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Ellis Island, New York Harbor, New York

 ...the truth will make you free. John 8:32

Ellis Island, the Manzanar of the East Coast.

The photograph shown below was taken in the Great Hall of Ellis Island on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1943.

A careful examination of this photograph reveals that Europeans (German and Italian permanent resident aliens) were incarcerated along with Japanese nationals.

Who are they? They are not diplomats. Some are natural born United States citizens, some are naturalized United States citizens, and some are permanent resident aliens of the United States. They are persons of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry. They represent a part of the U.S. population classified as "alien enemies," or aliens of enemy nationalities.

Why are they incarcerated?

See The History of Internment for the policies and events leading to their incarceration. Plans were made as early as October 1941 to roundup and intern persons of German heritage from the states of New York and New Jersey. It was estimated that 600 per month from New York and 200 per month from New Jersey would be arrested and then locked up in Ellis Island.
 

Because the island served several purposes, the internee population on the Island was fluid. Ellis Island was used as a detention center to hold alien enemies who were awaiting hearings; it also served as a way station for those being transferred to and from other internment camps and for those awaiting deportation, repatriation, or expatriation. The number and nationality of the internees on the island for the dates indicated below were as follows:

 February 29, 1944: 121 Germans, 6 Italians, and 3 Japanese.

 June 30, 1944: 147 Germans, 14 Italians, 1 Japanese and 1 Romanian.

 December 31, 1944: 157 Germans, 36 Italians, and 1 Nicaraguan

 December 31, 1945: 400 Germans, and 3 Austrians

Memories from the Dark Side of Ellis Island 

Or remembrances from in the shadow of the [Statue of] Liberty

When I was a boy of eleven I made my first visit to Ellis Island. It was during the month of November, shortly after the day, November 3, 1944, the FBI arrested my father. We, my mother, brother, and I, boarded the Ellis Island Ferry at Battery Park (NY). It was a cold and dreary day. As we approached the Island's ferry slip, I noticed men walking in a fenced compound next to the slip. Because of the cold and dreariness of the day, I thought it odd that these men would walk outdoors, under these conditions. Why, I asked to myself, would men want to be walking in circles on a day like this? As we came closer the men in the compound waved to us on the ferry.

After we left the ferry we walked through a tunnel-like entry way, then we were met by a guard who searched us and the package of baked goods that we brought to my father. After we were searched, we were led off to a guarded room. This room was the visiting room; visitors sat on one side of a partition and the internees sat on the other side of the partition. Guards were stationed on both sides of the partition. These guards observed us and listened to our conversations during the entire one-hour visitation period. Why were they treating us like this? I asked myself.

As we boarded the Ellis Island ferry to leave, the women, my mother included, took out white handkerchiefs and began to wave to the men who were now standing in the compound where the men were walking when we arrived. As the ferry left the slip, the men began to walk with the movement of the ferry, until they could no longer walk because of the fence. Tears streamed down my mother's cheeks as she waived her handkerchief. My mother waived her handkerchief until the view of the men were but specks on the horizon. It seemed like it took forever to get back to our home in Brooklyn. And when we arrived home, it no longer seemed like home--something was missing, my father. My thoughts about my "missing" father changed after I had visited with him on the Island. Upon returning home something told me that whatever had happened was final. Before I had visited my father on the Island, I had hope that when I came home from school, Pop would be home today. After the visit I lost that hope, I now knew that he would not be home. 

I was a young lady of 19 when I was interned. The first few weeks at Ellis Island were horrible. Our beds were saturated with urine from refugees who came from European countries. We were ten women at the time and had to share one room. Later rooms which had been offices were converted into living quarters. I was assigned to Room #1. As for cleanliness, there were many roaches, big roaches. The food was good and bad, or shall I say, the food was fair.

Many internees had visitors from New York, who brought food over and sometimes I was given some. I had few visitors as my family was too far away. A fellow from Iraq had befriended me. He had gone to school in Germany. When he left Ellis Island, he came to visit me and brought me fruit, perfume, etc.

I had played badminton with him in the Great Hall. We were segregated from the men, but the women who had husbands and sons were permitted to have them visit their quarters. In the evening we sat in the balcony to visit, under the watchful eyes of guards and matrons.

As for exercise, at the beginning we were escorted through the international seamen's quarters to go to their yard for exercise. That didn't last long as they were very obnoxious -- indecently exposed, masturbating, etc. Finally, we were given our own yard to walk around in and that is where I walked for exercise.

There was a journalist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who had been in Germany nearly nine years. He was married to a beautiful blonde German girl. They came back on the Gripsholm and were held on Ellis Island over a year before being released. He had it in his mind that he was in love with me, wanted to divorce his wife and marry me. I cooled that very quickly, I had compassion for his wife and their five year old son.

