THE MISPLACED AMERICAN
© Ursula Vogt Potter 2002
The story of Karl Vogt, civilian internee of war, by
members of the Vogt Family, edited and compiled by Ursula Vogt Potter. The following are excerpts from the book, The
Misplaced American, by Ursula Vogt Potter.
sure what is real memory and what is second hand memory
for me. I was very young when it happened---I was about just over a year old.
My brother, Armin, had turned four on October 28,
1941, so his recollection is probably more real than mine. I do think that I
remember my mother standing by the big round oak dining table and crying. My
brother remembers the scene by the table with the two strangers, by then
identified as FBI agents, removing pictures from the family album and taking
them, along with my father, off to places unknown to us. This happened late
afternoon on December 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, one day after the U. S.
declared war on Japan and
two days before the U. S. declared
war on Germany.
The next clear memory I have is of my dad coming home sometime during the month
of August 1943.
Vogt, my father, was born on February 18, 1906, the firstborn of Kasper and
Anna Marie at Dunne near Bunde in Westfalen, Germany. He was the oldest of eight
children--- three boys and five girls. In 1923, Kasper, Anna Marie and their
children decided to immigrate to America. An old uncle had been
begging Kasper for years to come to America
and take over the uncle’s small farm, which was located south of Spokane in the fertile Palouse
country of eastern Washington
State. They left Germany on April 9, 1923 and arrived in Spokane on May 1. Soon
after their arrival on the farm, the family realized that conditions were not
as rosy as the uncle had painted them. The farm was run down and debt ridden,
making it necessary for Kasper and his two older sons, Karl (my dad) and
Wilhelm (Bill), to work at outside jobs until the farm became productive enough
to support the family.
My father, Karl,
met my mother, Elsie Reifenberger, in 1924 at Zion Lutheran
Church in the neighboring community of
Fairfield, Washington. Elsie and her siblings were born
in America, but her father
and mother had emigrated from Germany
in the late 1800s. The two families, the Vogts and
the Reifenbergers, became good friends. Elsie’s
mother had died when she was only six years old, so Jenny Gelber,
a cousin who was a nurse in Germany,
had been persuaded to come to America
to help raise Elsie and her sisters. Later, after Elsie graduated from college
and had taught school for several years, she and Karl fell in love and became
engaged. At this time it was decided that Karl and Bill would remain in America and the rest of the Vogt family would
return to Germany.
Employment opportunities for the younger Vogt siblings were now better in Germany than here in America. Also, the family had kept
their small German landholding, renting it out while here in America, making it easier to resume their lives
Elsie and Karl were married on October 20, 1935 and a few days later the
remaining Vogts (except for Bill) began their journey
back to Germany.
The next spring, 1936, Elsie and Karl took a delayed honeymoon trip to Germany. Most
of the time there was spent visiting relatives, but they also took a short tour
with a German-American group from Spokane.
One of the people that they met on this tour was the editor of the Washington
Post, a German-American newspaper in Spokane.
His name was Heinrich Hesse. Karl kept in contact
with Mr. Hesse after this trip and it was he who
advised Karl and Bill to put the farm into Elsie’s name. Hesse told them, “You are
not citizens. They’ll take the land away from you if war starts with Germany.
”Karl and Bill took his advice, hired a lawyer and the farm was sold to
When Elsie and
Karl took their trip to Germany
in 1936, Elsie’s cousin, Jenny, went with them. She had decided to return
to her former home near Siegen
in Northern Germany. The Reifenberger
girls were adults now, and no longer needed her, and
she had a sister in Germany
who was ill and needed Jenny’s help. While she was here in America, Jenny had managed to build up savings
in the Fidelity Bank in Spokane.
During the Depression the account was blocked, but later the bank paid out a
certain amount each year. Jenny gave Elsie and Karl Power of Attorney in 1936,
so when the Fidelity made these payments, they cashed the checks and sent the
money to Jenny by money order. When the war broke out between Britain and Germany, they knew that it would
not be safe to send it the regular way any longer. Someone suggested that they
should send the money to the German Consulate in San Francisco. There the Consulate would keep
the American dollars for its own expenses and pay out the sum in German marks
to Jenny in Germany.
Karl did just that, and a couple of weeks later received a paper signed by
Jenny stating that she had been paid the money. When Pearl
Harbor was attacked, the Consulate was raided and Karl’s
letter was evidently found. Later, it was revealed that the head of the
Consulate from 1939 until July 1941 (Capt. Fritz Wiedemann)
had been involved in espionage activities and was expelled from this country
late in the summer of 1941.
