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German American Internees in the United States during WWII
by Karen E. Ebel

Time Line

1918 Codification of Alien Enemy Act of 1798, 50 U.S.C 21-24, permitting apprehension and internment of aliens of “enemy ancestry” by U.S. government upon declaration of war or threat of invasion. The President is given blanket authority as to “enemy alien” treatment. Civil liberties may be completely ignored because enemy aliens have no protection under this 202- year-old law. Government oppression is likely during wartime.


1939-1941 Various governmental bodies, such as the FBI, special intelligence agencies of the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Army’s Military Intelligence Division compile lists of dangerous “enemy aliens” and citizens, including the FBI’s Custodial Detention Index (the “CDI”).


1940 The census includes specific listings and location of persons based on their ethnicity, which may have assisted the U.S. Government in later identification of “suspect” individuals of “enemy ancestry.”


1940 Alien Registration Act of 1940 passed requiring all aliens 14 and older to register with the U.S. government.


Dec. 7, 1941 Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Pursuant to the Alien Enemy Act of 1798, Roosevelt issued identical Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527 branding German, Italian and Japanese nationals as enemy aliens, authorizing internment and travel and property ownership restrictions. A blanket presidential warrant authorized U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle to have the FBI arrest a large number of “dangerous enemy aliens” based on the CDI. Hundreds of German aliens were arrested by the end of the day. The FBI raids many homes and hundreds more are detained before war even declared on Germany.


Dec. 11, 1941 U.S. declares war on Germany and Italy.


Jan. 1942 Pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 2525-2527 and 2537 (issued Jan.14, 1942), the Attorney General issues regulations requiring application for and issuance of certificates of identification to all “enemy aliens” aged 14 and older and outlining restrictions on their movement and property ownership rights. Approximately one million enemy aliens reregister, including 300,000 German-born aliens, the 2nd largest immigrant group at that time. Applications are forwarded to the Department of Justice’s Alien Registration Division and the FBI. Any change of address, employment or name must be reported to the FBI. Enemy aliens may not enter federally designated restricted areas. If enemy aliens violate these or other applicable regulations, they are subject to “arrest, detention and internment for the duration of the war.”


Jan.- Feb. 1942 In cooperation with the military, the DOJ establishes numerous, small prohibited zones strictly forbidden to all enemy aliens. DOJ also establishes extensive “restricted areas” in which enemy aliens are subject to stringent curfew and travel restrictions, particularly on the West Coast.


Feb. 19, 1942 Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to define military areas in which “the right of any person to enter, remain in or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions” are deemed necessary or desirable. This order applies to all “enemy” nationalities.


 March 11, 1942 Executive Order 9095 creates the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, which gives the Custodian discretionary, plenary authority over all alien property interests. Many internee assets were frozen creating immediate financial catastrophe for affected families.


Feb.-April 1942 Congress ratifies Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imposition of sanctions for violations of the order. Extensive military zones established on the east and west coasts, significantly expanding upon those originally created by DOJ, and in certain areas around the Great Lakes. General John DeWitt issues a series of Public Proclamations creating Western Defense Command military areas and outlining curfews, travel restrictions and exclusion provisions, among other things, applicable to German, Japanese and Italian aliens, as well as Japanese American citizens. By military order, thousands of German, Japanese and Italian aliens required leave military areas on the West Coast. Later, approximately 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans are relocated from the West Coast to camps administered by the Wartime Relocation Authority. On an individual basis, “potentially dangerous” U.S. citizens of German ancestry are also ordered out of military zones and forced to establish new lives with little or no government assistance.


 October 1942 Wartime restrictions on Italian Americans terminated.


19421943 Internment camps administered by the military and the DOJ are established throughout the country. The INS operated the DOJ camps. The largest were located at Crystal City and Seagoville, Texas and Ft. Lincoln, ND. There were at least 50 temporary detention and long-term internment facilities. Internees are transferred from camp to camp under armed guard, further disrupting their lives and making it even more difficult for their families to find them.


1942 U.S. Government initiated exchanges of approximately 2,000 internees for Americans held in Germany. Six exchange voyages carried many families to Germany, including American-born children and U.S. citizen spouses of German alien internees. As the war progressed, travel across the Atlantic was increasing hazardous. Upon arrival in war-ravaged Germany, exchangees were unexpected and unwanted by their families. Many are suspected of being spies. Families with young children, some even born during the trip to Germany, had to make their own way to family homes through hazardous countryside, frequently in winter, carrying all their worldly belongings. Some men were beaten and arrested by the Gestapo as spies and put in camps, leaving families destitute again.


1942 The U.S. initiated a cooperative program whereby Latin American countries at U.S. direction captured German Latin Americans, including German and Austrian Jews who had fled persecution. Under U.S. military guard, prisoners were shipped to the U.S. in the dark, dank holds of boats and rarely permitted on deck. Open bucket latrines were placed among the prisoners. No one told them what was happening to them. They were interned and many forcibly shipped to Germany. General George Marshall stated in a 12/12/42 memo to the Caribbean Defense Command: “These interned nationals are to be used for exchange with interned American civilian nationals.” By the end of the war, over 4,050 German Latin Americans were brought to American internment camps.


1942 – 1945 Thousands of German aliens and German Americans are arrested, interned, excluded, paroled, exchanged and generally harassed by a suspicious country. Few know why they are interned or for how long. Internees try to make lives in camps, attempting to ignore the psychological and physical upheaval to which they have been subjected. Mental anguish, anger, guilt and shame are common. Armed guards and guard dogs watch over internees living in huts or dorms in barren parts of the country surrounded by barbed wire, observed from guard towers. All mail is censored. Contact with the outside world is severely limited. Many continually appeal their internment orders. DOJ generally ignores their requests, requiring unobtainable “new evidence” for consideration of appeals. Some are granted rehearings, pursuant to which an even smaller number are released. Internees who are released do not know why, nor do they ever learn why they were interned. Those released are generally subject to parole restrictions. Internees are pressured to repatriate. Hopeless and bitter, many agree and are readily used for exchange. There were six exchanges with Germany, primarily of civilians, but also of POWs. One trip of the SS Gripsholm in January 1945 involves 1,000 exchangees. The government arranges for “trustworthy” able-bodied men to work outside camps. One group works on the Northern Pacific Railroad in North Dakota repairing the railroad tracks and living in boxcars with coal stoves throughout the winter. Others work for the Forest Service and 3M.


May 7, 1945 Germany surrenders.


July 1945 Truman issues a Presidential Proclamation 2655 authorizing the U.S. to deport all enemy aliens deemed “to be dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States.” This affects hundreds, if not thousands, of internees who remain imprisoned indefinitely.


Aug. 14, 1945 Japan surrenders.


November 1945 Many internees released from camps. Parole limitations for most persons terminated. Internment camps progressively closed and remaining internees eventually consolidated at Crystal City and Ellis Island.


Late 1947 Crystal City family camp closed. Those still imprisoned, exclusively German internees and their families, transferred to cramped Ellis Island where others are held. Virtually all are of German ancestry. Over the next year, many additional persons are returned to Germany. Others are paroled or unconditionally released to return to their homes. The barbed wire exercise cages overlook the Statute of Liberty. The captives contest repatriation and deportation by pooling their limited funds to finance appeals in court. They finally find a voice in Congress—Senator William Langer of North Dakota.


August 1948 Due in large part to Senator Langer’s efforts, among others, the last person, a German American, is finally released from Ellis Island, three years after cessation of hostilities with Germany. No internee was ever convicted of a war-related crime against the United States. Upon release, most adult internees sign secrecy oaths, many are threatened with deportation with no prospect of return if they speak of their ordeal. Many internees, always fearful, take the secret to their graves. Reportedly, camp employees also sign oath of secrecy. The secret is well kept. Few today know of selective internment.



           Internees and excludees return home to suspicious communities, some have been interned 6-7 years. Children do not remember life without barbed wire. Homes and livelihoods are lost. Reputations destroyed. No safety net protects them. They confront feelings of confusion, anger, resentment, bitterness, guilt and shame. They try to understand what happened and repair broken lives. The experience scarred families forever. Those exchanged to Germany struggled to survive in the extremely difficult postwar years. Some exchangees returned to the U.S. years later. Frequently, American-born children left their families behind in order to do so. Many never were allowed to return. Others, embittered by what they perceived as America’s betrayal, never wanted to come back.


1980 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (“CWRIC”) created. Focused primarily on the relocation of Japanese and Japanese Americans, the CWRIC did not allow German Americans or other European Americans to testify or offer written testimony on their wartime experiences. The final report, Personal Justice Denied, focuses primarily on German American individual and group exclusion issues under Executive Order 9066. It identifies only 4 internment camps. The tribulations of German internment are covered in only four paragraphs primarily discussing the hearing process. The CWRIC asserts that this process afforded sufficient “rough fairness” under the circumstances. The CWRIC is wrong. Lacking sufficient due process protections, this “rough fairness” frequently resulted in unjustified, painful years of captivity, exchange and property loss for thousands.


1988-present Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed solely giving redress to and acknowledging injustices to Japanese Americans and Aleuts. No German American or other affected European American allowed to give oral or written testimony on their wartime experience during congressional hearings. Civil Liberties Education Fund established to fund projects relating to public education regarding the Japanese American experience. National Park Service study funded to designate Japanese relocation camps as national historic landmarks. In January 1999 the U.S. settles Mochizuki class action agreeing to monetary redress of $5,000 and a presidential apology for Japanese Latin Americans. In November 2000 the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act signed into law recognizing only the government’s wrongful denial of Italian American civil liberties. In February 2001, Wartime Parity and Justice Act of 2001 introduced to provide for the inclusion of Japanese Latin Americans in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, among other things.