The guards were quite friendly with the exception of one who was the head of the guards. He was always sarcastic and never had a smile on his face. One of the guards had planned to kidnap me in the event I was to be deported.

In August 1946, more than a year after the war in Europe had ended, I was finally free to go home.

On July 7th 1942, in the evening, two men demanded entry into our home, where they declared to my husband, a U.S. Citizen, that they must arrest me as an enemy alien. They took me to the jail where I had to stay overnight, and then they took me to Ellis Island.

At Ellis Island I had a hearing, if one can call it that. Then I was told that I was being interned "for the duration of the war." I was transferred from Ellis Island to Gloucester City (NJ) where I had several more hearings. During one such hearing I was told, "Why don't you admit that you are German through and through," which was the gist of the argument against me.

In February 1945 the Gloucester City internment center was closed and I was taken back to Ellis Island. After the war in Europe had ended in May 1945 we, my fellow internees and I, thought we would be released. But, instead, we all received deportation papers.

In August 1945 I had another hearing at Ellis Island, but I realized that they [the government officials] really were not interested in what I had to say but that they wanted to get rid of me and ship me back to Germany. People who had hearings before and after me were being released but I was still there. Then in October 1945 my name appeared again on the list for a hearing. I told the Ellis Island official that I had had my hearing, he said, "We know, but this time, see to it that your husband is there also."

Then I went to my typewriter and in several pages for the first time I put down what I had to say, instead of being asked silly questions as before.

When the hearing began, they again started with the same type of questions, like, "What did you think when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia?" I put a copy of my story before each of the three officials presiding at the hearing (one from Immigration and Naturalization Service, one from the State Department, and another fellow who was asking all of the questions). When something came up which I had addressed in my appeal I just said to the three, "I have answered this in my letter," forcing them to at least read it.

On August 20, 1945 I set up an appeal to President Truman from the women internees of Ellis Island. This appeal asked the President to reunite us with our families, from whom we have been separated for several years. Christmas 1945 was nearing and still nothing had happened.

On December 22, 1945, just three days before Christmas, I was called by an Ellis Island official. When I came to him he had several papers in his hand, he said, "Mrs. T. please sit down," at that moment I knew I was going to be released. Then he said, "You are being released, when do you want to leave the Island?" I replied, "With the 4 o'clock ferry." I did not laugh, I did not cry, I kept myself in check, I had prepared myself for this moment. I left Ellis Island with the 4 o'clock ferry. Finally, the nightmare of three and one-half years was over. 

I was a 17 year old male high school senior at the time of my arrest. Time stood still. It was stultifying. Possessions lost or being lost. "Outside" acquaintances who now perceive one as being tainted with war guilt. Nineteenth Century prison. Stupid hearings, masqueraded as "justice." Day after stultifying day! 

My husband, who came to this country at the age of nine, was arrested by the FBI on July 10, 1942. The FBI took him from his place of work, brought him to our home in Brooklyn, where they ransacked the house. The FBI then took my husband to Ellis Island. I took the ferry every Monday morning to visit him and to bring him some decent food. The conditions on the Island were appalling. During December 1942 I voluntarily joined my husband on the Island. Later that month we were sent to a family camp at Crystal City, Texas. We were released from the Crystal City Camp during the Summer of 1945. A year later my husband was ordered back to Ellis Island for a deportation hearing. At this hearing my husband was advised that the only reason he was allowed to stay in the United States was the fact that his son was born in the United States. Humiliated again, after three years of unjust arrest and incarceration! 

 

On February 27, 1945 I was imprisoned at Ellis Island, New York Harbor, New York. Just 23 days after my 12th birthday I was a prisoner under the control of the United States Department of Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This was to be my first of two internment periods at Ellis Island. This first period of my imprisonment on the Island ended on April 29, 1945 when my family and I were transferred to the Crystal City, Texas family internment camp. Oh, happy day!

Before I leave the Island I experience a new way of "life." Classes for children did not exist during my stay there. Each day was a no-school day. According to the official record formal school was conducted for school-age children on the Island, but it was not made available to me. It was through an informal learning process that my education progressed on the Island. One of the first things I learned on the Island was that I no longer was an American. When I arrived on the Island, according to the INS classification, I was to become known as a German-American. Yes, even though I was an American, born in the U.S.A., the INS classified me as a German-American. America is my country, I thought, and Germany, in my mind, was the enemy.