After Karl was
picked up and he had a “so called” hearing, some of the above
events were held against him. “Why did your family go back to Germany? Why
did you sell the farm to your wife? Why did you take a trip to Germany in
1936? Why did you send money to Hitler? ” were some of the questions
posed to him over and over. It never occurred to him that the basis for the
money question was the money he had sent to Jenny Gelber.
My first night
after being picked up by the FBI was spent in the county jail in Spokane. This was one of
the lowest times of my life. It was if I had died and gone to hell. The shock
of being uprooted so suddenly for no good reason was still fresh and unreal to
me. How long would this go on? What would become of me? And
what about Elsie? Would she live through this? Would I ever see my
family again? Over and over in my mind I kept seeing the stricken faces of my
family. Even little Ursula was not consolable when they took me away—and Armin, that feisty little fellow, was shouting at those
F.B.I. men as we left,“You
bad men! You bad men! ”
I was held in
the county jail until December 21, 1941 when they finally shipped me off to Fort Lincoln,
Dakota. At Fort
Lincoln, on January 19,
1942 I had a “so called” hearing. I was not allowed to have an
attorney and had to appear before the Enemy Alien Hearing Board of Eastern
Washington. I was grilled for hours. Later on February 3, the hearing was
completed in Spokane
where witnesses and affidavits could be presented. I was not allowed to attend
this part of the hearing. Many people testified or sent affidavits in my
defense. Later I heard that three people had testified against me. We had land
hungry neighbors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the farm. Of
course, they didn’t know that the farm had been turned over to Elsie. The
Board chose to listen to the three and ignore the rest.
From Ft. Lincoln,
I was transferred to Camp McCoy, Sparta, Wisconsin and then, finally, to Stringtown, Oklahoma.
I arrived there on June 17, 1942.
Although I was
never physically tortured or starved, life behind a barbed wire fence,
separated from home and family, was an ordeal. Nevertheless, I decided early on
to make the best of the situation. I was still alive, my wife and children
seemed to be coping and I could only hope that this would all end soon. Soon, I
also found out that my internment story was not nearly as tragic as many others
in the camps. On the plus side for me, while I was interned I met and became
friends with many wonderful and interesting people. These people were not Nazi
sympathizers and certainly did not in any way pose a threat to America. They
were simply victims of the hysteria of wartime.
Many of the men
I met at Fort Lincoln
were transferred with me to Camp
McCoy and then finally to
the permanent camp at Stringtown. They all had
interesting stories to tell of their lives and the circumstances of their
internments. One of my friends at Ft. Lincoln
was Erich Braemer. He and I were both from Washington State and both of us had been
"arrested" on December 9, 1941.
Erich was a friendly, interesting person whom I liked immediately. He
told me that he had a son who was in the U. S. Army Air Corps. One day
near the end of February 1942, the head of the camp called Erich to the office
and told him he would be going home in a few weeks. Many of us were
really excited about this, because we thought there might be some hope for us
too. He promised that he would write and tell us why he had been released so
soon. Later he sent news clippings from a Seattle,
Washington newspaper. These news
articles told about the Braemer son who had been part
of the Doolittle Raid. General James Doolittle had led sixteen B-25 bombers
from the deck of the U. S. S. Hornet (a feat in itself for the usually land
based bombers) to a very dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo in April of 1942. Fred Braemer, Erich’s son, had been the bombardier on the
lead airplane piloted by James Doolittle. [Editor: Visit the Doolittle Crew 1 page
for a photograph of this crew.] Needless to say it would not do for the
father of one of these brave men to be behind barbed wire in an internment
My other fellow
internees were a cosmopolitan group. There were lawyers, engineers, professors,
farmers, and sailors. There were a number of Austrian ski champions who
happened to be working as instructors at places like Sun Valley and Aspen when the war broke
out. There were two Lutheran ministers and several Catholics priests. One
priest, Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, was the head librarian at the Vatican! He was
in the U.S.
studying our library system. He was one of my best friends in camp. Another
good friend was Frank Wiegner, a diesel engine design
engineer who, after the war, bought and operated an apple orchard near Chelan, Washington.
interned for many reasons. Most were German nationals who were in the U. S. for a
variety of reasons at the outbreak of the war. Some were visiting professors,
some were students, and some were on the crews of ships. Some were there
because of the ill will of neighbors or business associates. It was easy to
accuse someone of being a Nazi! One Lutheran pastor was interned because he had
objected to putting the Christian and American flags in the church:“The church is no place for flags. ”He
was labeled un-American and reported. There was even a small group of men from
far away Samoa. Some of the Samoan islands,
the eastern ones, belonged to the U. S., but before World War I, the
western Samoan islands were a German colony. In 1914, New Zealand was given control of Western Samoa
and later administered it under the auspices of The League of Nations and still
later as a UN trusteeship until its independence in 1962. The internees from
Samoa did not speak a word of German and had never been to Germany.
