unauthorized raids and searches, the ransacking of homes, detention, internment, losses of property and jobs, exclusion and relocation, and finally forcible exchange and deportation.


These actions were undertaken without formal charges against the accused, and without legal representation, jury trials or the opportunity for appeal. “Witnesses” were not live and subject to cross-examination, but written and unnamed. “New evidence” could not be gathered, since no one on the “outside” represented the interned, and all correspondence was censored. Also, the accused usually were not present during sentencing. Forced into a situation from which those affected could not free themselves, thousands landed in camps across the country, behind barbed wire and guard towers—some for as long as seven years—in detention centers and internment camps across the country. And, they were the “lucky” ones, for untold hundreds of the forced repatriates either ended up in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany, where many were imprisoned again or shot.


The law of 1798 sanctioning such injustices—enhanced by the so-called “Patriot Act”—still exists and could be used at any time, against any individual in this country, “aliens” or citizens. Indeed, internment could happen to YOU!


supplemental texts


Panel #4


about Fort Lincoln:

            Lincoln was a small city. We had teachers of every kind: artists, musicians, cooks, carpenters—you name it. If you accepted that this was it for the present, you could survive well. We’d still have guys who would lie in their bunks, staring at the ceiling all day long and driving themselves slowly nuts, but I managed to find work of some sort all the time.

            I went out on a farm for a while because it was fun to look at the camp from the other side of the fence; at least we were physically active. You could sneak a vegetable occasionally. They had a large vegetable garden and a couple of beef cattle, but the farming thing didn’t last very long. We immediately told them “Listen, you can take this rake and shove it. We don’t have to stand for this at ten cents an hour.”

            Then, I worked in the laundry for a while, which was a great winter job because it was nice and warm. I also painted for a while, then went into business for myself, making costume jewelry out of soup bones. You boil a soup bone until it’s white and looks like ivory. I made jewelry for myself, eventually for sale, and for the girlfriend. Later, when we couldn’t get enough bones, we went into plastic.

            Occasionally, a hearing board would come out, either from Washington or from New York; I think one even came from the West Coast. You’d be lined up for hearings; some guys got very excited and dressed up. Most of us accepted this as “Well, these guys need something to do.” You went through the motions, told them the same things. They wanted to know whether you had changed your mind about anything…

            I made friends with many Austrians, who were nearly all ski instructors. They decided it would be terrific if we skied, so we ordered skis. When I say “we,” it’s always a couple of us young guys who did these things together. My brother didn’t get into the skiing part, but many of my other friends did. Sears, Roebuck people came in once a month, and you could order stuff. When we got the first snow, we skied around the camp. Then somebody said “We need somewhere to maneuver a little bit, and slide.” Somehow, we got permission from the authorities; they brought in a couple of loads of timber, and we built a ski “slope” by hand, no power tools at all. We put up this roughly forty-foot structure that you climbed and skied down. My kids laugh when I tell them this because, first, nobody skied at the time. Second, it’s flat in North Dakota. The payoff came when we had the first snow and all were elated. In the evening, it started to snow, and in the morning we skied. I did my first downhill skiing on that damn thing….

            We were active in sports. That was a major thing: soccer teams, tennis groups and skiing. I was also very much involved in swimming, which was just great. Fort Lincoln had been a cavalry base before we got in, and they had a fine pool outside the fence. We were escorted out there twice a day if we wanted, once during the day and once in the evening. I swam every day. I’ve never enjoyed swimming as much in my life as I did then, because it was always available. They let us know when the season was over: they stopped heating the darn thing.

                                                          —Werner John, as told to Stephen Fox

in America’s Invisible Gulag

Panel #7


about Crystal City:

            Crystal City: “Hell Incorporated.” The way I understand it, they repatriated the braceros [Mexican contract laborers], strung a barbed wire fence around it and put up guard towers. You know the pictures that you see of concentration camps in Germany with the guard towers, machine guns and all that stuff? That’s Crystal City. The first people that they moved in there, who were Germans, helped in fixing up the shacks and making them livable. When those braceros got through with them, they weren’t fit to live in. Even when we came there, in May 1943, it was barely livable. We had to build boardwalks to stop struggling in mud and, back in those days, you didn’t have air conditioning. Most of us were from a more moderate climate, and that place out there near Del Rio was hotter than Hades, to say nothing of how cold it could get in the winter. There was no grassy area. It was all mesquite and cacti with sandy places between.

