This article is compliments of, and with permissions from the San Jose Mercury News
Posted on Thu, Jan. 30, 2003
LOSS OF RIGHTS
By Ken McLaughlin
The story of Starr Pait Gurcke sounds like the plot of some conspiracy-laden
wartime TV movie.
Born in 1911 into a pioneer San Jose family of British heritage, she graduated
from San Jose State and received a master's in Germanic languages from Stanford
before falling in love with Werner Gurcke while on a fellowship in Germany.
They married in 1936 in Santa Cruz before leaving for San José, Costa
Rica, where Gurcke had previously immigrated, and soon had two daughters.
But because Gurcke was a German citizen, the San Jose woman and her family
ended up spending World War II behind barbed wire in a Texas internment camp
for ``enemy aliens.''
Her story is part of an exhibit now in the main Santa Cruz library detailing
the round-up of Germans, Italians and Japanese in the United States and Latin
America, some of whom were exchanged for American prisoners in Europe and
Asia. The exhibit, titled ``Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War
II,'' is the first in which groups of Japanese, German and Italian heritage
have collaborated to show how the civil rights of more than 31,000 ``enemy
aliens'' were violated during the war, said Grace Shimizu, the project's
``This is a ground-breaking and unique multicultural collaboration,'' Shimizu
Although the internment of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during
World War II has been publicized extensively, the exhibit aims at showing
the sweeping nature of other internments. Specifically, it focuses on the
dozens of U.S. Department of Justice camps where ``enemy aliens'' were interned,
as opposed to the camps set up by the War Relocation Authority for people
of Japanese descent. One of the least known parts of that history involves
the round-up of more than 4,000 people of German descent throughout Latin
Civil libertarians are delighted to see the exhibit to call attention to
what they see as abusive targeting of Muslims and people of Arab descent.
Its timing was fortuitous: The long-planned traveling exhibit first opened
in San Francisco, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and has been in Boston, Berkeley
and Washington, D.C.
When Heidi Donald, one of the Gurcke daughters, heard the exhibit was going
to Santa Cruz, she decided it was time to ``completely come out of the closet''
about her family's internment. Donald, a retired nurse, had squeezed the
story out of her mother in her last years and then set about finding out
what she could in recently declassified documents.
She was almost 3 when her family was taken by boat from Costa Rica, put on
a U.S. Army ship and taken to a prison camp in Crystal City, Texas, south
of San Antonio. Donald's memories of the camp are fuzzy, but she recalls
seeing her first icicle during the frigid winter and her younger sister,
Ingrid, being caught in a dust storm.
When she became a teenager, by that time living in Santa Cruz, she thought
more about the camp and periodically prodded her parents to tell their story.
But neither wanted to talk about it. They were more interested in making
their children's lives ``safe and normal,'' said Donald, 62, whose sister,
Ingrid Cutler, also still lives in Santa Cruz.
Her father died of cancer in 1970 at age 61. But three years before her mother's
death at age 86 in 1997, Donald was finally able to capture her mother's
story on a tape recorder.
Her mom, who in her spare time translated California pre-statehood documents
for historians, was unable to tell her own family's history without breaking
down in tears.
She spoke about her husband, who had developed a thriving import-export business
in Costa Rica, dealing in buttons, umbrellas and Hamilton watches. Heidi
was born in 1940; her sister 15 months later. Life was hectic but wonderful.
But because he was still a German citizen, Werner Gurcke's business was one
of 340 blacklisted by the Costa Rican government, under pressure from the
He and his brother were arrested without explanation in July 1942. First,
they were locked up and forced to sleep on the concrete floor of a local
jail before being sent to a concentration camp.
Six months later, the whole family was put on the U.S. Army transport ship
Puebla. Werner Gurcke spent all three weeks in the hold of the ship, while
Starr Pait Gurcke -- described in a Department of Justice document as ``sort
of (an) American citizen'' -- and two diapered kids slept in a cramped cabin
with other families.
About 40 passengers developed whooping cough. An epidemic of impetigo, an
acute skin disease, broke out.
When the Puebla landed in San Pedro, Calif., immigration officials told Werner
Gurcke their reason for holding him: He had entered the United States illegally.
He was not allowed legal counsel, and he and his family were taken by train
to Crystal City, a former camp for farmworkers, where summer temperatures
routinely reached 120 degrees.
Starr Pait Gurcke said the prisoners were treated humanely, although they
could never understand the barbed-wire fences between them and freedom --
or the confiscation of their homes and property.
Because Werner Gurcke was married to a U.S. citizen, he was granted ``internment
at large'' 18 months later at his first hearing. The family moved to the
Seabright area of Santa Cruz, where the Pait family had a beach bungalow.
Gurcke began supplying Mexican labor camps with goods and eventually imported
wine corks from Spain and Portugal. He was required to report monthly to
a Salinas immigration office and had to seek permission to leave the Monterey
On Feb. 25, 1946, Gurcke got a letter from immigration authorities saying
that he was no longer considered an enemy alien.
It was the same day an immigration officer knocked on his door to ask him
to sign a document admitting he was in the United States illegally. His boss
and 18 neighbors petitioned the government, saying that deportation would
result in extreme hardship for his wife and children and deprive the country
of ``an intelligent, cultured, responsible resident.''
After a three-year legal battle, he was exonerated of having entered the
country illegally. In 1952, he became a U.S. citizen, pledging to fight all
enemies, foreign and domestic.
Contact Ken McLaughlin at email@example.com or (831) 423-3115.
© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.