The Graber Story ©2001


Mid-April 1945.  It was a relatively sunny day in Gernsbach, a small town

in the Black Forest of Germany. My brother, Werner, and I were running

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-torn Germany and totally confused by

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 Germany during the some

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 America.

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 US in November 1935.  Mom arrived in November 1937. They

married in February 1939, recent immigrants filled with hope and looking

forward to their new lives in America.  This is the story of how the

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 Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Jefferson Avenue, a quiet

residential street.  We just had moved there from Bayonne where we lived

in a two-family house owned by Mr. Stenzinsky.  He had emigrated from

Poland years before. As Germany invaded and defeated Poland, he blamed the

Grabers for all the misery suffered in Poland. Life with Mr. Stenzinsky

became unbearable, so my parents decided to move to Jefferson Avenue.  Our

Polish landlord also was responsible for the FBI's increasing interest in

the Grabers.


The International Nickel Company employed my father in Bayonne, NJ,

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

nobody goes.


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