Children of Internment

Children of Internment is a documentary revealing that — unknown to most Americans — thousands of German-Americans were interned in the United States during World War Two. (It is a common misperception that only Japanese-Americans were interned in WW2.) Nearly 11,000 German perceived as enemy “aliens” were interned, and tens of thousands more also suffered illegal searches and seizures, relocation, harassment, interrogation, family separation, deportation and repatriation to Germany.

All immigrants to the USA are labeled “aliens” until they learn English and pass tests to become US “citizens”. Many immigrants after the end of World War One took the steps to become US “citizens”. But many others remained technically classified as “aliens”, perhaps too busy trying to earn a living to learn English and pass the citizenship tests. So this group of new Americans were technically still citizens of Germany, and these “aliens” unprotected by the US Constitution could be interned for no good reason, during wartime Nazi hysteria.

The “Enemy Aliens” Act of 1798 gives the government power to do whatever it wants to non-citizens residing in the USA. The phrase “enemy aliens” is misleading because most “aliens” were NOT “enemies” of the USA.

Most of these Germans had immigrated to the USA as young adults after the end of World War One, fleeing post-war chaos and starvation. They joined many millions of Germans who had immigrated earlier, in the 17th and 18th centuries. German-Americans were either born in Germany or of German ancestry. They comprise 50 million people, making them the largest ancestry group ahead of Irish-Americans, African-Americans, and English-Americans. “Aliens” built this country.

However, immigration threw many different ethnic groups together in the American melting pot. In the strange new culture of America, immigrants were naturally drawn to members from their homeland and huddled together in communities that all spoke the same language, with their own foreign language newspapers. Women especially didn’t feel the need to learn English nor get citizenship because they could do everything needed in their own foreign language communities. But each immigrant group brought their long-standing prejudices, suspicions, and hatreds from the old countries, resulting in discrimination against all ethnic groups, still proud of their former homeland, still hating their old enemy neighbors. Back in Europe for 2,000 years, everyone had been afraid of the big bad ancestors of the Germans. And during WW1 strong anti-German feelings had developed.

After Pearl Harbor, wartime fears in the USA quickly intensified to hysteria directed at Japanese, German, and Italian “aliens”. Their allegiance to their new country was questioned, regardless of how long they had lived in the United States. 110,000 Japanese-Americans were evacuated from coastal areas (where they could have helped approaching enemy forces). But evacuated unequally as a geographic matter — all who lived on the West Coast were interned, while in Hawaii, where 150,000 Japanese-Americans comprised over one-third of the population, only 1,800 leaders were interned (partly to avoid crippling the economy there). It would have been impossible to similarly intern all the 17 million East Coast German-Americans and Italian-Americans. Sixty-two percent of the Japanese internees were American citizens.  The injustice of Japanese internment is common knowledge, compensated by the US government in the form of payments for lost homes and businesses.

In 1942 six months after the USA entered the war, a raft landed on Long Island from Germany for sabotage. Instead the leader called the FBI to defect, but no one would believe him. So he took a train to Washington DC where FBI agents continued to think he might be a crackpot until he dumped the mission’s $84,000 on a desk and ratted out the others. But director Hoover told no one of the surrender and took credit for cracking the case himself, touting the arrest of these saboteurs as great work by the FBI.

The publicized landing of the saboteurs was a catalyst for Hoover to intern “alien” non-citizens. This was followed up with a few high-profile trials to revoke the citizenship of a several German-American citizens, as in the case of Arthur Wolter whose story is told in the non-fiction book “Loyalty on Trial.”. These were show trials designed to depict Hoover’s vigilance after hanging the saboteurs.

So why did the FBI secretly arrest 11,000 German “aliens”? And why did the FBI intern these “aliens” in 50 secret camps across the USA? “Relocation camps” with barbed wire fences 16 feet high with armed guard towers — that were actually called “concentration camps” by the authorities.

The FBI knew that none of the interned German “aliens” were spies, because the FBI knew who all the German spies were from infiltrators, and arrested them all right after Pearl Harbor. The FBI knew that virtually all these remaining “aliens” were just average immigrants trying to fit into their new country. But “Better safe than sorry!”  The main explanation for internment is that “aliens” (all of whom by definition are not US citizens), do not have the same protection under the law that US citizen have.

