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German-American Internees in the United States during WWII

(adapted from Arthur D. Jacobs' research and website: click here for the interview with Art.) 

ellis island

Christmas 1943A celebration not to be found in the photographic histories of Ellis Island. (from Jacobs' web site caption:) The dark years of Ellis Island, 1941 through 1948, remain a secret. Many German Americans found themselves locked up in this place three years after the war in Europe had ended. They were held behind barbed wire fences and iron-barred windows. By 1947 hundreds had already been held for more than five years.



by Karen E. Ebel 

German Americans are the largest ethnic group in the U.S. Approximately 60 million Americans claim German ancestry. German American loyalty to America's promise of freedom traces back to the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, during Second World War the U.S. government and many Americans viewed German Americans and others of enemy ancestry as potentially dangerous, particularly recent immigrants. The Japanese American World War II experience is well known. Few, however, know of the European American WWII experience, particularly that of the German Americans. The government used many interrelated, constitutionally questionable methods to control those of enemy ancestry, including internment, individual and group exclusion from military zones, internee exchanges for Americans held in Germany, deportation, enemy registration requirements, travel restrictions, and property confiscation. The human cost of these civil liberties violations was high: families were disrupted, reputations destroyed, and homes and belongings lost. Meanwhile, untold numbers of German Americans fought for freedom around the world, including their ancestral homelands; some were the immediate relatives of those subject to oppressive restrictions on the home front. Pressured by the United States, many Latin American governments arrested at least 4,050 German Latin Americans.Most were shipped in dark boat holds to the United States and interned. At least 2,000 Germans, German Americans, and Latin Americans were later exchanged for Americans and Latin Americans held in Germany. Some allege that internees were captured to use as exchange bait.

During WWII, our government had to do its utmost to ensure domestic security against dangerous elements in its midst it should have exercised greater vigilance to protect the liberties of those most vulnerable because of their ethnic ties to enemy nations. Some were dangerous, but too many were assumed guilty and never able to prove their innocence. Admittedly, U.S. wartime governmental actions are difficult to assess decades later. To prevent possible future erosion of our civil liberties, however, the federal government must fully review and acknowledge its wartime civil liberties violations. A comprehensive federal review of the European American experience has never been done. On 3 August 2001 Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced S. 1356, The European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Actin the U.S. Senate, joined by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Joseph Lieberman. This bill would create a much-needed independent commission to review U.S. government policies directed against European ethnic groups during WWII in the U.S. and Latin America. This commission also would review the U.S. government's denial of asylum to European (primarily Jewish) refugees seeking refuge in the U.S. from persecution in Europe. It was reported favorably to the Senate by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2002 and renamed The Wartime Treatment Study Act.

The following summarizes two particularly onerous methods of control, internment, and exclusion a timeline of related events:


Selective Internment. Pursuant to the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 (50 U.S.C 21-24), which remains in effect today, the U.S. may apprehend, intern, and otherwise restrict the freedom of enemies upon declaration of war or actual, attempted, or threatened invasion by a foreign nation. During WWII, the U.S. Government interned at least 11,000 persons of German ancestry. By law, only enemy aliens could be interned; however, with governmental approval, their family members frequently joined them in the camps. Many such “voluntarily” interned spouses and children were American citizens. Internment was frequently based upon uncorroborated, hearsay evidence gathered by the FBI and other intelligence agencies. Homes were raided and many were ransacked. Fathers, mothers, and sometimes both were arrested and disappeared. Sometimes children left after the arrests had to fend for themselves. Some were placed in orphanages. DOJ instituted very limited due process protections for those arrested. Potential internees were held in custody for weeks in temporary detention centers, such as jails and hospitals, prior to their hearings. Frequently, their families had no idea where they were for weeks. The hearings took place before DOJ-constituted civilian hearing boards. Those arrested were subject to hostile questioning by the local prosecuting U.S. Attorney, who was assisted by the investigating FBI agents. The intimidated, frequently semi-fluent accused had no right to counsel, and could not contest the proceedings or question their accusers. Hearing board recommendations were forwarded to the Alien Enemy Control Unit of the Department of Justice for a final determination that could take weeks or months. Internees remained in custody nervously awaiting DOJ order, conditional release, parole, or internment. Policy dictated that the AECU resolve what it deemed to be questionable hearing board recommendations in favor of internment. Based on AECU recommendations, the Attorney General issued internment orders for the duration of the war. Internees were shipped off to distant camps. Families were torn apart, and lives were destroyed. Family members left at home were shunned due to fear of the FBI and spite. Newspapers published stories and incriminating lists. Eventually destitute, many families lost their homes and had to apply to the government to join spouses in family camps, apply for welfare, and/or rely on other family members who could afford to support them. Eventually, under such duress, hundreds of internees agreed to repatriate to war-torn Germany to be exchanged with their children for Americans. Once there, food was scarce, Allied bombs were falling and their German families could do little to help them. Many regretted their decision. Considering the spurious allegations, which led to the internment of a majority of internees, their treatment by our government was harsh indeed. Their experience provides ample evidence of why our civil liberties are so precious.