Aug. 3, 2001 Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act, joined by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). Reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate in March 2002, amended and renamed as the Wartime Treatment Study Act.


Feb. 5, 2003 Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced H. Res. 56 calling for National Day of Remembrance on February 19 and supporting the goal of the German, Japanese and Italian American communities to increase public awareness of the World War II violations of civil liberties by the U.S. government.


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 are adapted from Arthur D. Jacobs' website.)


the Eiserlohs’ Story

by Ensila Eiserloh Bennett, as edited by Karen Ebel

Mathias and Johanna Eiserloh met in Johanna’s hometown of Idstein, Germany after WWI, where Mathias was a civil engineering student. They shared a dream of emigrating to America and did so in 1923. They brought with them the hopes and dreams held by most immigrants to this country—to live, work and raise a family in freedom. Mathias’ two sisters and three of Johanna’s siblings joined them in America soon after.

Life was not as rosy in America as they had imagined it. They endured the struggles typically faced by new immigrants while learning the new language, finding employment and adjusting to the cultural and social differences. They accepted jobs during those early years wherever they could find work. Mathias even worked briefly in the coal mines of West Virginia. Eventually, Mathias found a job in his chosen profession. In 1929 they rewarded themselves by vacationing in Europe, traveling and visiting family. In October, days before their return, the stock market crashed. They came home to face financial turmoil and the Depression. Eventually, after struggling to recoup their losses, they purchased two acres of land in a rural area outside Cleveland, Ohio.

Mathias & Johanna on their wedding day in Williamsburg, W. VA - December 23, 1923

 Mathias, who had also studied architecture, designed and drew up plans for a home, which the couple literally built with their own hands, while living in a tent on the property. With the help of friends, they dug the basement, mixed and poured cement for the foundation, and built a fine house. They bore three children between 1930 and 1941—all U.S. citizens.

           During this time Johanna also raised a flock of chickens and started a small business selling the eggs and hens. Life was good, the future looked bright and the children flourished. They attended a German social club largely comprised of other engineers and their families with whom they enjoyed German music and dances and shared common experiences. Such clubs also served as networks for finding jobs and to give support to member families in times of need. While the men would discuss their jobs and politics over a stein of beer and a cigarette, this club was strictly social. It was not a political organization nor did it have any political agenda. Unfortunately, unlike their siblings, the Eiserlohs, busy raising their children and working hard, had not pursued their long-standing plan to apply for U.S. citizenship. 

Family photo - taken upon the family's reunion at Crystal City, TX., circa June 1943. Standing in back - eldest daughter, Ingrid, aged 13. Front row: son Lothar, age 9; Johanna, age 42; Ensila, age 3; Mathias, age 48

Naively, they had considered themselves thoroughly American since their arrival in this country. They were to learn quickly that this mistake and, apparently, their club membership, would cost them everything.  

           Days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 9, 1941, life as they had known it was destroyed forever. Mathias was suddenly arrested by the FBI at his job and jailed in Cleveland. Their savings were frozen. He was questioned about his membership in the German club, their families here and in Europe, his friends and his job. The government ordered his internment. His arrest and loss of income left Johanna and her three children, ages one, six and eleven, destitute. Neighbors and friends suddenly treated them with astonishing coldness. No one believed that an innocent man would be jailed. They suspected that Mathias “must have done something.” The children were

Photo taken in late 1942, after Mathias had been interned for some months, and longed to see his family. Johanna sent him this photo of Ingrid, age 12, Ensila, 22 months, and Lothar, 8.

harassed with nasty taunts and insults from schoolmates referencing their German heritage.

In desperation, Johanna was forced to sell their home after a few months. Fearing the proceeds from the sale would be frozen, Johanna insisted on a cash sale and found it necessary to accept the paltry sum offered by an opportunistic buyer. Before she could move out, a masked intruder attacked her during the night, demanding “the money” from her. She fought him off with a piece of lead pipe, which she kept under her pillow for protection. Just days earlier Johanna was unnerved because someone shot their two German shepherds. Terrified and badly shaken, she was left partially paralyzed. Mathias’ sister gave the family shelter in her cellar and took care of the children while Johanna slowly recovered. A basement fire forced the family to find yet another home. The children were traumatized and missed their father terribly. Despite Johanna’s many pleas, the government gave no indication when or if he would be released. Reluctantly she petitioned the government to be allowed to join him in the camp, believing the family would be better off together.

After two long years of suffering the strain and hardship of separation, the family was reunited at the Crystal City, Texas internment camp. Although Johanna and the children were “voluntary internees” they could not leave “voluntarily.” They lived in small quarters with very basic necessities. They soon learned from other families in the camp that their story was not unique. Most had been suddenly uprooted and imprisoned, losing home and possessions. Becoming increasingly despaired and bitter, they finally agreed to repatriate to Germany in response to the more than subtle pressures by government officials. In January 1945 they were transported to New York Harbor to board the S.S. Gripsholm under a wartime exchange program between Germany and the United States, which provided for U.S. citizens held in Germany to be released in exchange for “Germans” sent back from the United States. The “Germans” being exchanged included many US-born children and spouses who were either US-born or naturalized citizens.  

Johanna, age 44, was nine months pregnant when they left Crystal City. She gave birth to an infant son, Günther, on January 4, 1945, on the train to New York Harbor and the SS Gripsholm. The child’s birth certificate lists his place of birth as New Orleans, Louisiana. Although extremely weak from travel and the recent birth, Johanna and her family had to board the SS Gripsholm on January 6, 1945 and endure the fourteen-day stormy crossing through the Atlantic war zone. She and her baby, both weak and ill, remained in sickbay throughout the entire voyage. The older children were now 14, 9 and 4 years old.

They and several hundred repatriates disembarked the SS Gripsholm at Marseilles, France, after a minor incident with a harbor mine. They were taken by train to Switzerland. While awaiting the exchange, the crates containing the family’s belongings, including seasonal clothing carefully selected by Johanna, and items they could use to barter for food, were stolen. The family now had only the clothes they wore and one small suitcase of miscellaneous things.

The exchange took place at Bregenz in early February 1945. The “Germans” were brought to the border on the back of a flatbed truck in small groups. The Eiserlohs waited for hours in the cold until it was their turn to cross. Johanna, carrying the baby, walked with Ensila, following Mathias, Lothar and Ingrid. Their papers were carefully checked and heads counted: two adults, two male children, two female children. The children, all U.S. citizens, were exchanged for other U.S. citizens who walked out to freedom. On the other side, they climbed back onto the open truck and were taken to Aschaffenburg, a town almost completely destroyed by bombs.

Now left on their own and struggling with the sickly infant, the family slowly made their way north across war-ravaged Germany. 

Family photo taken in summer of 1947, when the two eldest children, Ingrid now age 17 and Lothar, now age 12, departed for America where they would live with their aunt and uncle and continue their US education, believing the family would soon be reunited in the US. The family separation would last for 8 long years. Back row: Johanna, Mathias and Ingrid. Front row: Ensila, age 6, Gunther, age 2, and Lothar.

Amidst bombings and air raids, in dead of a record-breaking winter, they traveled by train when possible, but often they had to walk because the railways were destroyed. Food was hard to come by and they could only hope to find shelter among Johanna’s relatives. Their relatives did not expect them, as no communication had been possible since the start of the war.

During the last leg of their journey, U.S. planes strafed their train. Frightened, they huddled under the seats until train stopped. They ran with the other passengers into the adjoining woods as the planes continued gunning the train. An anti-aircraft gun on the last train car was put into action and the family watched, with mixed emotions, as smoke filled the sky where two of the American planes were shot down.

They arrived in Idstein during the first days of March, hungry and exhausted from two months of difficult journeying. They were greeted without enthusiasm and felt most unwelcome. The relatives, like the rest of the country, did not have enough food for themselves, never mind another family of six. Johanna’s aging parents could only offer them a small corner in their cellar for living quarters. What little food could be had was primarily bartered for on the black market. The family was by now suffering the symptoms of malnutrition. They were often ill treated, having just arrived from America, and were under constant suspicion by local Nazis and townspeople who could not comprehend why they had returned from America at this time.

Within two weeks of their arrival, six overzealous members of the SS severely beat Mathias in their basement home in full view of his terrified wife and children. The Gestapo arrested Mathias and took him away to an unknown prison, suspecting him of being an undercover spy for the advancing U.S. Military. The family did not know if he was still alive until the end of the war some months later, when he was found, thoroughly questioned and released by the occupying U.S. Army. Ironically, the government that imprisoned him in America and was responsible for his family’s predicament probably saved his life. Following the war, the family moved to small a two-room barracks facility. It was sparsely furnished, with beds in one room, a table, four chairs and a small coal stove in the other. It had a sink with cold running water in one corner but no kitchen. From here the family tried to rebuild their lives.  

