The case of Hedy Engemann

© Christel Engemann 2002


My mother, Hedwig Engemann, (often referred to as Hedy or Hety), was born in 1907 of German parents in Brooklyn, New York.  Shortly after my mother’s birth, she and her parents moved to Yorkville, New York, a German neighborhood on the upper east side of Manhattan.  There my grandparents opened a bakery and restaurant.   My grandmother had three more children, two of whom survived their infancy.  The businesses did so well that my family could afford regular visits to Germany.  In 1913, my mother’s parents decided to return to Germany.  They wanted to take their successful “American Dream” with them, thus they purchased a bakery and hotel in a good location in a small city in Westphalia. Until 1914 they resided in a village where they had lived prior to going to America.  In 1914, before they moved into their “new” home they lost another infant.  Then the shots fell at Sarajevo, and World War I swept my grandfather away.  He was a member of the army reserve and had to leave immediately.  He was killed near Reims, France on September 14, 1914, leaving my grandmother, who was six months pregnant, with three American-born children and a half-renovated house that could not be completed because all the craftsmen had been drafted.  On Christmas Day of 1914 another child was born.  My grandmother blamed herself for her husband’s death because she had wanted to return to the old country. She never fully recovered.  This was the first tragedy of the Engemann family. 

The second tragedy followed a war later.  My mother and her siblings (Henny, Joe and Carl) went to school in Germany.  In 1928 my mother returned to the United States.  Her American-born sister, Henny, and brother Joe followed.  A year later her mother (my grandmother) followed with 15-year old Carl.  They all felt safe and at home in New York City.


My Uncle Joe (my mother’s eldest brother) and Aunt Henny visited Germany in 1934, and my grandmother and Aunt Henny went there again in 1938. Then in the summer of 1939 my mother decided to visit the old country and the cousins she had grown up with.  However, my grandmother stopped her from booking passage, saying, “Don't go, something terrible will happen.”  No doubt she had the belligerent and oppressive atmosphere in Germany in mind and wanted to keep her oldest daughter out of harm’s way. 


So instead of going to Germany, my mother went to Miami, Florida in January of 1940.  There she met a German-born man named Eddie Kerling[1], who had immigrated to the United States in 1929.  Eddie had become a member of the Nazi party at the age of 19, a year before he left for America.  He believed himself to be a loyal German, even after resided in America for many years.  He had attempted to cross the Atlantic with the yawl, LEKALA, which he had purchased with several others in 1939.  They were stopped by the Coast Guard and sailed the boat to Florida in order to sell it.  They then decided to return to Germany by steamer.


My mother fell in love with Eddie Kerling and she spent several months with him in Miami.  She was torn between her love for Eddie and the fact that she knew he was married, even though he was estranged from his wife, Maria Kerling.  My mother returned to New York City in the Spring of 1940 and Eddie followed after he sold the boat.  Eddie’s friend Hermann Neubauer and his wife, who had become a good friend of my mother in Florida, had already returned to New York. In June of 1940 Eddie and Hermann returned to Germany by ship, because they wanted to help their country.


In the Fall of 1940, my mother took a position as governess to the children of a well-known soap and lotion manufacturer, named Jergens.   My mother spoke two languages fluently, and had some working knowledge of French and Spanish.  She also played the piano and the guitar.  Therefore, she was most welcome and became highly respected by the Jergens family.

Late in 1941, my mother’s family, who had opened a grocery store on Second Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets, asked her to return to New York City.  The business was doing so well that her close-knit family needed her help.  Thus, she gave up her position as governess and returned to New York City.  Perhaps if my mother had remained in the employ of the Jergens family, Eddie Kerling may not have found her again in the Summer of 1942.


Another year passed and on June 22, 1942, a friend of Eddie’s, Helmut Leiner, asked my mother to go to Central Park (New York) with him.  Mother decided to go with him, even though she did not know why he asked her to accompany him.   When they arrived at the park, she was dumbfounded--Eddie Kerling was waiting there for her.  As far as she knew, he was still in Germany.  On Sunday, June 28, 1942 she was confronted with the front-page news, that in mid-June of 1942, Eddie Kerling and seven others had landed at Amagansett, Long Island and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, via German submarines, allegedly to commit sabotage.  Eddie was on the U-boat that landed in Florida on June 17, 1942.  Two of the eight, George John Dasch and Ernest Peter Burger, immediately betrayed the others. To this day, no one knows if these eight men actually wanted to complete their mission.