Some of these German immigrants were luckier than others and for one reason or another had gotten US citizenship, whereas other immigrants for one reason or other had NOT.

So “aliens” without US citizenship could be arrested and interned, but immigrants who had gotten US citizenship could be not arrested and interned, unless they were first put on trial to have their US citizenship taken away from them. That is what happened to Arthur Wolter as told in the book “Loyalty on Trial”.

However, no trials were necessary to intern “aliens”. The FBI grabbed “aliens” at random, and they were taken from their homes and schools, denied “due process” and then imprisoned. Brought before a “Hearing Board” of five locals, they were not told what they were accused of (making it difficult to defend themselves) nor the charges against them (aside from being born in Germany). The were considered guilty unless they could prove their innocence, asked questions that repeated speculations and gossip by neighbors encouraged by the FBI to spy on them and turn them in, and also not allowed an attorney – all violations of the US Constitution, which did not protect them as “aliens”. Questions of guilt or innocence were not addressed at all, and the vast majority were completely innocent and not dangerous in any way. But anyone arrested must be a criminal guilty of something, right? Presumed guilty of crimes against the United States. The men, for sure — not the women or children. If they had not been technically still “aliens”, none of this would have happened. Instead, they were thrown in the dumpster.

FBI Director Hoover, an acknowledged liar and self-promoter glorifying his own office, is seen addressing the nation with the following words. “The Battle of the United States took place in every community in the nation — a struggle against Enemy Agents sent to the US to disrupt our industries.” But all during the war the fact is that there was not one instance of espionage on US soil.

In this documentary, former internees and their families come forward to tell their heartbreaking stories.

THE STORIES: The film tells their riveting stories using live interviews of those who were interned, family photographs and historical footage.

In 1940, Eberhard Fuhr and his family were told by the FBI and the Immigration & Naturalization Service to go to the downtown post office and register as “aliens”. Then three years later Eberhard at 17 years old was arrested — and ludicrously charged with “suspicion.” He and his family spent the next four years in government custody.

Usually it was the men who were arrested, with no clue as to why, leaving their wives and small children with no financial means of support in a time when few women worked outside the home. Their wives were in a panic, with hearts breaking, no jobs available with a German accent and husband labelled an enemy, with kids bullied in school as “dirty Germans”. So without other options, eventually many wives chose to voluntarily join their husbands in the internment camps, bringing their young children with them, most of whom had been born in the USA and so were automatically US citizens. Fifty percent of people in the internment camps were these young US citizens. But instead of recognizing their rights as citizens, the authorities called them “non-aliens”.

The first camp for these interned families was built in 1942 by the Department of Justice, an ironic name, in Crystal City Texas, spinach capital featuring a statue of Popeye. Japanese families were also interned in Crystal City — some visited in camp by their sons in the uniform of the US military, an ironic contrast.

Life in the Crystal City family camp was pleasant enough with squeezebox accordion music, but the more primitive lifestyle and rough living were hard on the wives — with outdoor latrines, group showers, and no kitchens. Small kids used to staying around the house played as usual and spent most of their time in the huge public swimming pool. Portrayed in a propaganda film as a “country club”, it was nevertheless a real prison camp, producing what those people confined called in German “fence sickness.”

Eventually ten shiploads of these German “alien” internees were shipped to Europe toward the end of the war. They were to be exchanged for American citizens who had gotten stuck in Germany when the war started, and who themselves had been confined in similar camps in Germany since the beginning of the war.

Some shiploads of these German “alien” internees were sent to Europe after the south of France had been liberated. They were put on trains from Marseilles to Switzerland, and then exchanged at the German border for American citizens who had been imprisoned in Germany.

