The Graber Story ©2001
Mid-April 1945. It was a relatively sunny day in Gernsbach, a small town
in the Black Forest of
around the small vegetable garden interspersed with fruit trees. Our
father and grandfather were digging up the ground to prepare new vegetable
beds. At first, we heard only a very low hum but it quickly became louder
and louder. Then the air raid sirens started shrieking. By that time,
airplanes were visible. I was a toddler, so I could not count much past
20, but there were many more than that anyway. I was fascinated as small
objects started to fall out of the airplanes, not realizing they were
bombs that could kill me.
Everyone ran in panic. Our father grabbed us. We tried to crawl under the
slightly elevated floor of a garden tool shed for protection, as we were
told. We didn't have time to make it to the air raid shelter. My biggest
concern in the rush was the piece of bread I had dropped. I was
determined to go back out there to retrieve it. A piece of bread was food,
and food was not easy to come by in those days. The bombs were laying a
carpet of destruction through Gernsbach. I was not allowed to get the
bread. Only a few days earlier, we discovered what the air raid shelter
was. We were living in our grandparents' house when it was blown away
during a vicious tank attack by the French. With nothing but our lives we
made it to the air raid shelter. My brothers and I did not understand.
We were American-born children in
war, destruction, hunger, lack of shelter and the misery surrounding us
Today, 55 years later, Werner and I are still trying to understand how he,
my other brother, Teddy, and I
ended up in ravaged
of the most vicious fighting of WWII having bombs dropped on us by our own
people. Germans couldn't
understand that we were refugees from
They did not know what to make of us. But since we spoke German, we were
accepted without much thought. Fortunately, living in the towns of our
respective grandparents, townspeople still remembered Mom and Dad. Dad had
emigrated to the
married in February 1939, recent immigrants filled with hope and looking
forward to their new lives in
country my parents loved crushed their hopes and dreams, as well as their
Early September 1942. Theo Graber, 29, Emmy, 22, Werner, 3 and Gunther,
1 1/2 were living
residential street. We just had moved there from
in a two-family house owned by Mr. Stenzinsky. He had emigrated from
Grabers for all the misery
became unbearable, so my parents
decided to move to
Polish landlord also was responsible for the FBI's increasing interest in
The International Nickel Company
employed my father in
working with "war sensitive technology." One day when he came home from
work, my mother, Emmy, told him about the two new men who had moved into
the neighborhood. She observed that they were well dressed and very neat
in their hats, ties and gray suits. They had been there for two days and
had not even thrown any paper in the gutter. Dad, suspicions aroused,
peeked through the curtains at the dark green Chevy sedan parked across
the street and wondered what they wanted.
We found out all too soon. On September 25, there were several hard
knocks on the door and the two well dressed, armed men bolted through the
door. They asked Dad if he was Theo Graber. He said he was and asked them
to identify themselves. "FBI" was their response and they flashed their
badges. With little regard for small children, they informed Theo and
Emmy that they had to go with them to the local FBI bureau for
questioning. When Mom asked who would watch the children, they told her
to get a sitter. New to the area, my parents didn't know anyone who would
watch us. Mom suggested they take Dad alone, but said she'd come looking
for him if he didn't show up in a few hours. After some convincing, they
took Theo and left Mom home with us.
Theo was interrogated for several hours, questioned about his job, his
finances, what German organizations he belonged to, his relatives and
friends. All throughout, however, he had the feeling the agents knew the
answers before they asked the questions. They returned Theo back to his
family. He was never given any reason for being interrogated or told what
crimes he was suspected of having committed. He was only an "enemy alien"
not worthy of fair treatment.
In late November they were back. Bang, bang. Theo answered the door.
"You are under arrest," he was told, as the agents pushed him into the
kitchen. Emmy, upstairs coming out of the bedroom, saw this, fainted and
fell down the stairs. One of the agents asked who she was. Theo said it
was his wife. They wondered what her problem was. Theo told them she
was pregnant and tried to help her. Another agent in the meantime was
going through all the closets, dressers and whatever else he could turn
over, never revealing what they were looking for. They told us that they'd
be back to get us after Christmas.
As a result of the fall, on December 2, 1942, Teddy was born 2 months
premature. His right leg was deformed and he suffered from spinabifida. My
parents were told that he would never walk by the doctor at Elizabeth
General Hospital. On December 31, 1942, Dad had even written to President
Roosevelt plead his case, but it was to no avail. The local FBI bureau
told him that since we boys were American citizens we would not have to go
to prison. Dad's feeling was that we were a family—-either we all go or
On January 16, 1943, without notice, FBI Inspector Stern and two Elizabeth
City Cops came to get us. We were allowed to bring only what we could
carry in hastily packed suitcases. They swung past the Elizabeth General
Hospital to pick up Teddy who had been there ever since he was born.
They took us to the Ferry landing to go to Ellis Island. We huddled there
freezing on the pier under close watch waiting for the ferry. Mom and we
three very young children shared a small room with another woman with two
young children. Teddy was still very sick. The men were in rooms, each
occupied by about 30 men. During the day, everyone was in the large
reception hall. We had little time together as a family.