Their application for re-entry to the U.S. immediately after war was repeatedly denied. Finally, in 1947, the two eldest children, Ingrid and Lothar, then ages 17 and 12, were allowed to repatriate to the U.S. with Mathias’ sister agreeing to act as their guardian. They did not see their family again for eight years. The Eiserlohs continued to endure years of hunger and deprivation while making countless applications to re-enter the United States. Lothar joined the U.S. Air Force after completing high school and was granted a security clearance to receive nuclear weapons training. Perhaps not coincidentally, his parents and siblings were finally granted re-entry

A Sunday afternoon walk in the German countryside - May 1955 Johanna age 54, Gunther age 10, Ensila age 14

visas to the United States shortly thereafter, in November 1955.

Now 60 years old, Mathias couldn’t find work as a civil engineer. He accepted a low-paying job from which he was forced to retire at 62. After struggling several more years to provide for his wife and two teenagers, he died at age 65 of heart failure. Johanna became a citizen in 1961, and supported herself with the meager earnings from odd jobs until the age of 89 when Alzheimer’s robbed her of all past memories. She died in January 1997, at the age of 96. Three children survive today. Günther, who began his life on a train to New York, perished in an automobile accident at the age of 22, after his discharge from the U.S. Navy.  

Back in the US. Arrived in New York in November 1955 and traveled by car to California for their reunion with Ingrid and Lothar. Mathias took this photo of Ensila, Johanna and Gunther during a stop in the Arizona desert.

The physical, emotional and psychological trauma the family suffered throughout the years of separations and a deprivation had long lasting effects on all of them and is still being felt by the remaining three children. Ingrid, Lothar and Ensila are still trying to learn why their father was interned but have as yet not been successful in obtaining the government records, which would hopefully answer their questions. They now tell their story to help others understand the travesties permitted under America’s “enemy alien” laws in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding and the instituting of measures that will prevent such a recurrence. Those laws, which some argue are necessary during wartime, do not adequately protect innocent immigrants from flagrant miscarriage of justice by overzealous government officials operating under the guise of patriotism.


My Internment by the U.S. Government

by Eberhard E. Fuhr

In August 1942 the U.S. government interned both my parents, German resident aliens. My 12-year-old brother was interned with them, even though he was an American citizen, having been born in Cincinnati. Had he not joined my parents, he would be sent to an orphanage, a fate shared by other internee children. My brother (18) and I (17) were allowed to stay home, but had to fend for ourselves. My brother soon left for an Ohio college where he had an athletic scholarship. I lived alone. I went back to Woodward High School in Cincinnati where we lived for my senior year. I was actively involved in student life. I lettered, belonged to student clubs and was even on the civil defense Bomb Squad.

I earned enough from my newspaper route to survive. Periodically, an FBI agent called to question me. Once they picked me up about 8 PM, took me to their offices and questioned me for two hours under bright lights while toying with their guns. Their questions concerned family friends, attitudes about relatives in Germany and my parents’ internment, what some neighbors (unnamed, of course) were saying about me, and the like. I clearly was being watched. In January 1943, my brother dropped out of college and went to work in a Cincinnati brewery.

On March 23, 1943, while in class at Woodward High School, two FBI agents arrested me. I was 17. When passing through the doorways, one would precede with a drawn pistol, while the other held my left arm. When we got outdoors, I was handcuffed. I never returned to school and did not graduate two short months later. I lost not only belongings in my school locker, but my dignity.

The FBI Agents then took me to my brother’s place of employment where he was arrested. We were taken to the city police station where we were booked on suspicion, fingerprinted, and taken to the Hamilton County Prison. This was built in the mid-1800s and had a medieval look of turrets with very high walls. A 5-tiered cellblock dominated the interior. Each cell was about 5’ x 10’ with a metal bucket as a toilet, a bed hung from the wall by two chains, and walls about 2’ thick. We were given prison clothes and locked into separate cells some distance apart.

Soon after the barred doors clanged shut, the prisoners—convicted criminals—began yelling vicious threats about Nazis, Krauts, Huns and what we could expect just as soon as the cells would open in the morning. We hardly slept. We were brought to the Federal Building for our hearings. No witnesses or counsel were permitted. While my brother had his hearing, I was given the Cincinnati Enquirer. In shock, I read: “Two brothers interned. They will have a hearing and they will be interned.” We hadn’t had our hearings yet, but the newspaper announced our arrest and internment.

After my brother, I had my hearing before the “Civilian Alien Hearing Board” to face the same people that interned my parents seven months earlier. There were five or six members on the board. One question concerned a statement I supposedly made about Hitler when I was twelve. Another question concerned my attendance at Coney Island German American Day and German American picnics in 1939 and 1940. They even had glossy photos of me from the picnics. The high point was when they asked “What would you say to your German cousin if he came to you for sanctuary after coming up the Ohio River in his German U-boat.” I said a sub couldn’t come up the Ohio River; it only drafts four feet. Of course, they didn’t like that response. Then they went into raw data, which is the “evidence” people call in and requires no substantiation because the informant is guaranteed anonymity. Any answers I gave seemed totally unacceptable, and I already knew that we were to be sent to Chicago for internment. I’d read it in the paper.

After questioning, my brother and I were again handcuffed and taken home. We were advised to take only enough clothes for about two days and to make sure all doors and windows were locked. This was the last time we ever saw the house. The contents were later looted: pictures, stamp collection, violin, piano, furniture, keepsakes, irreplaceable family memorabilia—all treasured by my mother and gone forever. The house was lost to foreclosure. My parents could not afford to make the mortgage payments because they were interned. This was not unusual. Many homes were lost during internment. The government was not concerned about such matters. Incredibly, the elders of our church even stopped by after my parents were interned to demand their pledge. When we couldn’t make payment, my parents were dropped from the rolls of the church.

We were taken back to the county prison and immediately locked into our cells. The next morning Federal Marshals picked us for an auto trip to Chicago. This time we were each handcuffed to a front ring in a belt buckled in the belt. Additionally, we were handcuffed to each other and, when we stopped for the usual offices, one of the marshals cuffed himself to one of us. These were needlessly intimate, embarrassing experiences. We were cuffed to a belt and cuffed to each other, which required us to almost face each other to move in any direction, never mind take care of necessities.

We arrived late at night at 4800 South Ellis Avenue in Chicago, but the other internees gave us a heartfelt welcome. We were there approximately three months. There were about 20 inmates. This number stayed fairly consistent as internees were periodically sent to camps in North Dakota and Texas, occasionally released, or newly interned. Definitely no longer luxurious, the building was formerly a small mansion complete with turrets, an 8’ wrought iron fence, and a garage that formerly was a stable.

Ten days after my arrival, I turned 18. I knew by law that I was required to register for the draft and I was anxious to do my duty. The internment facility director disputed this. The Department of Justice advised him, however, not only that I had the right to register, but also that all males of 18, regardless of circumstances, were required to do so. Thus I registered at the Cook County Jail, which became my draft board during WWII.

In July 1943 we were sent to Crystal City, Texas, close to the Mexican border, on a heavily guarded train with about another 1,000 internees. The good news was that we were finally reunited with our parents and our younger brother. The bad news was that the fences were 12 feet high, with guard towers every 50 yards and, except where irrigated, this was a harsh desert environment. Temperatures were often well over 100 degrees and the camp was filled with insects and scorpions. We received letters from friends and relatives, but these were heavily censored with much information cut out. Living conditions were tolerable at best.

In Crystal City I met Japanese for the very first time. The internee population was almost equally German and Japanese. Although the Japanese had their own cultural affairs, and events, we did compete in some sports. We generally had mutual access to all facilities. People came and went from the camp constantly, including Latin American Germans and Japanese who were brought from their countries primarily for exchange for American prisoners held by Axis countries. Many German and Japanese interned from America were also exchanged for American prisoners and suffered untold difficulties after the exchange. A marker commemorates only the internment of the Japanese at the camp. In general, the internment of German Americans is ignored, although at least 11,000 were interned, as well as a few thousand German Latin Americans.

After VE Day, we thought we would be released, but after VJ Day we were sure it would happen. It was not to be. President Harry Truman decided that those still interned at the end of the war were probably still “dangerous” and should be sent back to Germany. To my knowledge, this affected only the remaining several hundred persons of German ancestry still in custody. Everyone but internees of German descent left Crystal City by 1946. Those remaining, including my family, actually helped disassemble and close down the camp. Finally, in 1947, we were shipped to Ellis Island. The conditions were cramped, dirty and stultifying. I would never go back to Ellis Island. I spent too much time facing the back of the Statute of Liberty. I always felt that even though she had welcomed immigrants promising the American dream, she turned her back on us just because of our ancestry.

Finally, after a great deal of legal wrangling and a Congressional hearing, the Attorney General granted release to those remaining in custody in September 1947, two and a half years after the cessation of hostilities with Germany. My family had to start from scratch, burdened with the stigma of internment. For me, although not an even exchange, old friends were replaced with new friends. I met my wonderful wife, Barbara, in Crystal City. Lost time and opportunity was supplanted by an obsession not to waste either one. I completed high school and graduated from Ohio University with highest honors. After 12 years with Shell Oil, I earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and held responsible jobs until retirement.

I was interned when I was 17 and released when I was 22. I did 4 ½ years of time for being German. Without experiencing internment, no one can appreciate the intense terror of government power and the despair of hopelessness and endless time one feels. In addition, an internee must suffer humiliation, stigmatization and suspect “friends” who may have given damning “evidence” to the FBI, like whether one said something about Hitler at age 12. Understandably, many bear the psychological scars throughout their lives. Many have gone to their graves never speaking of their internment to their families, my brother included. A large majority of internees still do not speak out. We in the German American community must support and encourage these people to tell their stories at last without fear of recrimination. They are not criminals, but persons caught in a web of wartime hysteria. German Americans must support their people like the Japanese and Italian Americans before them.