My mother only saw Eddie Kerling on this one day, June 22, 1942, in Central Park and that evening, when they had arranged to meet for dinner. My mother had dinner with Eddie and Helmut Leiner. Afterwards, they parted.  Eddie's estranged wife, Maria, whom he had also left behind in New York, did not see him at all.  Nevertheless, my mother spent 3 years in prison.  Maria Kerling, an alien, was interned in Seagoville, Texas and on May 7, 1945 was transferred to Ellis Island, New York Harbor, N.Y. 


On June 30, 1942, Eight days after my mother met with Eddie Kerling, my mother was arrested on her way to the grocery store.  She was held incommunicado and without charge for approximately four weeks by the FBI on an upper floor of the Federal Building at Foley Square in New York City.  On July 31, 1942, my mother was arraigned and then taken to the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. Bail was set at $50,000 and of course, this was too high for her to pay.  My mother’s photograph appeared on the front page of the New York Mirror.  The caption below the picture read, “Would-be Mata Hari of the group.”

The charge against her was misprision of treason.  That is, to have known of the treason committed by another person--Helmut LeinerMy mother was the first person ever to be charged with this.  Helmut Leiner, was German-born and a member of the German-American Bund.  Leiner was acquitted of the treason charge, because the evidence was insufficient, and he was not an American citizen.  He would have been a free man, but Attorney General Biddle immediately had him interned as an enemy alien, directing that he be held in custody for the duration of the war.  This circumvented the usual practice of submitting the case to an alien enemy hearing board.  Leiner was later charged with aiding the enemy.


A few days before Leiner's acquittal of the treason charge, my mother’s case came up.  Kerling and five others had already been executed in the electric chair.  After Kerling’s death and months in the House of Detention, my mother was emotionally and physically at rock bottom.  Her lawyer, Andrew S. Fraser, insisted that she plead guilty, telling her there was no way to get out of it and that pleading guilty was the only way to circumvent a grinding trial which would be both a strain on her and her family as well as on their finances.  Mother finally reluctantly agreed.  She was the only person of American birth to be “involved” in the   entire affair.  Those who were not American citizens could be interned and the citizenship of several naturalized citizens was revoked for this purpose, i.e., so that they could be interned.  Because my mother was American-born, she could not be denaturalized; a guilty plea would allow the government to hold her in custody.  My mother always said that she was sure that her lawyer had made a deal with the DA and that they had known that Leiner was not a citizen.  Comments in the New York Times of December 1, 1942, page 1 and page 26, state that:  “Miss Engemann is in the odd position of having pleaded guilty to a charge of misprision of treason, since the treasonous affairs of which she failed to inform the authorities are those of which Leiner was absolved yesterday.  The young woman who testified against Leiner is nevertheless subject to imprisonment of as much as seven years.  She is to be sentenced tomorrow.  Mrs. Kerling, like Leiner is interned as an alien.”   I don’t think my mother realized that her testimony was laid out against Leiner.

I must return to July and August of 1942.  When the secret military tribunal was held in Washington, my mother was subpoenaed to appear as a witness for Eddie Kerling.  Although she wanted to help him, it turned out that what she said was laid out as proof that Eddie wanted to complete his mission.  My mother saw Eddie for the last time in the presence of J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle. 


Except for the fact that my mother loved Eddie Kerling, she had committed no crime.  However, her entire family lost their livelihood because of this event.  Her brothers[2] were drafted soon after her arrest, and, as far as I know, sent to army camps that were "reserved" for those of German, Italian, and Japanese descent.  During their service in the military, FBI Agents questioned them intermittently.  Both brothers refused to fight against their German cousins, of which they had quite a few their own age in the Wehrmacht (German Army). Later they were sent to the Pacific, where one brother survived the war without firing a shot.  He had learned the bakers trade in Germany and spent most of his stint as an army cook, partly in Burma. The other brother saw action at Okinawa and was among the first troops that occupied Japan. 