Incredibly too, there were also people from Latin American countries in the
internment camps. One of these fellows told me that he was working in the field
one day when the authorities came to him, handcuffed him, placed him in a car
and took him to a waiting ship bound for America.
We internees ran
our own camps under the direction of the camp commander. Group leaders, who
were elected by the internees, were responsible for seeing that all of the camp
rules were carried out. We did our own cooking, and at Stringtown,
Rudy Wolf was the head cook. He had been a chef in one of New York’s finest hotel restaurants. I
often worked with him when on K.P. duty. One day the colonel came to the
kitchen and said,“I’m
having a dickens of a time getting sauerkraut for you people every day.
”He was very relieved when we assured him that we didn’t need
sauerkraut all that often.
I never had felt
so alone, afraid and desolate as I did on the night of December 9, 1941 after
the F.B.I. took Karl away. Our closest neighbor, Mrs. Keevy,
came to stay with me and her brother, George Davis, did the chores. Little
Ursula had not yet learned to walk and crawled around the house calling for
“Da. ”She did
this for days afterwards. Armin “cussed”
those men quite vividly.
The next day, I
called my sister, Rose, and she and her husband came to stay with the children
while Pastor Reitz took me to Spokane
where we found that Karl was housed in the county jail. On the way home we
stopped at Sacred
on the off chance that my brother-in-law, Bill, might still be there. He worked
as an orderly there during the winter when things slowed down on the farm. We
had assumed that all German nationals had been picked up and so were amazed
when we found him at work there in the hospital. He immediately gave up his job
and came home to the farm.
day, we contacted the Immigration Service and the U. S. District Attorney to try to
find out why Karl was being held. The D.A., Lyle Keith, a very unpleasant
person, said that Karl was a prisoner of war. There was no answer to our
“why? ”Bill asked him,“Why didn’t you take me? Why a man with
a family? ”No answer. We then asked, “If
Karl is a prisoner of war, what right have you to keep
him in jail? What about the Geneva Convention rules? ”His answer was cryptic, “Where else would I keep him? Eventually
he’ll be sent to an internment camp. ”
We were finally
allowed to visit Karl just once at the Spokane County
jail. Mr. Walter, a white haired gentleman from the Immigration Service, sat in
on our meeting. He, at least, was kind and considerate, which was a welcome
change from the cold Mr. Keith. Karl and I tried to comfort each other as best
as we could, but soon had to say goodbye.
While Karl was
at Ft. Lincoln
and Camp McCoy, we at least knew where he was and
could write censored letters to each other. In April of 1942, Karl wrote that
he was to be transferred to a permanent camp but didn’t know where. An
attempt was made to keep the new place of detention secret from the
internees’ families. We were given a New York address and all my mail to Karl was
sent to this number: ISN-23-46-G-19-CI, Postal Censor, 244 Seventh Ave., N. Y. There was a
terrific uproar from the families and the destination leaked out anyway, so
thankfully this plan didn’t work out. For quite some time, however, mail
was routed over New York
for censorship and letters were weeks old before they reached their
camp that Karl was transferred to from Camp
McCoy turned out to be Stringtown Internment Camp, Stringtown, Oklahoma.
He arrived there on June 17, 1942. Stringtown was
also a prison camp for U. S.
soldiers, which was entirely separate from the internment camp.
Toward the last,
at Camp McCoy, wives had been visiting their
husbands, so Karl was longing for a visit from the children and me. When he was
transferred to Stringtown, he found it was possible
there too. Two visits a month were allowed, and if scheduled at the end of the
month and the beginning of the next, we could have four days in a row.
Arrangements were made and we left Spokane
by train at the end of July. The first day of our visit was unbelievable! We
were evidently the first visitors any internee had had, and they must have been
expecting some real gangsters. Karl was brought under guard to a small building
where an officer sat throughout our visit. At each door stood a soldier with
his bayonet pointed toward us. Armin was highly
interested and didn’t hesitate to voice a lot of questions: “Why
are they pointing those guns at us? Why is Dad wearing such crummy clothes?
