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 1922. 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
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
coalmines 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, 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.
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 US citizenship. 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
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 1, 6 and 11, destitute. Neighbors and friends
suddenly treated them with astonishing coldness. Johanna could not ascertain why Mathias was
arrested or when he would be released. Johanna’s customers no longer bought her
chickens and eggs. No one believed that an innocent man would be jailed. They suspected that Mathias “must have done
something.” The children were harassed with nasty taunts and insults from
schoolmates referencing their German heritage.
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.
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 NY 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
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, LA. 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.
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.
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.
left on their own and struggling with the sickly infant, the family slowly made
their way north across war-ravaged Germany. 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, US 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 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.
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 US 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
US 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.
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
12 and 17, were allowed to repatriate to the US 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 US 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 visas to the United States shortly thereafter,
in November 1955.
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. 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.
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.