Exclusion. In cooperation with the War Department, DOJ created a network of restricted areas. Enemy aliens were forbidden to enter or remain in certain areas and their movements were severely restricted in others. The restrictions imposed great hardship on those living or working in these areas. Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 9066, the military could restrict the liberties of citizens and aliens, as it deemed necessary. This led to the exclusion of individuals and groups from extensive military zones comprising over a third of the U.S. The most well-known group exclusion was the massive Japanese American relocation from the West Coast. Several hundred individual exclusion orders were issued. The government was particularly suspicious of naturalized citizens of enemy ethnicity. Citizens could not be interned, so the military threatened those it deemed dangerous with exclusion. Many felt contesting exclusion orders was futile and moved before the order was actually issued. Unlike group exclusion, hearings were required for individual exclusion. Resembling enemy alien internment hearings, these hearings were subject to very limited due process protections, clearly violating the rights of American citizens. If an exclusion order was issued following a hearing, excludes were given little time to depart. Homes were abandoned. Some excludees left their families behind. FBI agents followed them to their new communities. The government often advised police and employers how dangerous excludees were, so finding and keeping jobs was difficult. Little or government resettlement assistance was given to excludees. Some contested their exclusion orders in court, protesting the government's violation of their due process rights. After several federal courts found the military actions questionable constitutionality, the individual exclusion program decreased in popularity. Although more unusual, in lieu of exclusion the government also sought to denaturalize citizens, so they could be interned as enemy aliens or deported.


Survey of Internment and Detention Centers

Fort Lincoln, Bismarck/North Dakota (courtesy John Christgau; visit his website)
Internee-Camp Crystal City/Texas | Ellis Island as an Internee Prison | Map of Internment Camps

Specific Cases

The following stories include the fates of families or individuals who either lived in the Midwest when the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941 or were interned in the Midwest thereafter.(These accounts were researched, written and presented by Arthur D. Jacobs, Karen E. Ebel and John Christgau; used with permission.)


the Eiserloh Family | the Fuhr Family | the Greis Family | Karl Vogt | Max Ebel

Other German Internees' Stories (see list in yellow box) or


Time Line/Aftermath


by Karen E. Ebel

Thanks to federal legislation and effective activism by their ethnic group, U.S. government mistreatment of Japanese Americans is well known. After almost 60 years, the German American experience remains buried. The few surviving, aged internees remember their experiences well, despite years of trying to forget. Their memories haunt them. Mostly, because they are Americans who revere freedom, they want the dreadful saga of their wartime mistreatment told so it will never happen again. The CWRIC reviewed a significant portion of governmentâ³ discriminatory wartime policies. Another commission should be established immediately to complete the study of these policies as they affected European Americans, particularly German Americans.


Related Resources

Freedom of Information Times website | National Archives link

Chronology of Internment | History of Internment | General Stories of Internees

Latin-American Internees | Books/Journals | Videos/Radio | Print Media

Wartime Policies | Congressional Efforts | Exhibit | Exhibit Flyer | Exhibit Opening | Reunion


internee workers

(the above two photos used courtesy of John Christgau)


When asked how TRACES should credit the research behind this page, co-creator Arthur D. Jacobs responded:
         You can list my name and town, Tempe, Arizona.... and my second home and farm, Morton County, Kansas [which was home, according to him, of the most loving persons from Kansas which I now call my home... and where I now own part of the farm that I grew up on upon returning from war-torn, starving Germany. You can read about this connection in my book The Prison Called Hohenasperg: An American Boy Betrayed by His Government during World War II.]. There are many contributors; many anonymous, several deceased, and several I have no idea of their status... This is not a three- or four-person show, it involved many... this is how many of the pieces have come together... So along with my name you can make note that many former internees and/or their children/grandchildren have made all of this possible. It is those who contributed old camp newspapers, sketches and letters, and writing down memories and sharing all of these things with me and others...           Art


About Arthur Jacobs' Book The Prison Called Hohenasperg: An American boy betrayed by his Government during World War II, ISBN 1-58112-832-0


art jacobsSynopsis:
          Unknown to most Americans, more than 10,000 Germans and German Americans were interned in the United States during WWII. This story is about the internment of a young American and his family. He was born in the U.S.A. and the story tells of his perilous path from his home in Brooklyn to internment at Ellis Island, N.Y. and Crystal City, Texas, and imprisonment, after the war, at a place in Germany called Hohenasperg.

          When he arrived in Germany in the dead of winter he was transported to Hohenasperg in a frigid, stench-filled, locked, and heavily guarded, boxcar. Once in Hohenasperg, he was separated from his family and put in a prison cell. He was only twelve years old! He was treated like a Nazi by the U.S. Army guards and was told that if he didn't behave he would be killed. He tried to tell them he was an American, but they just told him to shut up. His fellow inmates included high-ranking officers of the Third Reich who were being held for interrogation and denazification.

          The book tells how the author survived this ordeal and many others, and how he fought his way back to his beloved America.

          This book can be ordered online from upublish. It is also available through your favorite bookseller.