           A government has the right and duty to protect itself. But in America, civil liberties should not be cast aside so freely, even in times of war. Frequently, as a result of rumor and innuendo, families were torn apart and homes lost. Those who were a real threat to the U.S. could have been controlled by means that did not violate civil liberties so severely. No internee was ever convicted of a crime. Spies and saboteurs were not interned. They were executed after receiving due process, the same due process internees, who were here legally, never received. The tragedy of Japanese American relocation is well known primarily because of the tremendous effort of their people. Are our people less deserving of recognition? German Americans and our organizations must insist that our government finally acknowledge the wrongs committed against our people because of our ethnicity. No one will do it for us. Likewise, we remaining internees, much as we would like to keep these experiences locked away in a dark corner, owe it to others to publicize the whole story so that what we suffered never happens again.


The Greis Story: Interned, with Sons in the Military

by Guenther Greis, with assistance from Walter Greis, Karen E. Ebel and Arthur D. Jacobs

           My parents, Peter Joseph and Franziska Greis, were born near Cologne, Germany on April 9, 1891 and May 20, 1897, respectively. My father was a WWI veteran. They married in Germany after WWI and in 1922 my older brother Siegfried was born. My father was employed as a paint chemist. His employer sought to open a company in Milwaukee and asked my father to start up the company. Joseph saw this as a great opportunity for his family. In 1923, even though it meant leaving his wife and newborn son, he traveled to the United States to follow the American dream. Francis, as she was known in this country, and Siegfried followed several months later. Unfortunately, the business plan did not work out and Joseph had to scramble to make ends meet for his new family. This included washing railroad cars and other odd jobs until he found a job in his profession as a paint chemist.

Despite these early difficulties, my family settled well in Milwaukee, where there were many other Germans. It gave them comfort to be in a place with many familiar German traditions. Joseph, always interested in music and drama, joined the Karnival German social/musical organization shortly after his arrival. Three more sons were born: Guenther in 1924, Paul in 1926 and Walter in 1927, all American citizens by virtue of their birth in the U.S. Like most women during those days, Francis never worked outside the home and relied solely on her husband for support. She had her hands full trying to raise four boys. We went to school in Milwaukee and thought of ourselves as Americans. We lived in a rented house in Milwaukee. Neither Siegfried, nor my parents became American citizens during those years. Everyone was working so hard raising a family; perhaps they didn’t have time to go to school to become citizens. Who would have ever predicted what would happen to my family because of that mistake? Citizenship papers or not, my parents thought of themselves as Americans right from the beginning. But they also loved the culture and traditions they were raised with and sought out the company of other German Americans by joining various German social organizations in Milwaukee.

As the years passed my father became more and more involved with such organizations, particularly those with connections to the arts. He never had political inclinations. Like so many German aliens in this country at that time, he had left Germany long before Hitler’s rise to power. He knew no more of him than any other American and cared little for him. Like all immigrants, though, he did love the culture of his homeland. He was an active participant in and director of musical and dramatic productions. He was popular and well known in the area. He even wrote plays. My mother was busy raising her four active boys. By December 1941 Siegfried had graduated from high school, was working, but lived at home. The other three boys were still in school. I was an honor student and lettered as a gymnast. My family life was like that of any other American family and we thought of ourselves as Americans. Despite our beliefs, others, who considered themselves “true Americans,” did not consider us Americans. Where were our parents’ citizenship papers? Why hadn’t they become citizens after all this time? Our German ancestry, Dad’s job as a chemist and family activities with German clubs probably made us suspect. We have never known why the FBI became interested in us, but that interest caused immeasurable pain in our lives.

The details of my father’s arrest and subsequent internment are difficult to recall because they occurred 60 years ago. His arrest initiated a six-year period of great turmoil for my family and for my mother, especially. She was never the same afterwards. The FBI took my father from our home on the night of Dec. 9, 1941 about three in the morning. Everyone in the house was asleep when the FBI agents pounded on our door. My father went to the door, half-asleep. The FBI agents demanded that he come with them. He was not allowed to bring anything. My mother was horrified and begged them not to take him. That was the last we knew of Dad for six weeks. The FBI took him away and he never returned home. We had absolutely no idea why or where he was taken.

Without Dad, we had no source of income. My mother did the best she could, but eventually applied for welfare. She was told that she had four boys at home and they could work. She got no aid whatsoever and we boys worked nights, doing the best we could at school during the day. I was a senior in high school. I worked the 4-11 night shift at a local sausage house. My younger brothers helped as much as they could. Luckily, two men came to our aid. After begging him for help, my mother got my Dad’s boss to at least give us his Christmas bonus while he was interned. Another kind man gave us money sometimes, so we could keep our home. I have never known his real name, but we owe him our gratitude. My grades went down immediately, not just because of my work, but because of the emotional upheaval. Eventually, I met with the principal of the school and he helped me so I could graduate. My brother, Paul dropped out of school and worked at Coca-Cola. Mother was very industrious. She cleaned houses, made aprons for sale and even did home canning, up to three hundred jars of fruits and vegetables at a time. After one trip to the farmers’ market, my youngest brother, Walter and Mother could tell immediately the house was ransacked. You could easily unlock the rear door and enter through the milk chute. Another day, a newspaper reporter showed up at the back door and forced his way in. My mother got rid of him using a broom. She was always a sensitive woman and suffered greatly during this period.

I was nervous about Dad, but equally frightened because the FBI had taken many people away in the middle of the night right after Pearl Harbor. The Milwaukee news media covered everything and helped add to the hysteria. Naturalized citizens who were German-born were even fired from their jobs. Naturally, our community knew that Dad had been taken away and everyone was suspicious of us. Going back to school was really difficult. Few of our friends wanted to have contact with us. One girl refused to go out with Walter because she “didn’t go out with Nazis.” A good family friend parked a block away when he came to visit. We even felt like outcasts at our own church because of our German blood. Many were afraid of associating with us because it might mean they, too, would become suspects of the FBI. Fear ran rampant. That is what happens when people are snatched from their homes.

We searched desperately for my father as the weeks wore on. My older brother, Siegfried, made numerous attempts via letters, as well as local inquiries, trying to find him. Rumors flew and he tried to trace every one. No one would help us. Incredibly, after a month and a half we located him right in north Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Municipal Barracks. He had not even been allowed to tell his family where he was! Once we found my father, we were permitted to visit him for short periods of time on certain days. There were about 50 men with him. In fact, there was a bus that went up to the barracks once a week with all the wives so they could visit their husbands. The conditions, while livable, were not good. Physical exercise was nonexistent and time dragged. Eventually, Dad’s internment was ordered and he was sent to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, then to Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He ended up in the large Fort Lincoln internment camp for adult males outside Bismarck, North Dakota.

Life went on for my father and for us. My mother continued cleaning houses. Paul joined the armed services as a Merchant Marine in 1943, despite Dad’s internment. I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Extension Division in Milwaukee. I went to school fulltime and worked the 11 pm to 6 am shift at Lakeside Labs helping with production. When I could, I napped on the catwalks in the lab. The boss would let us sleep periodically and 20 minutes before quitting time, he’d wake us up to leave. I tried my best to keep up my grades. Walter graduated from high school and joined the Merchant Marine. He completed his basic training at Sheepshead Bay, New York in September 1944. He then was accepted at the Cadet Radio Officer Training School on Gallups Island in Boston. Meanwhile, at Fort Lincoln, Dad immediately started providing entertainment to the hundreds of other internees. He wrote plays, directed productions and generally made life a little easier for his fellow internees, as well as for himself. My mother and we boys each visited him once. The visits extremely difficult given the distances involved. Visits were very short, strained and always conducted under guard.

In December 1944, after Dad had already been interned for three years, we (Mother, Siegfried and I) were notified we were being deported to Germany with my father. I was horrified. Why would we ever go back to Germany? It was blown to bits and besides, I was an American, not German! We tried unsuccessfully to let Walter and Paul know we were leaving. We left Milwaukee on January 1,1945 for Ellis Island via train. We had little or no time to prepare for our departure. We were only permitted to take along several boxes measuring 2’x 2’ x 4’. We left behind most of our belongings, furnishings, clothes and irreplaceable family memorabilia. Upon arrival at Grand Central Station, we tried again to contact Walter and Paul. We finally reached Walter on Gallups Island.

We reported to Ellis Island a couple of days before the S. S. Gripsholm was to depart for Germany with its human cargo, most of who were slated for exchange. The repatriation was part of an America-Germany exchange program in which civilians from this country were exchanged for Americans held in Germany. My father was nowhere to be seen. Were we being sent back without him? We had no idea how we would survive. Ellis Island was filled with people and emotion. Siegfried and I were assigned cots in the Old Record Room, the huge hall in which immigrants were processed years earlier. Men were crammed in everywhere. My mother was assigned a cot in the women’s area.