As I mentioned above, my mother spent a year in the Women’s House of Detention in New York City.  At first Hedy Engemann was an outcast there, but on return to the House of Detention after being a witness at the military tribunal, she was treated so badly by a matron, that the tides turned, and she had the other inmates on her side.  She gained respect at the House. (Her narrative of life in the House of Detention is also a piece of local New York history.)  On a snowy winter night she started writing down her love story, using paper and pencil procured by another inmate.  This writing helped her keep her sanity. The love story was of no interest to the FBI or to the prosecutor at the secret trial.  It is conceivable that the love between my mother and Eddie Kerling may have been at least one of the reasons why Eddie decided to come back to the United States.  When he had gone to Germany in June of 1940, he had left the United States with unresolved private matters.  My mother stopped writing as soon as she knew that her transfer to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia was imminent.  It was then June of 1943.  She was able to smuggle what she had written out of the House, and at court, gave it to her mother who saved it for her.


In 1952, when I was a toddler, my mother received mail from the Department of Justice.  She wrote the government a letter saying that she was leading a quiet life and had a small child. However, it was of no avail.  She had to register as the agent of a foreign government under the Internal Security Act of 1950, which had amended the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.  Evidently, the McCarthy era had not overlooked her.  Indeed what happened to her in the 1940’s is a true forbearer of  “guilt by association” as later postulated in that McCarthy era.  She started worrying what I would think when I grew up, so when I was five years old, she got out the pencil-written pages of the war years and wrote down her entire story.  In its concept it was initially a letter to me, her daughter, who was growing up in America in the decade that followed the war. 


She started her letter to me, in 1956, and it took her until 1958 to complete what she wanted to say.  She incorporated the love story, written in prison, in a double retrospect.


Today, some German-Americans are speaking up about what happened to them in World War II.  My mother documented the years from 1940 until 1945 in almost 400 pages.  I have edited what she wrote to me and have added a foreword and afterword.   It is now in a publishable state.


The last part of her narrative recounts the time she spent at the Federal Reformatory in Alderson, West Virginia.   She was employed in the library, and gained the respect of inmates and officers alike, as well as of the head warden.   After she had been there a while, she was asked to teach reading and writing to black inmates.  She made the acquaintance of others who had made headlines, such as Machine Gun Kelly's wife; Laura Ingalls of the “America First Committee,” and women who really worked for the Germans and Japanese, Lilly Stein and Velvelee Dickinson, “The Doll Woman.”  Mother also wrote poetry.  She was released on parole on Palm Sunday of 1945.  Although mother allows her story to end on VJ-Day, her trauma lasted a lifetime.  Mother died in 1988.


The entire family was scarred by this trauma.  As a child, I often woke up nights to the sound of her Remington Rand typewriter.  I sometimes came into the kitchen and I would see her quickly cover up the typewriter and with it, the past...


Mother’s experiences relate to the plight of the German-Americans before, during and after both World Wars.  German-Americans are the victims of the equation that war hysteria established, i.e., German equals Nazi.  In the face of what happened through the Nazis in the name of the German people, German-Americans were hard put about telling of their plight during the war. While America was fighting against tyranny in Europe, this happened in America. It was not easy to be of German heritage in the postwar decades.  I remember how careful my parents were to not speak German in public (my father was Austrian-born).  I remember having some peers who denied their German heritage.  I didn’t even know that my best friend was as “German” as I was, as she always said she was Irish.  However, one day her grandparents came while I was at her house.  I couldn’t believe my ears, when they began speaking German with each other.  When I went to high school there was hardly a school in New York City that had German on the curriculum.  Even my own high school--founded by German nuns--had taken German from the curriculum during WW II and has not reinstated through today.  I learned German at home and on my own, and took the N.Y. State German Regents exam with one other girl in the presence of an elderly German-American nun.


I must make a few more comments that I think are relevant.  Immediately preceding the outbreak of WW II, many German-born people who had immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s repatriated to Germany.  The German, that is, the Nazi government, in many cases paid the ship’s passage for their return to Germany.  Of course the Nazis had ulterior motives for wanting able men (and women) with a good knowledge of the English language to return to Germany.  Some of these people definitely sympathized with the Nazis, but I may assume that many were just plain homesick, and maybe some had been unsuccessful in America and were glad to have someone pay their passage back home.   Whatever their reasons, all of them had lived very American lives for many years.   What did they feel when they stepped off the boat in Germany and found that chilling climate of a fascist government?  Like it or not they had to stay, especially those who had not become American citizens who were as good as in a trap. Whatever motives the eight “saboteurs” had, all of them had lived in America for a long time.  Many of them had loved ones in the United States.  It is my belief that each of them had different and varied motives for volunteering for the mission.  The German as well as the American families of those six men executed in Washington D.C. on August 8, 1942 were never officially informed of how or where their loved ones died.  It seems to be the most thoroughly swept-under-the-carpet case of World War II--on both sides of the Atlantic.