            We ripped most of the old stuff out and planted gardens and yards. We lived in a frame house, two very small bedrooms, one kitchen called a combination kitchen-dining area—all very primitive. The whole thing was covered with waterproof sheet rock on the outside and no wall covers at all on the inside, just tarpaper sheeting. The bathroom included a toilet only. If you wanted to take a shower or use the sink or something like that, you’d have to go down to the center of the area. The community swimming pool was on the other side of the camp, which was not bad. They dug everything up by hand, poured all the concrete and everything else all by themselves. All the government did was to furnish the concrete and tools.

            When we kids played, everything was said in English, except for the ones who were there from South and Central America… Quite a few of my teachers in school in Crystal City were from Lima/Peru. You’ve probably heard of these diplomatic schools overseas? They have English ones; they have German ones, where the diplomats’ kids go to school? That’s where these people came from. They just arbitrarily closed those schools, took all the teachers and shipped them to Crystal City. They weren’t asked. We had people… from practically every country south of the Texas border.

—Alfred Plaschke, as told to Stephen Fox

in America’s Invisible Gulag


Crystal City/Texas—my favorite place. I met my wife there. As my dad and I left North Dakota, we wore winter coats and suits. The further south we got the more apparel we shed. What a change from the military and Border Patrol establishments. Yet, there were familiar sights: barbed wire fences, guard towers and sentries… I worked first as a milk truck driver, then drove the ice truck, and lastly busied myself as an operating-room orderly, which I truly loved. Our pay in all camps amounted to ten cents an hour plus $3 per month coupon book. Wow! But, where in heck were we going to spend this stuff? You also were given a certain number of tokens in red and green and gray pressed fiber or cardboard. Each color showed either food, clothing or canteen money. You never were allowed American money; that’s the first thing they took away from you. They put it on deposit, and you could draw from it to send to Sears, Roebuck or something like that, but you never could have it in your hand. That way nobody would have money to escape with.

—Alfred Krakau, as told to Stephen Fox

in America’s Invisible Gulag


Panel #9


about Ellis Island:

            At some point, a class action was started by a lawyer named [George] Dix. [Senator William] Langer visited the Island a couple of times; he was always very understanding, being from North Dakota [with its large German-American population]… That January, we were sitting playing cards, and a guard came up: “Listen, Werner: you can go home, and if you hurry and pack you can catch the last ferry.”

            “First, let me finish my hand. Second, I’m not in a rush. I’ve been here four years. I’m going to worry about the last ferry now?”

            So, we finished out the hand, and everybody came running over: “Hey, Werner; you’re going home? You got released?” That was always the big news.



            “How do I know why?” You were in without knowing why, and you were out without knowing why. It was like somebody threw up a handful of cards, picked one out and said “Hey, this one says ‘Werner.’ Let’s let him go!”

            I packed my stuff; I didn’t have too much. And, the next morning, I left. Believe me, it was one of the saddest moments of my life, because all my friends—these were the friends I had lived with close to four years—my brother and everybody, were standing there waving goodbye, and I was the only one on the ferry going the “wrong” way. It was the weirdest sensation. You wondered: “Why were you going? Why were they staying?” The guilt thing. Honest to god, for two cents I would’ve stayed. This sounds crazy as hell, even now.

            I couldn’t get myself to go down into the subway, although I had grown up in New York. I walked, and I walked, because I “knew” everybody could tell I was an enemy alien who had just been released.

            I just kept walking and walking and finally got home. I didn’t have the keys to the apartment but, luckily, a neighbor across the hall knew the situation, and she said “Your mother went shopping. Leave your suitcase here.” So what do you think I did, the first thing? I went to the Bronx courthouse and applied for a new driver’s license! I had nothing better to do, you know? When I got back Mom was just coming down the street. She dropped her shopping bags and ran and hugged me, and her first words were “Where’s Heinz?” She wanted to know why I was home, and I said I didn’t know. I contacted my friends, and we went out that night and met some of the old crowd for dinner.

            I saw Heinz every few weeks. He was still running the canteen; after all those years he was sort of a trustee. They’d take a guard in one of the immigration cars and go into Yorkville [a heavily German section of Manhattan] and shop for the canteen. The guard loved it because it was a day off for him. I was driving a cab at nights then. I’d meet them and we’d spend the day together. He’d go to different stores and buy things, and they would either take them along or have them shipped to the Island. That happened every couple of weeks, besides my visits to the Island. Occasionally, we’d meet my mom and we’d all go out to eat for lunch. We’d also meet Heinz’ ex-girlfriend for lunch; the guard was perfectly trusting. Heinz wasn’t going to cause a problem; all they’d do is turn around and grab his mom and dad and his brother and bring them in again.

—Werner John, as told to Stephen Fox

in America’s Invisible Gulag