On January 6, 1945 at least a thousand people were loaded onto the Gripsholm to cross the northern Atlantic at the height of the war. By this time, I was so numb I hardly remember what happened. The military oversaw the transport of hundreds to the ship via Coast Guard cutter. Women and the children were in the cabin, but the men and older boys were outside on the rear deck. When we left, it was a very snowy, freezing cold night. My mother was a nervous wreck. Where was my father? Upon reaching the Gripsolm, the Greis family was told to stay on board. We stood outside on the rear deck bobbing up and down in the water, waiting. Finally, someone told the captain of the cutter to bring us back to Ellis Island. All of our belongings, those we had carefully selected from untold items left behind in Milwaukee, went on to Europe. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and what we carried with us onto the cutter for the trip to Germany. We never got our other belongings back.

The following morning, we were ecstatic to be reunited with my father who had come from Fort Lincoln. My mother was clearly suffering under the strain of the situation. The conditions at Ellis Island were tense and difficult. Unsuccessfully, we continued trying to contact Paul on his merchant ship through the Red Cross. We were pretty sure his ship was in a war zone and we were all very worried about him. During the following weeks, government authorities interrogated Siegfried and me extensively. My mother was very upset about it and demanded to sit in as a witness. The intense questioning stopped finally. Whether it was my mother’s efforts or because it became clear that we didn’t know anything, I don’t know. We were happy when they left us alone.

Thankfully, Walter was finally able to visit us on Ellis Island. He still has trouble describing how he felt when he learned that the government he and Paul were serving was deporting his family. As soon as he got his first weekend pass, a teenager proudly dressed in full cadet officer’s uniform, he took the train to New York to visit us imprisoned at Ellis Island. During the entire trip he wondered how people would react when he arrived in full uniform at Ellis Island and told them that he was there to visit his family? As he suspected, his visit created quite a stir.

Walter made several trips from Boston to New York to visit. It was not easy. His funds were limited and his time short due to his studies. During that time an FBI agent visited him. He believes he came up from New York. He was shocked and remembers asking him, “What do you want of me, a 17-year-old cadet?” The agent did not answer his questions. Shortly thereafter, without warning or a complete explanation, he was stripped of his cadet uniform, and relieved from the training school at Gallups Island. His commander implied that because his family was interned, he was not allowed to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. He was mortified and upset. Immediately thereafter he was ordered to return to Sheepshead Bay, where on April 5, 1945 he completed merchant vessel engine and boiler training. In a way, he views his transfer back to Sheepshead Bay as a blessing, because he could go to Ellis Island every weekend to visit us.

After passing his examinations, Walter was granted a ten-day leave. He visited my family and returned to Milwaukee. This was a mistake. He was miserable. Our home was no longer ours and our belongings were gone. He was then transferred to Long Beach, California. From May through November 1945 he was assigned to ships in the Pacific War Zone in support of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, spending time in the Philippines. Both ships, the SS Fort Niagara and the SS Edward Nickels played integral roles in the Pacific War Zone of Operation. It was anticipated that the Nickels’ final mission in the Pacific War Zone would be part of elaborate plans for the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands pursuant to two massive military undertakings. In the first attack, American combat troops were to land on Japan by amphibious assault early on November 1, 1945. The Nickels, among others, would have been in direct support of this invasion. During Walter’s service, the deck of the Nickels was covered with P-38, Lockheed Lightning fighter planes. The invasion was not necessary due to the atomic bomb attack on Japan. Walter fully participated in the war effort while we were interned.

Still on Ellis Island, my parents lived in an area for married couples. We were able to visit them. Siegfried and I stayed in Old Record Room with hundreds of other men. I remember Italians at Ellis Island, as well as German Latin Americans, including a man who had been in the coffee business in the cot next to me. We had no privacy whatsoever. I was happy to find a job in the officers’ mess because there wasn’t much to do. The only physical activity possible was a brief walk in a fenced exercise area near where the ferry docked. Once we saw a boatload of people delivered. The tide was low and the military personnel heaved the luggage up onto the shore. Some of the suitcases burst open to reveal their contents, including fine musical instruments. Little care was taken with anyone’s personal belongings.

After years of being our family’s strength, my mother had a nervous breakdown. Everything finally got to her. She was transferred from Ellis Island to a Navy hospital where she stayed for several weeks. We were very worried about her, but not surprised at her collapse. It was predictable considering what she had been through.

She was not the only woman to suffer in this way. Mothers were under incredible stress. My father felt very guilty about what happened to us. He blamed himself, but he could never figure out what he had done wrong.

In April 1945 my mother was finally well enough to leave the hospital. We all wanted to stay together, so the government agreed to transfer us to the family camp in Crystal City, Texas. The Greis family and the Jacobs family, with two young boys, Arthur and Lambert, were escorted by border patrol personnel on a troop train to Crystal City. We were always under guard, but by then we were starting to get used to it. After Ellis Island, Crystal City seemed great even though it was a heavily guarded internment camp. It was clean and well organized, with good programs in place for smooth operation. We lived in a small house with bedrooms and a kitchen. Most importantly, we lived together again like a family. My father helped to entertain the internees. The Japanese and Germans were kept sharply divided and rarely came into contact. Many German Latin Americans were also at the camp. They had been torn from their homes by their government at the encouragement of the United States. I do not recall meeting any Latin Americans in the camp who even spoke German. Many had Latino wives.

Germany surrendered in May 1945, shortly after we arrived in Crystal City. We thought we would all be released, but only Siegfried was. He requested release shortly after our arrival. After some deliberation, the authorities agreed to release him. He happily returned to Milwaukee to work. I think he was merely paroled and was still subject to many restrictions on property ownership and travel. Happily, Paul returned safely to Milwaukee after having being stationed in the Indian Ocean with Merchant Marine for most of the war. Walter also returned to Milwaukee briefly and worked. They would not release my parents and me. In camp, I tried to get work in the lab hospital, but had no luck. I did work in the community dining room and, later, on a milk route. My mother’s health was never good. I recall that during my stay at Crystal City there were about 800 Germans and 1000 Japanese incarcerated. All the Japanese were released in 1946, but at least 500 Germans remained imprisoned at Crystal City. None of us could understand why we weren’t released. We learned that President Truman had decided that whoever was interned at the end of the war must be dangerous. He said that if we were deemed dangerous enough to intern before the war, we still were. That rule seemed to apply to mostly Germans.

I remained with my parents until the fall of 1946. Over a year after the war with Germany ended, I finally was allowed to leave. I felt terrible for my parents. My father had already been imprisoned at that point for almost five years. When I left, I was asked to chaperone two Japanese children to Chicago via train, which I did. Relatives met them. I continued on to Milwaukee where I lived with my brothers, continued my schooling and worked. Walter volunteered for additional duty with the Merchant Marine in 1946. Our parents were still interned—17 months after the war in Europe ended. His duty included the transport of grain from New York City to Venice, Italy, up the Adriatic, which was still quite dangerous at that time due to extensive, residual heavy mining from the war.

Finally, in 1947, two years after the end of the war, my parents were allowed to leave Crystal City and come home to Milwaukee. It was very difficult to start over again. They had little or no money and felt stigmatized by their internment. My mother was never the same after her ordeal. Eventually, we managed to rent a small flat until we could get organized. My father had a hard time finding a job doing anything but menial labor. He was refused reemployment at his old job as a chemist. My father never quit. I have to admire his stamina and determination after all he had been through. He borrowed some money and opened the “European Relief Store,” which provided care packages for those suffering in Europe after the war. At night, we helped him pack boxes. He sent up to 200 packages per day. This store eventually grew to become J.P. Greis Imports. In 1948, the Greis brothers bought a chemical business. I left college without graduating to help with the business, which Walter and I own to this day.

Although the Merchant Marine is now considered military service, at the time, it was not. My brother Walter was drafted back into the service in 1948. He joined the Air Force shortly after we bought the business. Again his German heritage affected his military career while serving his country. He was in his third week of radio cryptology training at Brooks Field in San Antonio when he received notice to report to his squadron commander. He was relieved of duty from the cryptology school and assigned to overseas duty. Although little detail was given, the commander indicated that he was relieved because his German background might adversely influence the performance of his duty. This was another heart-wrenching episode in Walter’s young life. Not only was he hurt and mortified, he still had to live in the barracks with his buddies until he was transferred. They knew what had happened and were forbidden to talk to him about anything “official.”

After a short furlough home to Milwaukee, in the spring of 1950, he was shipped by a military troop transport to Anderson Field, Guam and Marianna Islands. Shortly thereafter, North Korea invaded South Korea. He was transferred to the 30th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group (B-29s) at Kadina Air Base in Okinawa. He was promoted to radio operator with flying status and served on several dangerous bombing runs. In 1952, having honorably served his country for another four years, he left the United States Air Force. For his combat duty, he was awarded the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters for two 1950 and two 1951 missions. Walter served the United States through WWII and the Korean Conflict a total of eight years.

Despite the fact that their parents and siblings were wrongly interned, Walter and Paul honorably served this country. They put their lives on the line during combat operations and missions for the cause of freedom while their own family was deprived of that freedom at home. Nevertheless, the government still believed that Walter could not be trusted as a commissioned officer or a cryptology radio operator because of his German heritage.

Many years have passed since these events. Our mother is 104. We wish the government would admit what it did during her lifetime. We speak out now because as we grow older we realize how important it is for future generations that Americans know what occurred during the war to persons of “enemy” ethnicity. It is hard to imagine such things happening again, but they could. The laws that authorized these actions still exist. We feel the government must acknowledge the whole story. Although much is known about relocation from the West Coast, virtually nothing is known about the destructive forces of internment on families and communities. Paul and Walter gave years of their lives protecting our valuable, but fragile, liberty. All Americans must know the dreadful consequences of liberty lost, so they can ensure that it does not happen again.