On January 19, 1943, we were told to pack and taken under guard by Coast
Guard Cutter to Jersey City. We had no idea where we were going. The
military had just completed a makeshift landing dock where we stepped on
land. It was conducted like a clandestine operation, perhaps to keep
their treatment of us a secret. In the train station, we waited several
hours for a train. We were kept separate from everyone else, closely
guarded by several plainclothes agents. Everyone kept staring at us like
we were criminals. Husband, wife and three small children, they must have
wondered, what did they do? The train finally came and we were given a
compartment for ourselves to keep us separate from other passengers. I
guess they thought we were dangerous or would try to escape. Finally,
they told us that we were going to Texas.
After endless 4 days, we wound up in Seagoville, Texas. In that camp, a
former women's jail complex, we were assigned 2 rooms to live in. The
buildings were bungalow style with around 10 rooms each. Armed agents on
horseback controlled the complex. The complex also housed a contingent of
Japanese. Life in general was miserable. Mom and Teddy were mostly in the
hospital. Teddy, of course, required continuous care, and Mom was pretty
much always sick. To this day, I cannot imagine how my mother and father
managed all this misery.
Dad was trying to find out why he was in the camp and what he had done
that he deserved to be here. There were no answers. There were no court
hearings, there were no accusations, there was never any reason given why
he and his family were so brutally removed from their daily lives and sent
to this desolate, miserable place. He kept thinking that the reason he
left Germany in first place was to live in a country were freedom and
above all, civil liberties and rights, had a meaning. Instead, here he
and his family were imprisoned with no prospect of leaving, only endless
time, self-doubt and torment.
Approximately a year and a half later, on June 7, 1944, we were shipped to
Crystal City, 20 miles from the Mexican border. There we could live in a
bungalow and function as a family again. There even was a kitchen where
Emmy could cook family meals. There were no trees, however, and it was
unbelievably hot. Teddy still spent most of his time in the hospital. Dad
worked in the power room, just to keep his sanity. One day, some
officials visited and he was asked if he wanted to return to Germany. He
decided that returning to Germany was better then being in jail.
Understandably, by that time, all Dad wanted to do was to get out. Life
in the prison camps was unbearable. Choosing so-called "voluntary"
repatriation to war torn Germany is ample evidence of how miserable,
embittered and discouraged my father was. Let no one say that under such
circumstances, repatriation was in any way truly voluntary.
Tuesday January 2, 1945. Six months later, we were taken back to the train
station. In Crystal City, Dad had constructed wooden crates in which our
meager belongings were placed. Dad's brother partially sold the belongings
we left behind in Elizabeth. Others had been stolen. (My uncle had been a
citizen for a number of years. But he was German by birth, so he still he
had several sessions with the FBI. However, as a citizen they could not
imprison him on mere suspicion like they did to my father.) After 4 long
days, we were back in Ellis Island. From there it was a short trip to the
Swedish ocean liner "Gripsholm." On January 6, 1945, we departed from New
York harbor, my parents and 3 young boys, 5 and under, one an invalid. We
were headed for Germany across the Atlantic during January at a time of
some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
The Gripsholm was painted all white and even at night, she was brightly
lit for everyone to see. There were 800 civilians, including many
children, and 200 prisoners of war on board. These were to be exchanged
for the same number of American citizens caught in Germany by the outbreak
of war. On January 18, we sailed past Gibraltar and on January 21 into the
harbor of Marseilles. The ship struck a mine and we all panicked. The
ship took on water, but thankfully was able to deliver its human cargo
There was a very large contingent of non-English speaking people on this
shipment. As it turns out, these were citizens of Bolivia, Columbia and
several other Latin American countries. The people were German immigrants
living in Latin America where they had been kidnapped by Latin American
governments, at the urging of the US. They were shipped under inhumane
conditions to the US to be used in the exchange program. Only later, as I
got older, did I understand that these people had nothing to do with the
US and certainly had not volunteered for this exchange. One such
individual, a Senor Gustave Dobe, wound up in Winnenden, my father's
hometown, where we ultimately lived. We would see him periodically.
A train was waiting in the harbor and all of us were loaded on. The wagons
were normal passenger cars. Under heavy American security, we made it in 2
1/2 days to Geneva, Switzerland. With a cog train we were taken up the
mountain to the hotel "Les Amons" in Montreux. It was one of the worst
winters in recorded history, so it was very cold and there was lots of
snow on the ground. Some of the Latin Americans never had seen any snow.
The Swiss were not happy to have all these people there. After a week, on
January 30, we continued by train to Bregenz. From there, on February 3,
1945, we crossed in Friedrichshafen into Germany. There the one for one
exchange took place. Germans (or, in the case of many family members like
we children, Americans of German ancestry) walked into dictatorship and
bombs, and Americans, whose life America seemed to value more than ours,
walked out to freedom. Anyone could see that we were walking innocently
toward potential death from the bombs of the country where we were born.
