by Martha Nakagawa
Bismarck, N.D.-- "Gitterkrankheit--the fence sickeness." It is a term coined by three German Americans Dr. Eddie Friedman, Dr. Arthur Sonnenberg and Wolfgang Thomas.
The three, along with more than 3,850 people of German and Japanese ancestry, had been inmates of a Department of Justice (DOJ) Camp at Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, N.D., during World War II.
Friedman described the fence sickness to author John Christgau
in this way: After youve been behind barbed wire for a long time,
even if you know
youve done nothing wrong, a part of you begins to feel like a criminal. Once you get out, its not something you want to talk about.
The story of this fence sickness is captured in a new exhibit that
opened Oct. 4 at the former DOJ camp site titled, Snow Country Prison:
Interspersed in the exhibit are translated haiku poems of former Bismarck internee
Itaru Ina, whose bitterness and sorrow put into words the fence
sickness described by Friedman, a German Jew who escaped one of Hitlers death camps only to be incarcerated in a U.S. style concentration camp in America.
Inas daughter, Dr. Satsuki Ina, felt it was time that the full story
of the World War II internment camp experience be told. This is part of
story, said Ina. I think theres been a single voice describing the Japanese American experience, and really, there are multiple voices and many stories.
Its time now for these stories about the renunciants be told and understood with compassion.
I also think the story being told today is relevant for whats happening
in the world regarding other immigrants and citizens who are at risk because
government needs to procure national security and suspend constitutional rights.
Laurel Reuter, curator of the exhibit and director of the North Dakota Museum
of Art, said they decided to let Itaru Inas haiku tell the story of Fort
Lincoln rather than have lengthy text throughout the exhibit because the personal is the universal; if you can tell one persons story well, you can tell the whole story well.
Reuter also added that because there are so few photographs of Japanese American inmates they decided to enlarge individual photographs on large white banners to represent everyone who had been at Fort Lincoln.
The exhibit was organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art and the United
Tribes Technical College with assistance from Christgau, author of Enemies:
World War II Alien Internment, which was published in 1985 and is considered the first book on the governments enemy alien program during WWII; Dr. Satsuki Ina, film producer of Children of the Camps; Scott Schaffnit, outreach programs coordinator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota; Etsuko
Wakayama, calligrapher; Marilyn Snyder, curator of education for the State Historical Society of North Dakota; and Frank Vyzralek, historian and retired North Dakota State archivist.
The first World War II inmates at Fort Lincoln were German seamen who arrived in May 1941. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, all 1,000,000 German, Japanese and Italian aliens in the US were declared "enemy aliens" pursuant to the Alien Enemies Act and subject to many restrictions, including the possibility of indefinite internment by the Department of Justice. Under that law, the seamen were soon joined by German suspected "enemy aliens" living in America. That was followed by more than 400 Japanese suspected "enemy aliens". When the United States government forcibly removed Germans and Japanese from their homes in Latin America, hundreds wound up at Fort Lincoln. In 1945, Fort Lincolns population swelled as hundreds of Japanese Americans, who had renounced their citizenship at the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp, were transferred to the Bismarck camp.
It was hell, said Max Ebel, 84, of New Hampshire, in describing his WWII experience.
During the war, Ebel had left Germany to escape the Nazis, only to be arrested by the FBI in September 1942. He was first held in a temporary INS detention center in Boston, then at Ellis Island, the very symbol of Americas open door policy towards immigrants. From there, Ebel was shipped to Fort Meade in Maryland, Camp Forrest in Tennessee and finally to Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, N.D., where he wound up volunteering to be an internee laborer for the Northern Pacific Railroad in an effort to get out of the camp.
To this day, Ebel is unsure of why he was picked up. He believes he was already under surveillance by the FBI in 1938 when he went to the German consulate in Boston to respond to a letter from the German government to join the German Army.
I said, No, and I thought it was cut and dry, said Ebel.