Book Reviews

          A review of The Prison Called Hohenasperg: An American boy betrayed by his Government during World War II is contained on page 485 (The Manley Arts Review) of the American Library Association³ Booklist Magazine of November 1, 1999. Statements from this and other reviewers follow:

The Prison Called Hohenasperg

This book is an important one. This modest tome opens up a disgraceful chapter in our history for all to see. -Booklist Magazine (American Library Association) 

The Prison Called Hohenasperg is a story of an

American tragedy is great reading and an important addition to壯llections about WWII. -Kansas Libraries 

The Prison Called Hohenasperg tells us

One of the primary purposes of the internment program was to provide the U.S. Government with leverage in negotiations with Berlin for the return of persons of the America who were interned by the Third Reich. -The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 

         Please consider adding this important book to your school and library. It is the culmination of almost 15 years of research. Art is delighted to announce that the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island National Monument project requested two autographed copies of this book for the Ellis Island Library and the Oral History Project. In addition, the National Park Service at the Manzanar (CA) National Historical Site has added this book to its Resource Library.



crystal city class

A school-room scene at Camp Crystal City in Texas (courtesy of Art Jacobs; used with permission)


Epilog: Emails to TRACES from Art Jacobs            view interview with Art  

In September and October 2004 I went on a 15-day trip to Germany, where I had the rare opportunity to visit the Hohenasperg Prison (still a prison). While there I was a given a tour of the prison by the director. During the tour we “bumped” into a nurse who had been working there for 23 years; this nurse had heard about my story on German radio. He knew of the Hangman’s Tree, der Galgen (the gallows) as he referred to it. The tree was destroyed by lightning in 1956. Before the tour ended this nurse presented me with an actual key that was used on my cell door. The key is 6.5 inches long, and the barrel’s inside diameter is 3.8 inches. I am enclosing a photograph of the key. The 2.5-hour tour of inside the prison was quite an emotional event for me. Thought this would be of interest to you.


Email sent 5 March 2005:

Here are the results of my latest state-by-state research regarding the teaching (or not) of German-American internees’ experiences during World War II (see foitimes):

STATE Social Study Standard Includes Japanese American Internment Social Study Standard Includes German American Internment Contact
Alabama Yes No
Alaska No No
Arizona Yes No
Arkansas Yes No
California Yes No
Colorado1 Yes No (Lois Gross)
Connecticut2 Yes No
Delaware3 No No
Florida No No
Georgia Yes No
Hawaii Yes No
Idaho Yes No Dr. Marilyn
Illinois Yes No
Indiana No No
Iowa No No
Kansas Yes No 
Kentucky Yes No
Louisiana Yes No
Maine No No
Maryland Yes No
Massachusetts Yes No
Michigan4 Yes No
Minnesota Yes No ATTN:Ê  Ms. Beth Aune
Mississippi Yes No Ms. Green
Missouri No No
Montana No No
Nebraska No No
Nevada Yes No Ms. Dopf
New Hampshire No No
New Jersey Yes No
New Mexico5 No No
New York Yes No
North Carolina6 Yes No
North Dakota No No
Ohio Yes No
Oklahoma Yes No
Oregon Yes No
Pennsylvania Yes No Secretary Barnesà
Rhode Island Yes No
South Carolina No No
South Dakota No No
Tennessee No No
Texas Yes No;
Utah Yes No
Vermont Yes No
Virginia Yes No
Washington Yes No Professor Perkins
West Virginia No No
Wisconsin Yes No
Wyoming Yes No Superintendent Ted Blankenship
Total 50 50
Yes 34 0
No 16 50
United States History Standards Yes No
US Department of Education7 Yes No Only through on site form at U.S. Department of Education
1Colorado -Has a library reference that denies German Americans were interned
2Connecticut has four links that only refer to Japanese American internment.See page
3Delaware has reference to Japanese American internment in its English content standard.See
4 Michigan entry relates to the Children's Civic book listing that contains two books relating to Japanese American internment and none to German American internment.
5 New Miexico has a reference to internment camps--but no mention is made of ethnicity
6 North Carolina uses two books that discuss Japanese American internment -- no mention made of German American internment.
7 Please note that the US Department of Education site is replete with references to Japanese American internment
and not one reference was found relative to German American internment
Prepared by AD Jacobs, March 2005


The data was developed exclusively from on-line resources. Results were obtained by using keyword searches; keywords used were “internment” and “Japanese.” Each keyword was used independently of the other.
Please note the last two entries on the page, i.e., United States History and US Department of Education. There are other such sites that I did not examine; I am almost certain the, too, will be absent of any reference to German-American internment.
It seems that unless a concerted effort is placed at the U.S. Department of Education level, much of this and future work will be for naught.
In my opinion the Social Studies/History content is driven by the Department of Education and the National Archives. Until these two departments begin to offer research grants in the area of German American internment and Alien Enemy Registration little or nothing will change. And, our education system will continue to misinform.
In conclusion, the evidence is clear: our students are not being taught the truth regarding WWII-era internment in the United States.

Art Jacobs

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