Years of silence: The untold story of German-American internment

by Deborah McCarty Smith

A German Lutheran catechism and an ashtray, crafted from a rock and painted "Seagoville 1943," were John Heitmann's first clues to his family's history in the years before his birth. The clues would lead him to FBI files, immigration records and conversations with princes and professors and to the tip of the iceberg of a chapter of U.S. history unknown to most Americans - the internment of German aliens during World War II.

Seagoville, Heitmann knew, was somewhere his parents lived in Texas during the war, but never spoke of. The catechism, found two years ago while browsing books in his mother's home, was stamped with a German inscription: "A gift of the German Red Cross to prisoners of war, 1943." A fax from a friend at the National Archives handed Heitmann the missing piece: "my father's card file from the Immigration and Naturalization Service in May 1942 with a warrant to arrest my father as a dangerous pro-Nazi. My father was apprehended at his home in Astoria, N.Y., by seven FBI men with machine guns. ...

"We never talked about this. After the war, my father settled into a seemingly normal middle-class existence and lived as if it never happened," Heitmann said.

Ending the silence has become a professional as well as a personal pursuit for Heitmann, a University of Dayton history professor. While he waits to receive the full FBI report on his father, he sketches a possible scenario. Alfred Heitmann was working for Standard Oil in New York City in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. The elder Heitmann, who came to New Orleans in 1933, had also worked for Shell Oil. He never became a U.S. citizen. "He had access to all the oil tanker routes," his son said, explaining that Standard Oil was under investigation for links with Germans. "The real concern was over Standard Oil shuttling oil to German submarines in the Canary Islands."

Alfred Heitmann's internment notice, signed by J. Edgar Hoover, was copied to military intelligence.

Alfred Heitmann was arrested the same day the FBI was closing in on eight German spies who landed by submarine on Long Island. "That week in June 1942, there were 642 New York FBI field office apprehensions of Germans," Heitmann said.

"The really suspicious characters had already been apprehended by December 1941," immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Heitmann said. But as late as 1944, Germans were still being apprehended, possibly as fodder for prisoner exchanges. Additionally, Germans in Latin America were interned in the United States, "a wholesale internment that took place under the guise of hemispherical security," Heitmann said, citing Hoover's zeal to build up the bureau and compete with the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA for jurisdiction over the Western Hemisphere.

Few people know the extent of German-American internment, and only a handful of historians have researched it. "About three scholars, including me, are doing this history," Heitmann said. "It was a weird time that few people know about or want to write about or talk about. But I'm sure it did exist."

The mass relocation of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to camps inland in 1942 - an effort driven more by rampant racism than by national security concerns - has overshadowed German-American internment in the national consciousness. But re-location and enemy alien internment were distinctly different government programs, notes Stephen Fox, a professor of history at Humboldt State University.

"Two months prior to any relocation order, the Justice Department began to intern thousands of individual Japanese, German and Italian Americans believed by the FBI to be potentially dangerous to the security of the country," Fox writes in The Invisible Gulag: An Oral and Documentary Biography of German American Internment During World War II, a work in progress. "The government proclaimed that all internees had been arrested 'for cause.'"

Heitmann points out that "from the perspective of American values, internment had to mean somehow that they had done something wrong. The very fact that these former internees had been singled out as being the one-half of 1 percent of German aliens potentially dangerous to the interests of the United States stayed with them long after 1945," Heitmann said. If the internees had broken any laws, they would not have been interned in detention facilities, but arrested, tried and jailed in American prisons, he said. "Confusion remained about 'why me?' and for many, became internalized as guilt."

The sense of shame lingers and the confusion continues, especially in light of U.S. attempts to make amends to Japanese-Americans. "To many German Americans the distinction between relocation and internment is not just semantical nit-picking: the few thousand Japanese Americans who the INS interned 'for cause' ... experienced the same kind of internment as the Germans and Italians, often in the same places," Fox says in his manuscript. "Yet, in 1988, the government made a belated apology and granted compensation to Japanese American relocatees and internees alike." As one former internee told Fox, "More important than the compensation is for the American government to acknowledge that Germans were indeed interned."

Europeans and European-Americans accounted for 56 percent of all internees during World War II, according to Arthur Jacobs, co-editor of World War Two Experience: The Internment of German-Americans. In all, some 10,905 enemy aliens from Germany were interned - along with 16,849 Japanese, 3,278 Italians, 53 Hungarians, 25 Rumanians, five Bulgarians and 161 others.

While only four internment camps that held European-Americans are listed in Personal Justice Denied, a 1982 government report on the wartime relocation of civilians, Jacobs identifies 50 internment sites.

Alfred Heitmann was interned at four sites that didn't make the official list. The son has traced his father's path from detention at Ellis Island to Fort Meade, Md., where civilians were surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns; to Camp Forrest, Tenn., home of "The Latrine," a camp newsletter; to Seagoville, where Heitmann's mother was voluntarily interned to join her husband in July 1943. "Initially my father was so damn mad, he elected speedy repatriation and could have been back to Germany by September of 1942, but my mother persuaded him against it," Heitmann said. At the war's end, the couple was shipped back to Ellis Island and released on parole. A number of Germans, however, were detained at Ellis Island until 1948.