The Misplaced American

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 Ursula’s book The Misplaced American© Ursula Vogt Potter 2002; used courtesy of Art Jacobs, Karen Ebel and John Christgau

Ursula: 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 emigrate to America. An old uncle had been begging Kasper for years to come to America and take over the uncle’s small farm, which was located south of Spokane in the fertile Palouse country of eastern Washington State. They left Germany on April 9, 1923 and arrived in Spokane on May 1. Soon after their arrival on the farm, the family realized that conditions were not as rosy as the uncle had painted them. The farm was run down and debt ridden, making it necessary for Kasper and his two older sons, Karl (my dad) and Wilhelm (Bill), to work at outside jobs until the farm became productive enough to support the family.

My father, Karl, met my mother, Elsie Reifenberger, in 1924 at Zion Lutheran Church in the neighboring community of Fairfield, Washington. Elsie and her siblings were born in America, but her father and mother had emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s. The two families, the Vogts and the Reifenbergers, became good friends. Elsie’s mother had died when she was only six years old, so Jenny Gelber, a cousin who was a nurse in Germany, had been persuaded to come to America to help raise Elsie and her sisters. Later, after Elsie graduated from college and had taught school for several years, she and Karl fell in love and became engaged. At this time it was decided that Karl and Bill would remain in America and the rest of the Vogt family would return to Germany. Employment opportunities for the younger Vogt siblings were now better in Germany than here in America. Also, the family had kept their small German landholding, renting it out while here in America, making it easier to resume their lives in Germany. Elsie and Karl were married on October 20, 1935 and a few days later the remaining Vogts (except for Bill) began their journey back to Germany. The next spring, 1936, Elsie and Karl took a delayed honeymoon trip to Germany. Most of the time there was spent visiting relatives, but they also took a short tour with a German-American group from Spokane. One of the people that they met on this tour was the editor of the Washington Post, a German-American newspaper in Spokane. His name was Heinrich Hesse. Karl kept in contact with Mr. Hesse after this trip and it was he who advised Karl and Bill to put the farm into Elsie’s name. Hesse told them, “You are not citizens. They’ll take the land away from you if war starts with Germany.” Karl and Bill took his advice, hired a lawyer and the farm was sold to Elsie.

When Elsie and Karl took their trip to Germany in 1936, Elsie’s cousin, Jenny, went with them. She had decided to return to her former home near Seigen in Northern Germany. The Reifenberger girls were adults now, and no longer needed her, and she had a sister in Germany who was ill and needed Jenny’s help. While she was here in America, Jenny had managed to build up savings in the Fidelity Bank in Spokane. During the Depression the account was blocked, but later the bank paid out a certain amount each year. Jenny gave Elsie and Karl Power of Attorney in 1936, so when the Fidelity made these payments, they cashed the checks and sent the money to Jenny by money order. When the war broke out between Britain and Germany, they knew that it would not be safe to send it the regular way any longer. Someone suggested that they should send the money to the German Consulate in San Francisco. There the Consulate would keep the American dollars for its own expenses and pay out the sum in German marks to Jenny in Germany. Karl did just that, and a couple of weeks later received a paper signed by Jenny stating that she had been paid the money. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Consulate was raided and Karl’s letter was evidently found. Later, it was revealed that the head of the Consulate from 1939 until July 1941 (Capt. Fritz Wiedemann) had been involved in espionage activities and was expelled from this country late in the summer of 1941.

After Karl was picked up and he had a “so-called” hearing, some of the above events were held against him. “Why did your family go back to Germany? Why did you sell the farm to your wife? Why did you take a trip to Germany in 1936? Why did you send money to Hitler?” were some of the questions posed to him over and over. It never occurred to him that the basis for the money question was the money he had sent to Jenny Gelber.

Karl: My first night after being picked up by the FBI was spent in the county jail in Spokane. This was one of the lowest times of my life. It was if I had died and gone to hell. The shock of being uprooted so suddenly for no good reason was still fresh and unreal to me. How long would this go on? What would become of me? And what about Elsie? Would she live through this? Would I ever see my family again? Over and over in my mind I kept seeing the stricken faces of my family. Even little Ursula was not consolable when they took me away—and Armin, that feisty little fellow, was shouting at those F.B.I. men as we left, “You bad men! You bad men!”

I was held in the county jail until December 21, 1941, when they finally shipped me off to Fort Lincoln, Bismarck, North Dakota. At Fort Lincoln, on January 19, 1942 I had a “so-called” hearing. I was not allowed to have an attorney and had to appear before the Enemy Alien Hearing Board of Eastern Washington. I was grilled for hours. Later on February 3, the hearing was completed in Spokane where witnesses and affidavits could be presented. I was not allowed to attend this part of the hearing. Many people testified or sent affidavits in my defense. Later I heard that three people had testified against me. We had land hungry neighbors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the farm. Of course, they didn’t know that the farm had been turned over to Elsie. The Board chose to listen to the three and ignore the rest.

From Fort Lincoln, I was transferred to Camp McCoy, Sparta, Wisconsin and then, finally, to Stringtown, Oklahoma. I arrived there on June 17, 1942. Although I was never physically tortured or starved, life behind a barbed wire fence, separated from home and family, was an ordeal. Nevertheless, I decided early on to make the best of the situation. I was still alive, my wife and children seemed to be coping and I could only hope that this would all end soon. Soon, I also found out that my internment story was not nearly as tragic as many others in the camps. On the plus side for me, while I was interned I met and became friends with many wonderful and interesting people. These people were not Nazi sympathizers and certainly did not in any way pose a threat to America. They were simply victims of the hysteria of wartime.

Many of the men I met at Fort Lincoln were transferred with me to Camp McCoy and then finally to the permanent camp at Stringtown. They all had interesting stories to tell of their lives and the circumstances of their internments. One of my friends at Fort Lincoln was Erich Braemer. He and I were both from Washington State and both of us had been “arrested” on December 9, 1941. Erich was a friendly, interesting person whom I liked immediately. He told me that he had a son who was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. One day near the end of February 1942, the head of the camp called Erich to the office and told him he would be going home in a few weeks. Many of us were really excited about this, because we thought there might be some hope for us too. He promised that he would write and tell us why he had been released so soon. Later he sent news clippings from a Seattle, Washington newspaper. These news articles told about the Braemer son who had been part of the Doolittle Raid. General James Doolittle had led sixteen B-25 bombers from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet (a feat in itself for the usually land-based bombers) to a very dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo in April of 1942. Fred Braemer, Erich’s son, had been the bombardier on the lead airplane piloted by James Doolittle. [Editor: Click here to view the Doolittle 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.

Elsie: 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.

Armin: I was almost five years old when we visited Dad at Stringtown. I remember with absolute clarity the high fence and several strands of barbed wire at the top and the gate through which we had to pass inspection before we were allowed to enter. The guards all had rifles and side arms. The officers only carried side arms. An armed guard escorted us to a small one-room building. In the center of the room there was a small square table and four chairs. In the corner of the room was another chair that was occupied by an armed guard. There may have been another guard also, but I particularly remember the one in the corner because, on the first day of our visit, his rifle was held at ready. Literally pointed in our direction—not directly, but over our heads. On the second day of our visit this guard parked his weapon in the corner. I guess my curiosity regarding his weapon on the first day and my many questions regarding his gun were disconcerting to him. Dad did tell us later that the guards were unhappy about the situation. Guarding little kids with a rifle was too much for them. Dad also told us later about a nearly unbelievable incident that happened in the camp. A new guard was randomly assigned to guard an internee whose family was visiting him. This guard turned out to be the son of this internee! This, of course, caused quite a stir among the military personnel assigned to the camp. [Editor: During the summer of 1943 Armin at age 6 and Ursula at age 3 visited their father at Fort Missoula, Montana. Click on their names to view a photograph of them in Missoula: Armin and Ursula ]

Elsie: 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.

Karl: 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.

Ursula: Amazingly, throughout his ordeal, and later, Dad continued to be pro American—anti-Roosevelt certainly, but strongly pro-democracy. He understood that the measure of a great democracy is in part its willingness to make itself vulnerable. He would sometimes lecture us on how the Founding Fathers wrote this vulnerability into the Constitution, but that they did so with trepidation as evidenced by the heated debates surrounding the drafting of the Constitution. Guaranteed constitutional freedoms can be dangerous in a society, but more dangerous, they argued, is the repression of these freedoms. My dad, I think, understood clearly the paradox, that these freedoms are valued and feared all in one breath, and that during times of national crisis, this tenuous balance can easily be skewed toward fear. This kind of fear caused America to send a large number of its loyal citizens and residents to barbed wire enclosures, and it sent my father away from his family for nearly three years. How ironic that one of Roosevelt’s famous statements during this time was: “the only thing to fear is fear itself!”

Even more amazing, perhaps, is that my family on the other side of the ocean remained pro-American. My uncle Henry, who was in the Nazi army, saved the lives of a number of Jewish people, at great risk to himself. Near the end of the war, he positioned himself so that he was captured by the Americans, and because of his good command of the English language, was able to work for them as an interpreter. My aunt Marta, who was a censor for the Germans during the war, began working as an interpreter for the Americans after they occupied the town where she resided. These connections with the Americans saved my European family from starvation—a fate common to many Germans for several years after the war. Several stories about the experiences of Uncle Henry, Aunt Marta, Aunt Lisbeth and Aunt Mina in Germany during the war are told in the book, The 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.  