”Anyway, I ignored the guards who looked embarrassed by this time, and
Karl got reacquainted with Ursula, who, of course, was very shy with him at
Armin was right at home with his daddy. He hadn’t
forgotten him and had spent many hours “writing” letters to him
decorated with pictures of trucks and airplanes with a few letters sprinkled
here and there. These were never given to Karl because censors thought they
might be some sort of code! After the first day, there was only one guard who
no longer pointed his gun at us and after that only an officer was present at
I was almost
five years old when we visited Dad at Stringtown. I remember
with absolute clarity the high fence and several strands of barbed wire at the
top and the gate through which we had to pass inspection before we were allowed
to enter. The guards all had rifles and side arms. The officers only carried
side arms. An armed guard escorted us to a small one-room building. In the
center of the room there was a small square table and four chairs. In the
corner of the room was another chair that was occupied by an armed guard. There
may have been another guard also, but I particularly remember the one in the
corner because, on the first day of our visit, his rifle was held at ready. Literally pointed in our direction---not directly, but over our
heads. On the second day of our visit this guard parked his weapon in
the corner. I guess my curiosity regarding his weapon on the first day and my
many questions regarding his gun were disconcerting to him. Dad did tell us
later that the guards were unhappy about the situation. Guarding little kids
with a rifle was too much for them. Dad also told us later about a nearly
unbelievable incident that happened in the camp. A new guard was randomly
assigned to guard an internee whose family was visiting him. This guard turned
out to be the son of this internee! This, of course, caused quite a stir among
the military personnel assigned to the camp.
Editor: During the Summer of 1943, Armin at age 6 and Ursula at age 3 visited their father at Fort Missoula, Montana.
To view a photograph of both of them in Missoula please click here >>>
through the trauma of being an enemy internee and I went through the trauma of
being the wife of an internee. This was a very bitter pill to swallow,
especially considering that I had three nephews and a brother-in-law in the U.
S. Armed Services, and knowing that Karl had done nothing to warrant this
Then too, both
Karl and I were worried about relatives on both sides of the war. Besides
friends and relatives on the American side, Karl’s brother, Henry, and
many cousins were fighting on the German side, and his sisters and father were
in constant danger from the bombing raids in the cities where they lived. It
was like the Civil War for us.
We did have so
many loyal friends that it was truly heartwarming. There were instances, of
course, that were not heartwarming. Some people looked the other way when they
met us on the street. I’m sure our place was monitored for short wave
equipment and our phone was tapped. Our church, in Fairfield, was searched from top to bottom.
Karl was an elder there when he was picked up. One night some neighbors painted
our farm machinery with swastikas.
It is not easy
being falsely accused. My health was definitely undermined. I lost weight so
quickly that I was left with a floating kidney and constant backaches.
In the late fall
of 1942, we went through an especially bad time. Suddenly I was receiving no
mail from Karl. I was frantic with worry. I wrote regularly but received no
answer. Finally, I sent a telegram. Karl happened to have a small amount of
cash (they were issued script) and got one of the guards to send a reply. Just
before Christmas I received the telegram saying he was OK. This was the best
Christmas present! It was several weeks before mail service was restored. We
never did find out what this was all about.
harassment awaited us. On January 21, 1942, we suddenly received an order from
the Federal Reserve Bank of San
Francisco blocking our bank account. We had to obtain
a special license to carry on our farming operations. It took months to obtain
the license and if hadn’t been for relatives who lent us money and
business people who gave us credit, we would have been in real financial trouble.
We hired Mr. Richard Munter as our attorney and he
went all out for us. I spent many hours in his office. When we finally received
the license, it was for $2,250.00 for six months. How we were expected to pay
our debts, run a farm and live on that amount only Herbert Armstrong of the
Federal Reserve Bank knew! Mr. Munter managed to
secure us a larger license and we were soon able to operate as usual, except
that every cent we spent had to be reported in triplicate to the Federal
Reserve Bank. This was done through August of 1944; a year after Karl was
released. Why was our bank account blocked? We can only conjecture.