Strangely, the exchange itself was anticlimactic after all we had been
through. The average German citizen did not seem to know what was going
on. In any event, just trying to survive, they certainly did not care. Dad
was able to call his family in Winnenden, a small town near Stuttgart, to
tell them we were coming. They were shocked and couldn't imagine why we
had returned. They didn't know how we would eat or where we would live.
The Americans didn't care about such things once we were exchanged and the
German government didn't concern itself with us. We were merely pawns in
a cruel game. When we arrived, there still was lot of war activity and
German flak trying to shoot down American and British aircraft. The
soldiers at one of the flak batteries were happy to exchange bread for the
cigarettes Dad still had. Other than that, not much other food was
On February 10, 1945, we made it to Winnenden by train. Train service was
sporadic. In some instances, we had to walk a few miles since the track
was destroyed. Mystified people always asked us why we come back? It was
very evident that Germany had lost. There was only destruction and misery
there. My parents and three very young children were walking the tracks
with all their belongings through a war zone. And my father has never
even knew what he had done wrong, except perhaps that he was German.
On February 19, my parents decided to go to Gernsbach in the Black Forest,
my mother's hometown. Gernsbach is located only a few miles from Baden
Baden. The situation there was the same, mostly destruction. They did not
expect us. Again we were asked, why did you come back to this? German men
had no choice but to fight. Mom lost a brother on the Russian Front.
Mom's brother-in-law was a prisoner of war in the US, of all places.
Dad decided that he needed to find work. The best possibility was back in
Winnenden at his father's tool shop. Werner, 5 1/2 years old, and Dad
started out hitchhiking. Periodically they got lucky. Mostly they walked.
During this journey, they were stopped by a French patrol. The commander
ripped up Dad's American ID card and spat at him. Only the fact that
Werner was an American citizen saved our father from being thrown into the
French Foreign Legion. (The French troops had no sympathies for German
enemy aliens just arrived from the US.) They also did not care for the
Americans in general.
There were many East German and Eastern European refugees arriving in
Winnenden, so the social system was stretched. The locals had nothing and
the refugees had even less. Dad was able to get a two-room living area in
a wooden barrack. Toilets were outside and there was one communal water
faucet, outside as well. It was a long way from Elizabeth, NJ, but in many
ways like being back in internment camp.
When applying for social help in Town Hall, Father found out that he did
not qualify as a refugee. He was told that there were no refugees coming
from the West, especially not from the US. So much for kindness,
understanding and support. If you came from the East, running from the
Russian Army, even if you were not German and did not speak the language,
you were considered a refugee worthy of getting social aid. But if you
were a destitute German from America, you were a refugee who no one wanted
or cared about. Our father was very bitter and stayed bitter for a long
time. In mid-April, our home was destroyed in the tank attack. We found
someplace else to live, but survival was difficult.
Finally, the war was over. The rebuilding began, but our trials
continued. Werner and I started school. They called us "Ami" for
American. We were accepted like any East European refugee. Always sickly,
Teddy died of pneumonia in 1948 because there was no medication available.
Father took over his father's tooling business. This is natural for a
son, but only happened because my grandfather was killed when struck by a
US Army truck one evening. He was going to get fresh milk from a farmer
he knew for his American grandchildren. Later, another son, Hans, was
born. Life was extremely difficult in postwar Germany. We had the bare
necessities and not much else, but life went on, as it must.
When Werner and I turned 18, we had to make a decision. Do we become
German citizens or should we exercise our birthright and remain Americans?
We both decided to remain Americans. There really was never a question as
to what citizenship we were going to choose. This required a trip to the
US Consulate in Stuttgart where we were duly signed up for Selective
Service and received a passport. Werner returned to the US in 1958, I
returned in 1959. Having learned the toolmaking trade, finding a good job
was not a problem. Mom and Dad never expressed how they felt when we left.
It was extremely difficult, but I think they understood our decision.
It took them a long time to reconcile with the past. To their very end, my
parents tried to find out why they had to endure such an experience. For
many years, Dad tried to justify to himself that he had made the right
decision asking for repatriation. Did he deprive his children having a
normal life? Would it have been different had he waited out the war in the
camp and then gone back to New Jersey? There was, of course, no way of
knowing how much longer the war would last or how much longer we would
have been in prison. Sadly, he was never free of the self-doubt and
bitterness all his life. This constant self-examination is another cruel
legacy of internment.
To this day, when Werner and I mention our experiences to anyone here in
the US, it is met with total disbelief. It would be impossible to make up
such an experience and story. For several years, Werner and I have worked
to get our government to admit that not only the Japanese were mistreated
during WWII. We want it to admit that there were also many Germans
affected. We simply want an admission of wrongdoing and an apology. This
is for our parents, although they are both dead now. They deserve it for
what they went through. We also want assurances that something like this
will never be repeated for anyone of a different nationality.
My brothers and I still believe in the American democratic system. This
belief could be seriously undermined, however, if the US does not
acknowledge all the ethnicities, including German Americans, which were
affected by its wartime policies. If my country can send me back to
Germany and drop bombs on me, it should be able to admit to this very ugly
period in the history of the United States.
By Gunther Graber with assistance from Karen Ebel
August 15, 2001