Max Ebel is shown working on a railway project

 as an internee in North Dakota: he is the bent-

over figure with the hat and white glove in the 

middle of top photo; the bottom photo shows the

boxcars where the internees lived while working

on the rails. (Photos courtesy of Karen E. Ebel.

The Max Ebel Story

The following report appeared on the front page of the Concord Monitor (NH) on Sunday, January 23, 2000. It is printed courtesy of the Concord Monitor.  

Germans, too, were Imprisoned in WWII

Sunday, January 23, 2000

by Sarah M. Earle of the Monitor staff
           Max Ebel came to the United States to be free, but when war came, he was sent to an internment camp. His was a fate shared by thousands, in a chapter of U.S. history yet to be written in full.

           Pushing back the sleeve of his light blue cardigan, 80-year-old Max Ebel showed off the wounds he received as a 17-year-old Boy Scout fighting off a gang of Hitler Youth: two ghost-white puckers in his weathered skin, phantoms of the knife blade that sent him to America.

           “They stabbed me in the hand,” he said in an accent that, like the scars, has faded but never disappeared. “They were trying to force me to join.”

           The rest of Ebel’s story has been slower in revealing itself. There are parts he can’t remember and parts that never seemed worth telling. Other parts he’ll never understand, much less explain.

           For more than 50 years following his release from a U.S. alien enemy internment camp, Ebel, who lives in Effingham, talked little of his experiences. Now and then he’d tell stories of the months he spent toiling on the railroad, the sick little Indian girl he bought medicine for or the Japanese prisoner he helped save from

           But “there just wasn’t that much to say,” he said with a shrug.

           The rest of the country has shrugged along with him. Or so it seems to Ebel’s daughter, Karen. For the past year, she’s been searching the Internet, scouring government documents and corresponding with officials in an attempt to piece together the strange, scattered history her father shares with some 30,000 other immigrants and to secure them a paragraph or two in the nation’s collective memory.

           What she’s found is a largely overlooked piece of history, a group of people hardly unique in that they suffered during World War II, but unique in that their suffering has gone unrecognized.

           “We feel it’s important for people to know that the internment occurred and that it wasn’t just the Japanese who were affected,” Karen Ebel said.

            So, with his daughter’s prodding, Max Ebel is finally telling his story in full.
German in America

           It is a story that begins where perhaps it should have ended. The stab wounds that marked Ebel’s Nazi defiance might have secured him a peaceful life in the United States had anyone cared to ask about them. But this was 1942 America, a country at war on multiple fronts, a nation frightened by every foreign face and accent. And Ebel’s scars meant less than his foreign accent, his German name.

           In 1937, Ebel was a young cabinetmaker’s apprentice in Germany, helping support his family after his parents’ divorce, devoting his free time to the German version of the Boy Scouts. At the same time, Hitler was rising to power, and with the decree that the Boy Scouts be dissolved, Ebel felt the first jolt of Hitler’s
influence. In the months to follow, the Hitler Youth began infiltrating every part of Ebel’s community, and the pressure to join the Nazis became intense.

           Ebel isn’t sure why he didn’t give in. “I think it was because I was being forced. It wasn’t my free will,” said Ebel, sitting in his daughter’s home in New London.

           When that force threatened Ebel’s life, he decided it was time to get out of Germany. After the attack that ended in a stab wound, Ebel made arrangements to move to America to live with his father, who had emigrated to the United States eight years earlier.

           “I remember stepping off the wharf (at Ellis Island), and my first impression was to turn around and go home because it was so filthy,” Ebel said. He remembers pointing in bewilderment to the worm-like strands hanging from the fire escapes in downtown New York. They were spaghetti leftovers, his father explained,
dumped out the windows in the Italian section of the neighborhood.

           Despite those first impressions, Ebel stayed, settling in Cambridge, Mass, where his father had a small woodworking business. A black man named Johnny, one of his father’s employees, taught him English, leaving him with a Southern accent that people in Germany still tease him about. He went to school and got a high school degree, enrolled in the Boy Scouts and filed a Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. citizen.

           “I was an American right from the beginning, and I always will be,” he said. “I think I appreciated my freedom as much as a fish let out of a bowl.”

           That freedom was short-lived, however. The very influence Ebel had fled Germany to escape had in fact followed him, in the form of a cloud of suspicion. “I left Germany because of the Nazis, and I came over here and I was a Nazi,” he said.
The FBI comes knocking

           The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States tightened its cinch of citizenship in an effort to purge and protect itself against foreign enemies within its borders. The results have yet to be fully sorted out. Historical accounts and expert opinions differ widely on the subject of foreign relocation
and internment, and only recently has the government made efforts to admit to and apologize for some of the events.

           “It’s very convoluted,” Karen Ebel said. “The lines of authority are so blurred.”

           What is generally agreed upon is that some 100,000 people of Japanese descent were ordered to evacuate specific West Coast military areas following the Pearl Harbor attack. An additional 16,000 Japanesenon-citizens and those who had renounced their citizenshipwere interned in camps around the country.

           The treatment of these prisoners has been a subject of sore debate in recent years, as has the very fact that thousands of people of other nationalities were also interned. Controversy continues to rage over who was interned and why, and whether the government had a right to corral its own citizens, as well as
aliens living peaceably within its borders.

           “For the most part, the history of internment has been either quieted or distorted,” Joseph Fallon, co-author of the five-volume German Americans in the World Wars, writes on his Web site. “The majority of the best-selling collegiate and secondary school history texts in the United States claim that, unlike Japanese Americans, the German and Italian Americans were not arrested and interned; and both the print and electronic media have propagated this myth.”

           Drawing on 10 years of research obtained primarily from such sources as the National Archives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fallon claims that 56 percent of all internees were, in fact, Europeans and European Americans. Other researchers cite similar statistics.

           All Max Ebel knows is what happened to him. In September 1942, FBI officers came and searched the Ebels’ house. Ebel remembers one officer instructing him to open a little table he’d made with a secret compartment on top. As he unlatched the hook, the man sprang for his gun.

           Ebel just chuckles now to think of the officer’s fear of his nightstand.

           “You were a real threat, huh,” Karen Ebel teased her father.

           But then, it was no laughing matter. Though the officers found nothing but some German books, a calendar and a radio, they returned a few days later and arrested Ebel.

           He still doesn’t know why.
Back to Ellis Island

           An alien still awaiting citizenship, Ebel was legally internable under both the “Enemy Alien Act of 1798” and international law, which permits a country to intern those aliens residing in its territory who are subjects or nationals of a country with whom they are at war. But why the government would feel the
need to exercise that right on a person like Ebel baffles his family.

           “If you were part of the German community . . . you were all of a sudden under suspicion,” Karen Ebel said. “A little comment here, a little comment there, and they were all over you.”

           Karen Ebel has obtained some of the official records related to her father’s internment and used them to form a couple of theories.

           Apparently, Ebel stated on his draft questionnaire that he was willing to fight with the Americans in the Pacific but didn’t want to fight in Germany because he had so much family there. There is also mention of a pacifist remark in one of Ebel’s court records and reference to a compliment he made of the road system
under Hitler.

           One or all of those “crimes” sent Ebel to prison.

           And it was a prison, not just according to Ebel’s memory, but numerous documents, pictures and personal stories.

           “The military viewed these civilians as Prisoners of War,” wrote John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton. “Internees were housed in four-man tents, several of which routinely flooded after heavy rains. . . . Barbed wire, ‘off limits’ signs, and machine guns surrounding the prisoners completed the scene, along with guards who viewed these men as potentially dangerous, rather than the typical butchers, bakers, mechanics and common folk that most of them were.”

           Ebel remembers the ever-present barbed wire and armed guards, as he was bounced from camp to camp for the next 18 months.

           He was first held in an Immigration and Naturalization Services office for three months while he awaited a hearing. Dozens of people of different nationalities were packed in a small room, all awaiting an unknown fate. One night, Ebel heard the toilet flush repeatedly and peeked into the bathroom to see what was going on. A Japanese prisoner had slit his throat and was flushing the blood down the commode.

           “We saved his life,” Ebel said.

           Ebel could certainly understand the man’s desperation. “They never told me why I was there,” he said. And when he finally stood before a judge, his pleas were futile. “That was such a mess, I can’t even remember,” he said.

           Though the hearing board recommended Ebel be released and kept under watch, according to court documents, he was sent to Washington, D.C., where the Department of Justice decided to intern him anyway. He was sent to Ellis Island, the very symbol of America’s open arms to immigrants. There he was kept in bunkers and let out for exercise only periodically in a cage on the roof.

           “If you wanted privacy, you had to hang a blanket down from your bunk . . . and the food was terrible,” he said.

           From there, Ebel was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland, where he was given a physical and held for several days. “And the food there was great,” Ebel remembered.

           “Well, you were hungry by then, boy,” Ebel’s wife, Doris, reminded him.

           Fate then shipped Ebel to Camp Forrest in Tennessee, where he spent two or three months. That camp was emptied out and turned into a POW camp, and Ebel was transferred to Fort Lincoln in North Dakota.