Christel Engemann

August 2002

The case of the ARAUCA and its crew


In her narrative my mother mentions the ARAUCA several times.  It may be that someone who is researching the detainment of German vessels and the internment of their crews would be interested in this, so it may be posted.


This is what I know about the ARAUCA:


The ARAUCA was a German freighter sailing to some not known destination and was off the Florida coast in the late fall 1939 or early winter of 1940.   A British military vessel had shot at them at about the three-mile limit, and the ARAUCA sought refuge in the Ft. Lauderdale harbor. Although the United States was not yet at war, the freighter and its crew were detained at Ft. Lauderdale.


In the Spring of 1940 my mother paid a visit to the ARAUCA.  She went there with the German crew of the LEKALA, who sailed up to Ft. Lauderdale to see them.  There the Coast Guard also paid these vessels a visit.  I have a photograph of the crew of the ARAUCA,  there are 24 people on this picture including 3 Coast Guard men, and a puppy.


About a year later, the ARAUCA and its crew were still detained in Ft. Lauderdale harbor.  My mother was working in Florida again and got permission to visit them, which she did twice.  Not much later she found out through the newspapers that the ARAUCA had been confiscated and the crew interned.[3]   At this point America had still not yet entered the war. 


My mother later visited the interned crew, which was being held in the uppermost story of the Miami City Hall.  I don’t know how long they were held there.  My mother and some other employees at her workplace had collected some money for these interned men and she was able to give it to them.  The crew was later sent to Ft. Lincoln at Bismarck, North Dakota.  On her way to the East Coast my mother was again able to give them some money collected by German-Americans.


As far as I know, my mother had correspondence with one of the crew after the war, and I remember her saying that this man committed suicide.  I don’t know what happened to the rest of the crew after the war.


 Christel Engemann, August, 2002 

[1] FOITIMES.COM editor’s note:  Full name Edward John Kerling and also known as John Edward Kerling

[2] Carl (my mother’s younger brother) was in Camp Upton, New York, in March 1943, and Camp Shelby, Mississippi at least from December 1944 until January 1945.  It appears as though both of mother’s brothers were in Nashville, Tennessee at least from June 1944 until November 1944.  In February 1945, Joe (my mother’s older brother) was in Fort Warren (no state given--FOITIMES.COM editor’s note during this period there was a Fort Warren at Laramie, Wyoming), and at Camp Forrest, Lebanon, Tennessee, in  November 1944.  I don't know anything about these camps.    Evidently Joe was a mess sergeant, possibly later a Staff Sergeant. Later letters do not mention their locations.


[3] FOITIMES.COM editor’s note:  The following information  on the Arauca was obtained from <> and <>   In 1940 the United States was not yet at war with Germany. An incident occurred at Base Six in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The German ship ARAUCA was considered the finest freighter afloat. On her maiden voyage the British cruiser, Oran, off the Florida coast, was pursuing her. Toward seeking safety, the ARAUCA headed into Port Everglades. There a force of the U.S. Coast Guard and Dade County sheriffs seized it. The crew was incarcerated at the Dade County jail awaiting a hearing for over one month.


Louie Stanley was officer in charge of the security crew, which boarded the ARAUCA and held the ship before final disposition. The Miami Herald newspaper of April 1941 carried a photographic special on the seizure of the ship. Several of the pictures include Louie Stanley as leading the photographers and exhibiting the comfort and technology of the German ship.


Because the United States and Germany were not at war, the German flag was allowed to remain displayed on the ARAUCA. Shortly after the seizure President Franklin Roosevelt entered the harbor aboard his 165-foot yacht.  Noticing the German flag he pulled along side the seized ship and ordered the German flag lowered. This act of seizing a German vessel could have been considered the first act of war by the United States. The German officers and crew were later interred at Arizona Federal Prison for the duration of the war. The Arauca was placed in service for the United States throughout the war, i.e., it was converted to Store Ship AF-40.