In the winter of
1943, family camps were being established for our families and us internees,
some in Texas
and elsewhere. I wrote to Elsie and asked if she and the children would join me
in Family Camp. She wrote back immediately and said, “Yes, please. ”Our letters were all censored, of course, and
perhaps someone did not want American wives and children joining their husbands
in a family camp setting, because soon after I received Elsie’s letter an
F. B. I. agent visited me. “Why did you send money to Hitler? ”I was asked again. “I’ve never sent
money to Hitler. I’ve never wanted to send money to Hitler. Why am I
being asked this same old question again? ”And then, “Did you send
money to someone named Jenny Gelber through the
German Consulate? ”A light went on in my brain
as I answered,“Yes, I
did and let me tell you why. ”Two weeks later he returned, “your
story checks out. You should ask for a rehearing. ”I answered,“I’m not appearing before that
‘kangaroo court’ again. ”He just laughed and said,“You’d better
think it over. Get your wife to work on this. ”I wrote to Elsie about
what had happened. She was overjoyed and immediately started proceedings to
obtain a rehearing for me.
Connelly was the new U. S.
District Attorney in the Spokane,
Washington area. He had replaced
Lyle Keith who had joined the army. Mr. Connelly was a fair-minded person who
was not easily swayed by wartime hysteria. I think his appointment definitely
worked in my favor.
My rehearing was
held in Spokane
on March 23, 1943. Dozens of people----business acquaintances, friends and
relatives came to visit me and many were called in to testify. On the day of
the hearing, we all met in a big room in the D. A. ’s
offices and could visit freely. The Board met in a smaller
room next door and called witnesses one by one.
The next day I
was taken to Fort Missoula in Missoula,
Montana to await the results of
the hearing. The Board had recommended my release but the final approval had to
come from Washington D. C., Fort
Missoula was an
internment camp for the Japanese and the Italians. I was the only German there.
Mr. Connelly sent me to Missoula
because it was near home and he expected me to be released soon. As it turned
out, it was several months before I was finally allowed to go home. On August
20, 1943, I arrived in Spokane
and finally home on the farm late that night. What joyful reunion! We were a
throughout his ordeal, and later, Dad continued to be pro American---anti Roosevelt certainly, but strongly pro democracy. He
understood that the measure of a great democracy is in part its willingness to
make itself vulnerable. He would sometimes lecture us on how the Founding
Fathers wrote this vulnerability into the Constitution, but that they did so
with trepidation as evidenced by the heated debates surrounding the drafting of
the Constitution. Guaranteed constitutional freedoms can be dangerous in a
society, but more dangerous, they argued, is the repression of these freedoms.
My dad, I think, understood clearly the paradox, that these freedoms are valued
and feared all in one breath, and that during times of national crisis, this tenuous
balance can easily be skewed toward fear. This kind of fear caused America to send
a large number of its loyal citizens and residents to barbed wire enclosures,
and it sent my father away from his family for nearly 3 years. How ironic that
one of Roosevelt’s famous statements
during this time was: “the only thing to fear is fear itself!”
amazing, perhaps, is that my family on the other side of the ocean remained
pro-American. My uncle Henry, who was in the Nazi army, saved the lives of a number
of Jewish people, at great risk to himself. Near the end of the war, he
positioned himself so that he was captured by the Americans, and because of his
good command of the English language, was able to work for them as an
interpreter. My aunt Marta, who was a censor for the Germans during the war,
began working as an interpreter for the Americans after they occupied the town
where she resided. These connections with the Americans saved my European
family from starvation-----a fate common to many Germans
for several years after the war. Several stories about the experiences of Uncle
Henry, Aunt Marta, Aunt Lisbeth and Aunt Mina in Germany during
the war are told in the book, “The Misplaced American”.
My family in America resumed
a normal life after the war. Dad finally received his final naturalization
papers in July of 1954. It was thrilling for all of us. After the war my
parents became very “valued” members of the community, serving on
school boards, church councils, and political committees. As a grown-up, I was
told several times by people in the community that my parents were wonderful
people and that what had happened to my dad during the war was a real
miscarriage of justice.
As for me, I
think that I have finally faced the anger that has been a part of me since
1941. I also have worked through the sense of abandonment that has lurked in my
subconscious since the day my dad was suddenly taken away. Most of all, I have
come to terms with what it means to be a German-American. During my whole life,
it seems, the Germans have been the bad guys, and the message has often been,
that not just Hitler and his crew, but all Germans are guilty of mass murder. Putting together the story of my family during World War II,
learning about the stories of other internees as well as other people who lived
through the War in Germany,
has convinced me that the majority of Germans was and is just as honorable as
the majority of Americans. My German family on both sides of the ocean
did what they could to maintain their dignity and humanity amidst impossible
circumstances. We can only hope that the world became a better place because of
the lessons learned during the years 1941-1945.
that includes Karl Vogt, Father Hoffmann, and Erich Braemer
may be found at this link >> Karl Vogt