America’s Forgotten Captives
Story by Ryan Deto
Illustrations by Alexandra Notman
Arthur Jacobs was eleven years old when the FBI arrested his father. On a Friday in November 1944, authorities arrived at the mechanic shop in Brooklyn, where his German-born father worked, and escorted him to Ellis Island for detention. He was arrested on suspicion that he might have connections to the German government. For days, Arthur’s family thought he disappeared. His mother cried and waited at the window, hoping her husband would appear from around the corner. Arthur’s father informed the authorities that his wife was home with two boys and only two dollars to take care of them, but the family was not told until Monday. When Arthur’s mother realized she could not support Arthur and his fourteen-year-old brother, Lambert Jr., alone, she voluntarily detained herself and her two sons with their father.
During World War II, thousands* of German-Americans (resident aliens born in Germany) were interned in camps and detention centers throughout the United States in places such as Crystal City, Texas and Fort Lincoln, North Dakota. With no mention of internment in history books and no preservation of the camps, most Americans are unaware that German-Americans were interned at all.
In February 1945, the Jacobs family was placed on a train from New York City to Crystal City, Texas, where they were housed in a large one-room structure. From inside, the internment camp resembles a small city, with all the conventions of society. Male internees performed manual labor while females sewed garments for ten cents an hour. Families earned wages in the form of red and green tokens and could spend this money at grocery stores, a butcher shop, and a barbershop. The camp had a fire department, a swimming pool dug by the internees, and a school where Arthur and Lambert Jr. were taught to speak German.
A view from outside provided a different perspective. A ten-foot-high fence enclosed the camp’s one hundred acres. Guards patrolled beneath the barbed wire barrier and armed men sat in watchtowers. Incoming and outgoing mail was carefully inspected and censored. Internees were held captive and kept until the FBI cleared their names; most were not cleared until after the war was over.
These German-Americans were taken after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526, and 2527 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The proclamations designated Japanese, German, and Italian nationals as “enemy aliens” and allowed law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to arrest suspects they deemed potentially dangerous. More than a million resident aliens were forced to register at the post office – about 250,000 were German. Resident aliens were not allowed to carry radios, cameras, or firearms. Captives were given no prior notice to their arrests. Their hearings were short and the accused had minutes to defend themselves without the aid of attorneys.
Jacobs’ father was detained because the FBI alleged he was on a list of Nazi sympathizers, even though his father said he never signed up for any such group, according to Jacobs. They also claimed he had a picture of Hitler in his bedroom, though the picture was of Will Rogers, a popular radio personality of the era. The FBI kept him without providing the Nazi-sympathizer list as evidence. Today, the FBI could not comment on the subject because the bureau employs no one that can provide an expert opinion on the internment of German-Americans, according to FBI Public Affairs Specialist Linda Wilkins.
The detainment of German-Americans would not have been possible without the presidential proclamations, which state that whenever war is declared between the United States and a foreign nation, the subjects of that hostile nation who are at least fourteen years old and not naturalized citizens, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as enemy aliens. Jacobs also explains that some internees were exchanged for American POWs in Germany during the war. In Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees, Arnold Krammer writes that although most German-American internees were innocent, fifteen to twenty percent of them were legitimate Nazi-sympathizers and would be considered “enemy aliens.”
Steve Fox, author of America’s Invisible Gulag, says some of these reasons for internment could be petty. “There were human reasons why German-Americans were interned. Like if people were jealous of somebody’s promotion. All the kinds of things that happen in normal human relationships.”
The story of Seattle physician Dr. Otto Trot reflects the arbitrary way some internees were detained. Fox describes Trot as brash, arrogant, and possessing a sense of superiority over his American colleagues. He continually bragged that the medicine in Germany was better than anywhere in the world. When the FBI came to investigate suspicious enemy aliens, the people who knew Trot did not hesitate to encourage the FBI to detain the doctor, even though he had no Nazi affiliation. “The paranoia triggered it, but then the personalities took over,” Fox says.