Government records obtained by his daughter, Karen, also give little clue as to why Ebel was picked up. It may be that Ebel made comments that he would fight with the Americans in the Pacific but not in Germany because he had family there, or it may be that he made complimentary comments about the road system under Hitler.
Whatever the reason, Ebel, like many other German and Japanese immigrants at that time, were picked up on the flimsiest of reasons.
Ebel recalled that one Japanese man had come under suspicion because he liked to get his shoe shined. He was an old guy, recalled Ebel. On his day off he went across town to get his shoe shined. That was all. But they (FBI) watched him because right across from the shoe shining place was General Electric.
Ebel became emotional when he recounted the story of a Japanese inmate who tried to commit suicide. One night Ebel and another German heard the toilet flushing repeatedly. When they went to investigate, the two found the Japanese inmate with his throat slit, flushing his blood down the toilet bowl. Ebel and his friend got help and saved the Japanese mans life. Another Japanese internee gave Ebel a rosary, declaring that he no longer believed in the Christian God because a small opening in the rosary crucifix had led to his arrest by the FBI, Ebel has treasured that rosary all these years. At a public discussion forum, Ebel voiced his wish to return the cross to the Japanese American community in honor of the Japanese men he met while interned and their shared experience.
Ebels daughter has been active in the legislative arena to have the government acknowledge and apologize for its wartime treatment of Germans and Italians.
Its my perception that the redress effort in the Japanese American community had such a healing effect, said Karen. The Germans have never had that experience. Thats why I feel the legislative work Ive been involved in is so important. Even the history books dont say that Germans and Italians were incarcerated.
Karen was pleased to make the first formal announcement of the October 1 introduction of the Wartime Treatment Study Act in Bismarck where her father was interned. The bill mandates the establishment of two commissions, the first is similar to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that studied the circumstances of the Japanese Americans. It would review the treatment of European Americans and European Latin Americans during World War II. A second commission would review the US government's denial of asylum to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe during World War II.
The Wartime Treatment Study Act, S. 1691 was jointly introduced by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) in the House. A companion bill, HR 3226, was simultaneously introduced by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) in the House.
In describing how the German American community was affected, Karen said, In
the German community, they picked up fewer people so as a starting point,
there were fewer people that even know much about it. And the way it was discussed, generally, at the time in the German communities that were affected, was that a lot of them really thought the people who were being picked up werent the greatest people on earth so there wasnt really a warm, fuzzy feeling for the internee for quite some time. So not only were the internees feeling some shame because of what the government had done to them, even though none of them had been convicted of a crime, you compound that with what had happened during World War II in Germany, and a lot of them had guilt and wanted to just push it all away.
Robert Nebel, 83, was among the first Germans to be incarcerated at Fort Lincoln. He was a German merchant marine, working with an all-German crew, for Standard Oil, an American company with offices in Germany.
When Nebels oil tanker landed in New York in 1938, Germany had just attacked
Poland, and the entire German crew was held for the next two years in New
York. The group was then shipped to Ellis Island and on to Fort Lincoln in May 1941, months before the United States entered WWII.
At Fort Lincoln, Nebel was among the first Germans to unsuccessfully try to
dig an underground escape tunnel. The men were caught after a truck parked
above the tunnel and caved a portion of the parking lot in.
We werent trying to escape, said Nebel. We just wanted
to go to Bismarck, have a few beers and look at the girls. When youre
20-years-old, thats the
only thing on your mind, nothing else.
For his participation in the tunnel, Nebel was held in solitary confinement for two weeks.
Since the nearby city of Bismarck had a large population of German descendants going back to the 1800s, the German seamen were highly motivated to meet the local women, said Nebel. As a result, there was a second attempt to tunnel out of Fort Lincoln to meet women. That too was foiled.
Nebel had other stories of escape attempts. He recalled one guy, who they nicknamed Marlene Dietrich because he had droopy eyes like the actress, had run off after he applied to visit the hospital which was outside Fort Lincoln. But as luck would have it, the first car he tried to hitch a ride on turned out to be Fort Lincoln guards.