In the camps, internees were seen more as prisoners of war than as civilians. Heitmann's research paints a picture of shared huts, inadequate washing and toilet facilities, green uniforms, military work details and snapping to attention at an officer's approach.

"I want to look through the eyes of my father's experience in the various camps he went to. It will take a long time before I know the full story, but I want to know everything there is to know," said Heitmann, who plans a book, tentatively titled The Man I Never Knew.

"I'm looking in great depth. There were 243 people in his company at Fort Meade. I'm getting to know those people very well," said Heitmann, who has collected photos, poems and camp newsletters from the people he has interviewed.

The work isn't easy. Many of the former internees are now in their 80s, many are dead, others have repatriated. Few people, including Heitmann's mother, want to talk about the experience. Some fear government reprisal.

"My mother still gets nightmares," Heitmann said, noting that most internees can vividly describe the horror of apprehension. One fellow, a star athlete, was taken from his classroom at a Cincinnati high school. Prince Franz Hohenlohe, whom Heitmann has interviewed, a Hungarian who was interned at Camp Meade, has said of his arrest, "When people say the blood froze in their veins, I know exactly what they mean. It speaks volumes for my constitution that I did not drop dead right there from shock and humiliation."

For the most part, internees were not European royalty, but "little people," Heitmann said. "They were butchers, bakers and mechanics - not spies-to-be, not the German James Bond guys. They couldn't use a lawyer, and they didn't know why they were hauled in," said Heitmann, who has reviewed microfiche records from Berlin and confirmed, "My father was not a member of the Nazi party."

In unwarranted apprehensions and unjustified internments, Heitmann sees a clear continuation of the anti-German hysteria sparked during the First World War.

Fox describes many of the internees as immigrants who had left Germany for the United States in the 1920s. Veterans of World War I, they wanted nothing to do with another armed conflict. Some, who belonged to German social and cultural organizations, felt they were singled out for punishment for fond feelings for their homeland - not for Nazi Germany, but for the Germany they remembered, Fox said. Among former internees, he finds "a profound sense of being thought of as not American, which is alien to their sense of themselves."

Arthur Jacobs, born in the United States, was 11 when his father was apprehended. "My parents reared me to be a patriot," the former Boy Scout said. "As a child I had singlehandedly collected more than three tons of paper for the war effort." When his parents repatriated to Germany, "my brother and I were expatriated. We were minors and had no choice." Arriving in the U.S. zone of Bremerhaven, Germany, in January 1946, "We were thrown into boxcars under armed U.S. military guard, wherein we spent 92 hours in freezing weather and fed on bread and water. Then my brother and I - American citizens and children at that - along with our father were thrown into a prison where high-ranking members of the German army who were suspected of war crimes were held."

After the war Jacobs returned to the States and joined the Air Force, where he made his career and retired as a major.

"I was and am a patriot. I believed that I had an obligation to serve," Jacobs said. "I love my country. What happened to my family and me was a mistake. During war some officials get maddened with power. This not only happened in Europe, but it occurred in the U.S. as well. ... It is and has been a well-kept secret what happened to my family and me."

The secrecy is tough to crack. "As one Department of Justice attorney told me, there are skeletons in the closet that will never come out," Heitmann said. "I have about 15 Freedom of Information Act requests pending. Some requests I've been waiting for two years," he said, noting that, "Ellis Island's archives have less documentation than I have."

Still, Heitmann, who has applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to continue his research, will persist.

"I've always dealt with the history of institutions and how they can impersonally repress individuals who are perceived as a threat to those institutions," said Heitmann, an expert in the history of chemistry who frequently writes about the repercussions of scientific, technological and industrial development.

"Do we really learn from our past?" Heitmann wonders, tracing parallels between the internment of German- Americans in the '40s and government plans to intern suspected communists in the '50s, Iranians in the '70s and Iraqis in the '90s. In the FBI Filegate flap of the Clinton administration, in current anti-immigrant sentiment, in anti-terrorist legislation that circumvents due process, historians hear ominous echoes of earlier times.

"There are some intrinsic flaws in human nature that reappear and are reflected in our institutions. It's a story of how institutions end up biting people," Heitmann said. "In a world where there are lots of smoke screens and J. Edgar Hoovers, an individual can really be hurt," he said, acknowledging a professional curiosity that is fueled by a personal quest to discover a part of his family history that is buried under years of silence.

"Self-identity is an important purpose of history. It's a handle or fulcrum of how you understand yourself better. We're all a product of a complicated past. I see this as an example of what anyone can do: history as a process of self-discovery." -Deborah McCarty Smith

Reprinted by permission from the Summer 1997 The University of Dayton Quarterly, the nation's leading university tabloid.

Editor's note: In its original form the foregoing article included nine photographs and captioned as follows:

"The photos belie the phsychological pain." John Heitmann says about photographs taken by internee Walter Steiner of German-American families interned at Crystal City and Seagoville, Texas. Steiner's collection of photographs is among the sources Heitmann has discovered in his search to learn the details of his father's internment.