Alfred Voester, a painter, was detained just south of San Francisco in Camp Sharp Park for almost two years. He had lived in California for twenty years before he was arrested. His son, Kurt Voester, says that his father was taken because he was simply too German. He attended German social clubs, a German church, and frequented a German deli. According to Kurt, this made local authorities suspicious, and he was detained.
Japanese-Americans faced different reasons for internment. The authorities found it much easier to detain entire Japanese families because of the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act, which blocked Japanese immigrants from obtaining citizenship. After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, whole communities of Japanese-American citizens were relocated to desolate areas such as Manzanar and Tule Lake in California. The order authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe militarized zones, and thus the Army held the majority of Japanese-Americans, while German-Americans and Italian-Americans were held by the Department of Justice.
Because German-American and Italian-American citizens made up such a large sector of the US population, they were excluded from Executive Order 9066. US authorities usually only took the male head of household, and children were not interned unless they volunteered to stay with their parents in the camps and detention centers. Because the criteria for interning Japanese-Americans were less strict than that of German-Americans, ten times as many Japanese-Americans were interned.
Perhaps because of these differences, Japanese-Americans were acknowledged by the government while German-Americans were ignored. President Gerald Ford issued a public apology for the internment of Japanese-Americans during his tenure and President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, providing redress of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese-Americans who was interned during World War II. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush appropriated an additional $400 million to ensure the remaining Japanese-Americas received their $20,000. Payments continued until 1999 and reached more than 80,000 Japanese-Americans. After years of requests, the German-Americans have received nothing.
Searching for Recognition
Jacobs began forming his case against Congress thirty years ago. In the 1980s, Jacobs says no one knew about German-American internment. He found hundreds of articles on internment, all of which highlight the Japanese-American experience and a few that briefly mention German-Americans or Italian-Americans. Some of the documents that mention the names of German-American individuals are filed under “Custody of American Citizens of Japanese Descent.” The Freedom of Information Act has released documents tallying the detention of German-Americans and Italian-Americans by city and region, but those documents do not mention any names. Jacobs grew frustrated with being forgotten.
In 1991, his suit (Arthur D. Jacobs v. William Barr) reached the Supreme Court. Jacobs argued in the suit that internment for German-Americans was equitable to that of Japanese-Americans and requested that they receive the same recognition. The court ruled against the suit because they felt the situation of the German-American internees was different than that of the Japanese-Americans. The court’s defense states: “After three years of testimony from hundreds of witnesses, Congress concluded that Japanese-Americans were detained en masse because of racial prejudice and demagoguery, while German-Americans were detained in small numbers, and only after individual hearings about their loyalty.”
In 2001, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold introduced the Wartime Treatment Study Act after reading an article on internment in German Life magazine. This bill differed from Jacobs’s initial request in that it asked the government to review the facts surrounding internment so they could make an informed decision on granting German-American internees recognition. Currently, the bill is in its ninth attempt and has been referred to the House of Representatives after the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill 19 to 7. However, according to govtrack.us–a site that tracks the progress of congressional bills—the bill may be tacked onto a larger bill, in which case the Wartime Treatment Study Act could be ignored. And with Feingold’s failed bid for reelection in 2010, the bill will have no supporters in the future. “My bitterness is not from internment, it is from the lack of recognition,” Jacobs says. “I don’t need an apology. I just want people to admit that we were interned.”
Karen Ebel created the German American Internee Coalition in 2005. Her father was interned at Ft. Lincoln, from September 1942 until June 1944. According to Ebel, he was taken for his refusal to fight for the United States in Germany. He didn’t refuse to fight in the war; he just did not want to fight in the country of his birth. Ebel started the coalition to “make public the little known U.S. World War II policies that led to internment, repatriation, and exchange of civilians of German ethnicity.”
“When people have experiences that were so harsh and people deny that it ever happened, that is what hurts them the most,” Ebel says. Her website contains dozens of personal stories of former internees; the history of restriction and internment in the United States; links to books and articles on German-American internment; and updates on legislative efforts. She wants the bill to pass not only so people will know about stories like her father’s, but also to prevent this from happening to any resident aliens in the future.