After Germany surrendered, Nebel, despite his treatment in America, wanted
to remain and even volunteered for the U.S. Army. But instead Nebel was one
300 German seamen shipped back to Germany in 1945.
Over the years, Nebel tried to legally immigrate to the United States but was
repeatedly turned down with the explanation that he was barred from entering
the country for having entered illegally. Nebel was in the same situation as the Japanese Latin Americans, who had been forcibly taken from their country,
brought to the United States and then deemed as illegal aliens after the end of World War II. To get around this, Nebel immigrated to Canada, became a
Canadian citizen and, through the help of friends in the United States, entered the country legally. He now lives in Florida.
Eberhard Fuhr, 78, was not incarcerated at Fort Lincoln but at the Crystal
City DOJ camp in Texas. Fuhr said he came to Fort Lincoln to pay tribute to
then-U.S. Sen. William Langer, R-N.D., who had convened a hearing on Ellis Island after the end of WWII and introduced a bill that released all enemy aliens still being held. Fuhr was among those released in September 1947.
Fuhr, like Ebel, has no idea why he was arrested at his high school in Cincinnati,
Ohio in 1943. The German-born naturalized citizen notes that in his
180-page FBI files, there is mention that he is suspected of being favorably disposed towards Germany.
I think everyone is favorably predisposed towards their native country
or homeland or heritage, said Fuhr. But that doesnt mean youre
going to be
disloyal to the country where youre living in.
A year earlier, Fuhrs parents had been picked up and held at the DOJ
camp at Seagoville, Texas. After Fuhr was given a hearing where he was declared
dangerous alien enemy, he was sent to Chicago and then reunited with his parents at the Crystal City DOJ camp.
Im not so angry at being interned during the war because I was
a German, said Fuhr. I wasnt an American. I was born in Germany.
But yeah, Im angry
about the time after the war, when I was kept for two and a half years after the end of the war.
For Mike Wilcken, son of former Bismarck internee Egon Wilcken, the visit to Fort Lincoln was a moving one. Its emotional because just because my father was here, said Wilcken, choking back tears.
Wilcken recalled that his late father frequently talked about Fort Lincoln and has hundreds of photographs from his stay since cameras were not confiscated from the German detainees.
The way my father told me is that the government told him he could join
the American Army and become a citizen, recalled Wilcken. My father
Im not going to do that. I always thought that that would be like if I went over to Germany as an American tourist and the war broke out and Im asked to join the German Army to fight the Americans. My father thought the same way. He thought, Why should I fight my countrymen? Thats why they put him here.
Armin Vogt and Ursula Vogt Potter distinctly remember the day the FBI visited
their Spokane, Wash., farm and arrested their father, Karl Vogt, and shipped
him off to Fort Lincoln.
I can tell you in vivid color that day, said Armin Vogt, who had
been four-years-old at the time. Im 66-years-old but I can tell
you exactly what the
weather was like and everything about it. Its like a photograph thats been slapped into your brain. If I saw those men (FBI) again, Id probably recognize them.
Karl Vogt was arrested on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese bombed
Pearl Harbor. Three FBI agents in black suits and hats, got out of a black car.
One of them handcuffed the father, and the agents went from room to room, looking through all the familys photo albums. When Karls wife, Elsie, asked the FBI agents where they were taking her husband, she was told that it was none of your business.
The Vogt family have recounted their story in their newly published book titled, The Misplaced American, by Ursula Vogt Potter.
The two Nikkei former Bismarck inmates to attend the opening event were among the second wave of Japanese Americans to be held at Fort Lincoln.
Its a nostalgic revisit to Fort Lincoln as a free person, said Hank Naito, 77, who flew in from Hawaii.
Tad Yamakido, 77, of California, said he had mixed emotions. Some of it is anger, some of it is sadness, and some of it is happiness, he said.