Not only was my education interrupted but my social state of affairs was to under go an abrupt and radical change. First, I was separated from my mother. Then, I was forced to live in an open bay with hundred of males, some of whom had been incarcerated since the war began in 1941. Privacy, there was none. Public wash basins, public toilets, public eating, public visitation--everything you did was in view of the "public." If I was not being watched by the guards, I was being eyed by the inmates.
As I noted earlier I was not quartered with my mother. My mother was quartered in another part of the Island. Mom's quarters were in the Great Hall. During certain hours of the day, I could go visit my mother in the Great Hall. I could go to her room, but her and I could not visit there, we were required to visit in the downstairs portion of the Great Hall. Together, Mom and I would go downstairs into the open space of the Great Hall. Here we would sit down on a wooden bench, a little big larger than a love seat. We would chat about what I had been doing all day, my Mom was a stickler for details. Mom always insisted I tell her everything. She would ask about my belt-making. "What colors are you using for belts today?" Mom, would ask and continue with another question, "Are you making, narrow or broad belts?" And so it would go. Every now and then I would surprise Mom with a belt I made especially for her. Of course Mom always wanted to know whether I was getting enough to eat. "Sure Mom," I would reply to her question. Our entire visit was always under the watchful eyes and the listening ears of the matrons and/or guards. I suppose no one wanted my mother and I to plot an escape.

The 1945-46 photograph below captures the Great Hall as I remember it.

 

Homesickness was a problem. Hour after hour, day after day, I would stare out across the water, view the Manhattan skyline, the passing ships, the puffing tugboats, the comings and goings of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter and its crew members, whose duty station was Ellis Island. I want off of this Island, was a constant thought which I kept to myself. "Why am I here?" I would ask over and over. My moods of nostalgia and melancholy would come and go. Reading would help overcome boredom. I read many western stories, mostly about the territory surrounding the Pecos River.

I remember talking to many of the adult male internees. Asking them over and over again why they were there, and why were they there for so long. In February 45, when we had arrived on the Island, some of the internees I had spoken to had already been interned for more than three years.

After my first week or so, Island life had become somewhat routine. Out of bed at six o'clock in the morning, use the public latrine, wash my face, brush my teeth, clean up my living space, make my bed, dust from under my bed, and so forth. Then, off to breakfast. Limited cooking and eating facilities required us to eat in shifts; say the first group at 6:30, the second at 7:00 and so forth. No special food orders. I ate what was put on my tray, a spoonful of this, and a spoonful of that ladled onto my metal tray. I cannot remember if the food was good or bad, what I was fed I do not remember, but I was fed three times a day. 

On December 3, 1945 I was back on Ellis Island. My stay in the Crystal City (Texas) Internment Camp lasted only seven months. Seven months after the war in Europe had ended we, my family and I and hundreds of others, were still prisoners. This time, like my previous stay on the Island, I was separated from my mother and was housed in an open bay with adult male internees. Since I left in April, the conditions on the Island had changed. It was more crowded and congested. There was little time and space for arts and crafts. It was a busy period for us, there were inoculations, physical examinations, and processing. It seemed like each day between the time we arrived on December 3rd until we departed on January 17, 1946, we had to take care of some official transactions.

I was confused. I did not understand what was taking place. My most vivid memory of my second stay on the Island was how sore my arm was after being inoculated--smallpox vaccine and one dose of typhoid vaccine--we were being prepared for a voyage to a war-torn and starving Germany. The scheduled time period between my first and second vaccine doses would occur after my departure date. Thus, the government decided that we could receive our second dose aboard ship while enroute to Bremerhaven, Germany.

Before we left the Island, we celebrated both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on Ellis Island. The officials did their best to make our stay comfortable. This was unlike any other Christmas that I had ever experienced--for me it was both a day of sadness and a day of joy. It was a cold and dark December and January in the shadow of Liberty. On the 17th day of January 1946 I left the Island for the last time--we boarded a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter and were taken to the the S.S. Aiken, a ship of the Victory Class. I was removed from my country. I would see neither the Statue of Liberty nor Ellis Island until 22 months later when I returned to my country in November 1947-- the United States--what a beautiful site to once again see the front side of Liberty.

Postscipt: It was not until 1986, forty years after I was transported to a war-torn and starving and Germany that I would learn that the internment of my family was not because my father was a danger to public safety, but because the U.S. Government was in need of people, men, women, and children, to be exchanged for persons of the Americas who were held in captivity by the enemy--Germany's Third Reich. I have come to learn that we were hostages, and used either as exchange bait or leverage to insure fair treatment by the enemy of the Americans held in internment camps in Europe. This has been, and continues to be, one of the many cover-ups of the World War II civilian internment program of the United States Department of Justice. 

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