           He might have been better off staying behind. Fort Lincoln was filthy, crowded and dismal. “I’ll tell you, that was hell,” he said.
Cheap labor

           As the war progressed, the government tapped the internment camps for workers. Ebel volunteered to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad, placing himself once again under Nazi pressure. Legitimate Nazis, who made up a small portion of the camp’s population, raged against the volunteers for helping the
American war effort.

           Certainly, Ebel didn’t align himself with the Nazis. But at that point, he wasn’t exactly concerning himself with national loyalties. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” he said.

           For the next eight or nine months, Ebel worked on the railroads on the great windswept plains of North Dakota. All through the winter, he and his team pulled up the old rails and laid new, sturdier ones, weighing up to 250 pounds apiece. Working their way across half the state, they slept in boxcars and chipped through inches of ice to get water.

           For food, “we would get rotten liver, which was frozen,” Ebel recalled. “Once in a while, we got a chicken.”

           And though they were now getting paid a couple of cents an hour for their toils, they were still kept under close guard. Occasionally, the guards let them go into town for an evening, but they could tell they were being followed by the tracks in the snow.

           For Christmas that year, the crew rode one of the train cars down to a field full of pheasants and harvested their own dinner.

           “We got ourselves a beautiful meal . . . and it was no thanks to the government,” Ebel said.

           Among his musings of his months on the railroad, the memory that imbues Ebel’s vivid blue eyes with the most emotion is the Indian community the crew befriended.

           The whole team attended a church near an Indian reservation, where an Indian pastor lambasted them for his people’s plight. “He would give us hell because we were white,” Ebel said. Then he would turn around and ask for money for the rent.

           The crew obliged and pooled their pennies to bring the little church up to date on their rent. In return, the Indians held a party for them at their reservation.

           “The poverty there was beyond belief,” said Ebel, who has been involved with various Native American organizations ever since the war.

           As the bond between the two forgotten communities grew, the Indians would come to the railroad to barter with the workers. And when a little girl in the village became sick, they called on the crew once again for help. “We pooled our money to get her medicine,” Ebel recalled. “The government would have let her

           His sympathy for the Indians’ plight aside, Ebel harbored little bitterness against his country throughout the ordeal. In April 1944, after incessant petitioning by the leader of Ebel’s crew, a U.S. citizen, the government granted Ebel a new hearing.

           On the basis of his good behavior and lack of evidence against him, the board determined that he was not a threat to the government. But before he could board a train for home, Ebel was drafted and sent to Fort Snelling in Minnesota. In another odd twist, he failed to pass his physical and was sent home at last.

There, he remained under restrictions for several more months. “Here I was, I’d worked for all these months on a railroad, and back in Boston, I wasn’t allowed to walk under a railroad track,” said Ebel, who married and settled in New Hampshire shortly after the war, opening a woodworking business and organizing a Boy Scout troop.

           “Well, you know, you could have planted a bomb or something,” Karen Ebel teased.

           “It just shows you the stupidity of it,” Ebel said.
‘Never any mention’

           The government has owned up to that “stupidity,” in part. In the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the government offered an apology and granted compensation to 75,000 Japanese Americans who were interned or relocated against their will during the war.

           Recently, efforts have been made to address the internment of other nationalities. In November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Wartime Violations of the Italian American Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging the wrongful treatment of Italian Americans who were classified as “enemy aliens” during the war. A companion Senate bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee for review.

           But the Germans have once again been overlooked. Karen Ebel has written letters to New Hampshire’s senators, Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, and to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, proposing an amendment to include German internees as well as those of other nationalities. Her efforts have been paralleled by other activists, as well as officials like U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, who urged the House to pursue “a full historical accounting of the experiences of all Americans who suffered discrimination during the Second World War,” shortly after the original bill was passed.

           In addition, America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the internment period thanks to books such as David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, which tells the experiences of a young Japanese internee and has been made into a movie.

           Former German internee Arthur Jacobs has told his own story in The Prison Called Hohenasperg, drawing national interest to people who shared Ebel’s plight. The American Library Association’s Booklist offers the following review: “There has been very little written about the terrible punishment that was meted
out to thousands of German Americans during World War II. That’s why Jacobs’s book is an important one. This modest tome opens up a hidden and disgraceful chapter in our history for all to see.”

           Karen Ebel thinks it’s about time. “If the government continually singles out one group to recognize while excluding others identically treated, the injustice is perpetrated yet again,” she said.

           Whatever else comes of it, Max Ebel seems to have enjoyed dusting off his box of mementosa railroad spike, a photo of the little Indian girl, the German penny he carried in his pocketand finally telling his story.

           “Life brings along a lot of different things in 80 years,” he said. “I have absolutely no malice . . . but it’s just history, and there was never any mention of it. And that’s what got me going.”


closing note from Karen Ebel:

My father's entire family remained in Germany and he had cousins and a brother who were drafted into service for the Third Reich. In an extraordinarily bizarre twist of fate, his first cousin from Germany, who was shot down in France or Belgium, I believe (he was a paratrooper), ended up at Camp Forrest as well. He's still in Germany.

The following column appeared in the Concord Monitor (NH) on Sunday January 30, 2000. It is published here courtesy of the Concord Monitor.  

It’s Time to Admit Wrongs

Sunday, January 30, 2000

by Karen Ebel
for the Monitor
           My father and many others were wrongfully imprisoned. I want him to get an apology. More than that, I want a promise it will never happen again.

           A jagged razor and blood. Ellis Island’s rooftop exercise cage overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Men shot in a Tennessee camp. Prowling dogs. Howling North Dakota winter winds and a boxcar home. Hungry Sioux selling meager wares from a buckboard wagon.

           Vivid images remain with my German immigrant father, 56 years after his release from internment by the United States.

           During World War II, the land of hope and freedom harassed and imprisoned many of the immigrants it had beckoned to its shores. Civil rights were trampled, even the rights of a teenager running from Hitler’s tyranny, while our soldiers fought for freedom. America still has not faced what it did. It still resists.

           Growing up, I sensed that my father was imprisoned for being a German in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shrugging, true to his generation, he said, “Well, that’s in the past.”

           Maybe he had good reason to be silent. Suspicious looks met my telling of his story. Nazi! My high school history teacher reddened. Lies! Neighborhood children taunted: “Kraut!” “Hitler’s daughter!” Even in the 1960s and ‘70s, our German heritage weighed heavy.

           America cannot promise perfect justice, but justice is its noble goal. America has stood taller in its admission of guilt for past wrongs. Civil rights legislation is but one example. My goal is illumination of a dark corner of our history and an apology to my father, who was wrongfully imprisoned. But most important,
illumination should help to prevent future trampling of your rights and mine.  

          In 1941, groping back to a bigoted 1798 law passed to handle British sympathizers, FDR colluded with the Department of Justice in branding persons of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry as enemy aliens. He legalized their mistreatment for domestic security’s sake.

           For years, the FBI had watched, gathering rumors. War was declared. True, many enemy aliens suffered little discrimination. Others probably deserved what they got. And, in fairness, America had to protect itself. But too frequently, hysterical theories of guilt led to roughshod ransacking, confiscation,
imprisonment and evacuation
all authorized by the Department of Justice.

           At long delayed hearings, those rumors became evidence with no lawyer’s protection. Even when hearing boards recommended release, as in my father’s case, Washington knew better. The lords of the Department of Justice locked the doors on the internees and threw away the keys.

           Too many husbands and fathers were plucked from their homes without good cause. Desperate families knocked at internment camp doors, unable to survive alone. Homes were lost and lives destroyed in answer to a possible saboteur’s threat.

           No, I wasn’t there, but I can still ask these questions: Was this justified by wartime hysteria? Was this what our soldiers were dying to preserve? Is this your image of America? I think not.

           Some have labored far longer than I have for government acknowledgment of wartime internment of Europeans. They have been rebuffed. Their work continues and I have joined them.

           Years ago, apologizing for mistreatment of the Japanese, Congress convinced itself that sham hearings had provided European internees with sufficient due process. Our government made no apology for their internment. That it evened happened remains obscure. Without government acknowledgment like that
afforded the Japanese, the facts probably will remain hidden.

           Recently, I thought I saw light at the end of the tunnel. In October, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the proposed “Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act,” sponsored by Rep. Rick Lazio. His bill identified only Italians, not all European enemy aliens whose civil
liberties were violated during World War II. We encouraged amendment to include all similarly treated enemy aliens. He and the Judiciary Committee ignored our pleas. In November, the bill passed. Immediately, Sen. Robert Torricelli introduced an identical Senate bill.

           We are pushing again for an all-encompassing bill. How can Congress say no? The bill itself asserts that to discourage the future occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties, the story of the World War II treatment of Italians must be told. These virtuous words are a cruel joke. Why tell half the story?
           Justice requires recognition of all enemy alien mistreatment.

           Sadly, although we have right on our side, without an interest group’s support, we cannot be confident of success. Perhaps still cowering in the long, dark shadow of Nazi guilt, Germans do not step forward. Most have nothing to hide, but still they fear. Why open a can of worms?

           My father knew this fear, but for last week’s Sunday Monitor he dared to tell his story to shed more light in that dark corner. All Americans, including the Japanese, should call for a full accounting of the discrimination.

           Urge Congress to stand tall by passing the law that will finally put this shame behind us. Only then can we feel more secure that our civil rights won’t be cast aside unjustly. Don’t do it for my father. Be selfish. Do it for yourself. Next time, it might be your turn.



In October 2001 Max Ebel's daughter Karen wrote a moving plea to avoid such "travesties" in the future.

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