In describing his emotions, Yamakido said he was angry that WWII had started and the government had put Japanese Americans into camps, which eventually led to the renunciation of his citizenship and his incarceration at Fort Lincoln.
Yamakido said he was sad because the anger that led to his renunciation sent
him to Japan where he watched three of his close Nisei friends die due to
post-war Japans lack of food, sanitation and medicine. Yamakido himself had contracted dysentery from drinking contaminated water and could barely move for a while. His older brother contracted tuberculosis at the time and was hospitalized to have a part of his lung and ribs removed. During the operation, he was given a blood transfusion with tainted blood, which would haunt him 30 years later when he would develop cirrhosis of the liver.
But Yamakido said he is happy that his citizenship was restored, thanks to
the efforts of Wayne Collins, and that the United States government had
apologized for its wartime actions.
After his restoration of his citizenship, Yamakido joined the United States
airforce in 1952 and served in some branch of the U.S. military until his
retirement in 1988.
I guess I can close the book now, said Yamakido. Its a big relief.
Dr. Isao Fujimoto, son of a former Missoula, Mont. DOJ camp internee Taiichi
Fujimoto, was only eight when his father was picked up by the FBI. As the
oldest of the children, his Japanese-speaking mother, Ayako, had Isao write a letter to the President of the United States, pleading for his fathers release.
Although young Isao received no response, he continued to write letters to various officials. He finally received a response when he wrote to Edward Ennis,
the head of the Alien Enemy Control Unit.
Like Ina, Fujimoto felt it was critical to remember the DOJ camps. I
think the wartime experience is a reminder of what happens to people in a time
crisis, especially if they are marginalized and arent organized. Its very important that people really come together and realize the power that exist when people start working together, so I think this is not just about looking back at how bad the situation was but we want to say what have we learned from it and how do people work together to develop a community, as well as a society, that gives us this promise of democracy.
Rodney Sakamoto had two grandfathers in separate DOJ camps. His maternal grandfather,
Shokichi Ishimaru, ended up at Fort Lincoln; his paternal
grandfather, Giisuke Sakamoto, wound up at the Missoula DOJ camp.
Ive been trying to find out for quite a few years now what happened
to them when they came to these places and what was it like, said Sakamoto.
thought this would be an opportunity to learn a little more about what happened. I imagine they were 65 or 70 years old when all of a sudden they were uprooted
and taken to Montana and North Dakota, which were totally foreign to them, and they didnt speak any English. It mustve really, really been traumatic.
Today, Fort Lincoln has been converted into the United Tribes Technical College.
How ironic that Fort Lincoln, which once held relocated Germans and Japanese, is now occupied by Native Americans whose long history have been marked by repeated tragic episodes of relocation and resettlement, said author Christgau. Those of us who want this history preserved are grateful to the United Tribes for recognizing a part of the tragedy that happened here during World War II.
David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College, noted that the
land now legally belongs to the college and can be said that the Indians
taken over the fort.
In discussing the United Tribes decision to participate in the exhibit, Gipp
said, We realize that freedom is not the same for everyone. It wasnt
1941, and it isnt even that way today. We are revisiting the past to learn about what we need to do to protect fundamental freedoms of _expression, of
movement, of the ability to take advantage of this democracy.
Gipp pointed out that it was not until 1944 that the final third of the American Indians, through an act of Congress, became United States citizens.
When we look at the internment years, we see again the loss of basic
rights and we can see the parallels in history that have happened to people
Native people, the first Americans, as I like to say, who were the last Americans to receive citizenship, at least as a group, said Gipp. We see what
happened to the German and Japanese American internees and the things that they gave up and were forced to do. To me, this exhibit is an acknowledgement of a part of our history, and it is yet to be fully told and fully discovered.
For more information on the Snow Country Prison exhibit «« Click here.
Posted with the permission of Martha Nakagawa -- email@example.com
November 18, 2003