So that is how small children who were US citizens suddenly found themselves in the middle of the war in Germany being shot at and bombed by American planes. After years in an internment camp, Elizabeth Kvammen and her family were sent back to Germany while the war was still raging. She would run outside to wave at her “American Buddies” as they flew their bombers overhead — until one day she looked up to wave and saw bombs falling from those planes onto the German town where her family lived. Allied soldiers advancing into Germany were amazed at finding kids who spoke such excellent English, and could not believe they were US citizens or would be so unjustly mistreated by the USA and sent to Germany. One American kid scrounging for food outside a US army kitchen was asked by the young American cook who heard the boy’s last name and hometown, “Do you have a sister named Ingrid?” who the soldier had dated back in the USA. Yes! So their family got food when most in Germany were starving.

Arthur Jacobs was a young American citizen from Brooklyn, whose immigrant father was arrested in late 1944 very close to the end of the war when the US need more “aliens” to exchange. (Remaining Germans continued in internment two years after the war in Europe was over until the end of 1947, when all were finally released.) But after more than a year in Crystal City internment camp in Texas, Jacobs’ father was asked if he would return to Germany as a way to get out of camp, and so the family was sent back to Germany and imprisoned in a medieval fortress alongside top Nazis. There the American guard escorting the twelve-year- old American Boy Scout from his cell to meals said, “Hey kid, see that tree? That’s where we hang little Nazis like you.” Jacobs told his story in his book named for that place, “The Prison called Hohenasperg.”

Toward the end of the war when US authorities realized they needed even more “aliens” to exchange for captured prisoners of war (POW’s) and downed airmen, many Germans living in Central and South America were “kidnapped” completely illegally with the help of Latin American authorities (who wanted their businesses) and then interned and later traded for US citizens held in Germany. The internees called it, ‘being used as exchange bait.”

Hilde Gordon’s father lived in Columbia and had his own successful business for nearly 30 years before he was deported and taken to America with his family. His business, which was thriving and profitable, was stolen from him by the Costa Rican government and never returned.

Heidi McDonald was two years old when she and her German family were rounded up in Costa Rica, put on a ship and taken to an internment camp in the United States. The reason given was that her father was considered a risk to the national security of the USA, but he had never been involved in enemy activity and was not charged with a crime or given a trial. Their passports were taken from them when they were imprisoned, and when they were forced to enter the United States without a passport, they were arrested as “illegal aliens”. US Attorney General Biddle eventually stopped this, calling it “Unjust, unfair, if not illegal.”

Every story is similar in the fact that human rights were trampled upon. Every family lost their freedom, lost their right to “due process,” and lost their habeas corpus rights. (A writ of habeas corpus is a court order requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge to ensure that a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence — as with the German-American internees. This right has historically been an important safeguard of individual freedom against arbitrary state action.)

When these immigrants had come to America, the first thing they saw from the ship headed toward Ellis Island was the Statue of Liberty welcoming them. In WW2 those interned on Ellis Island looked out every day at the rear of the Statue of Liberty, who had seemingly turned her back on them.

It remains a mystery why the US government has yet to acknowledge this generally unknown fact of German Internment, but Congress continually refuses. However, the fact that 50 million people died in the war started by that German racist Hitler may have something to do with it.

Families around the world are at risk whenever government policy makers assume that ethnicity alone decides loyalty. The taking away of freedom with the excuse that doing so is vital to national security was an issue then and continues to be an issue today.

Children of Internment is a film by Joe Crump and his sister Kristina Wagner. Documentary 2014 86 min.



Director Notes:

There are two issues that make this story relevant today.

One, it’s an immigrant’s story. Nearly everyone living in the U.S. today is descended from immigrants. Kristina and I are melting pot kids, and a big part of our family tree comes from Germany. Creating this film was a glimpse into what our ancestors went through when they came to America. Once again, we learned how immigrants have nearly always been treated poorly despite the words of welcome on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor…”

Two, today we see similar issues in the headlines regarding nearly every immigrant community. Rights that we, as Americans, view as our birthright are still being taken from those who are coming here for a better life. We also see the loss of freedoms that come from fear and the need for security.

This isn’t dead history — it’s a wake-up call.






In 1980, under mounting pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League and redress organizations, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the need to put Japanese Americans into internment camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The commission’s report, titled “Personal Justice Denied,” found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and recommended the government pay reparations to the survivors. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.


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