On March 19, 2009, Ebel attended a hearing in front of the House’s Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. In her written statement, she pleaded with a sense of urgency to the subcommittee:
“The Wartime Treatment Study Act needs to pass now before more die or are too old to understand. The advanced age of the remaining internees weighs heavy on my mind. Study and acknowledgment of their internment is long overdue. Sadly, my father cannot be here to see it, but others are still here who will.”
Waiting for Resolution
Decades later, the facts surrounding German-American internment are still widely unknown by the American public. Fox says this may be due to the Japanese-Americans already receiving their recognition. “Anytime one group gets recognition there is less recognition for the other groups,” he says.
According to Fox, the notoriety of Hitler has also made it more difficult for German-Americans to receive acknowledgment. “The Germans had an association with Hitler that cannot be divorced from the [American] people’s minds,” Fox says. “Nobody thinks about Italians and Mussolini anymore, but how many politicians get compared to Hitler on a daily basis?”
The Wartime Treatment Study Act has yet to receive the unanimous vote required for it to pass. One dissenter, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions said he voted against the bill because he did not want the German-American experience being compared to that of the Jews in Germany or Japanese-Americans, according to Ebel. Sessions also said he worried that if the German-Americans were granted recognition, that might lead to reparations, which could cause an influx of groups in the United States asking for the same acknowledgement.
Despite the failures, they have received some recognition, but not on a national level and not enough to satisfy the German-Americans that are fighting for acknowledgement. On May 21, 2010, the Texas Education Agency revised its history and social studies curriculum to include information on German-American and Italian-American internees. However, according to a New York Times article published in March 2010, this was not to reveal the issues of German and Italian internment, but to “counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.”
From 1985 to 2005, the Crystal City monument erroneously called the camp a “concentration camp” and did not mention that German-Americans were detained there, even though the camp had the largest German-American population in the country. After 2005, Crystal City erected a monument that describes the camp in detail and explains how German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans, were held there.
Fox says he thinks that once the story has more exposure, the public and the government will realize their mistake and rectify it. But, he believes that stories like that of the German-Americans are bound to be repeated. “We never seem to learn the lesson, even though we are always sorry for what we did,” he says. “But regret is not a lesson.”
Consequences of War
In December 1945, Arthur Jacobs and his family were sent back to Ellis Island where his father voluntarily repatriated the family back to post-war Germany. According to Jacobs, President Harry Truman** warned internees that they could be deported back to their country of origin after their internment in the United States. To avoid the shame of being deported, the Jacobs family voluntarily returned to Germany. In their first month back, they were imprisoned at Ludwigsburg. Prisoners, including Nazi war criminals, could not talk while eating and ate standing up. Arthur*** was held alone in an eight-by-ten-foot cell with a barred-off window that provided a view of a large tree. Guards told Arthur the tree was called the hangman’s tree and warned him to behave.
A month later, the family was released. They moved to the north German town of Bremen to live with Jacobs’s grandparents. Arthur and Lambert Jr., both American citizens, struggled to adjust to life in Germany and decided that returning to the United States, even without their parents, would suit them better. In 1947, with the help of some Americans stationed in Germany, they returned to the United States. For the first few years without her sons, Jacobs’s mother set portraits of Arthur and Lambert Jr. in the two vacant chairs during holiday dinners. With the exception of brief family visits to the United States, Jacobs’ parents remained in Germany for the rest of their lives.
After his release from the prison in Ludwisburg, his mother offered the distraught Arthur a few words of wisdom: “These things will always happen during war.”
*Eleven thousand Germans were documented as “enemy aliens” during WWII. But because a number of them were arrested and released, or detained and then released, only around 5,000 to 6,000 were held in internment camps.
**Correction: appears as “President Roosevelt” in print magazine.
***Correction: appears as “Arthur and his brother” in print magazine.