Memoirs of a Censor ….
Guantanamo Naval Base, where men are imprisoned without being charged for a crime and without access to the courts, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, all these stories are constantly in the news and stir in our collective conscience feelings of unease; we see measures taken out of fear and/or arrogance but unworthy of this nation founded on human justice and fairness. In my mind they bring back experiences both similar in some ways and in many ways quite different from what I witnessed at another time and place, namely a small Texas town in the early ‘40’s.
The setting for
these experiences was
Keeping track of which was which was the choice of a woman at the local switchboard, (this was long before the advent of cell phones) who would “plug you in, or pull the plug“, depending on circumstances or her approval or disapproval.
She was the source of all information, which meant if you dialed zero on your rotary phone to speak to the operator, there she was. She knew everyone and conveyed messages to those who desired that service. If you wanted “Joe” to come home from the bar at a given time you could call the operator to convey that message in no uncertain terms. No privacy issues in those days. When a baby was born, she would circulate that news to any and all including length of labor, and birth weight.
Access to Kenedy was provided by a Greyhound bus line and a railroad. Near the bus station were conveniently placed benches, mostly occupied by wizened old men, napping in the warm sun, but still alert enough to observe the arrivals of strangers and/or departures of inhabitants. In case of a question, they would be happy to share this information with you. Could they be considered the forerunners of Homeland Security? On one occasion, when my parents and brother came to visit me on a weekend, one of the old men volunteered the accurate information that I had been seen boarding a bus for San Antonio, Texas, the closest larger city to visit.
What was I doing in that god-forsaken hole in the road, half-way between
In the late
Thirties, my family and I had fled Nazi Germany and my father established a
medical practice in
language skills were quite limited, although we had taken English lessons
before our departure. Our British English was difficult for Texans to
understand, “you say tomato, I say tomató” and the early years of
adjusting to life in
I had finished
high school in
I went on to college (SMU) loved the more enlightened atmosphere, and finally formed meaningful relationships with some of the students. In 1942 I graduated from college with a major in foreign languages and a minor in psychology and was looking for opportunities to use these skills.
By chance there appeared an ad in the Dallas Morning News, offering a position with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for internment camps in various parts of the country. What was needed was someone with German language skills to censor incoming and outgoing mail of the Germans interned in these camps. The Geneva Convention allowed an exchange of correspondence between internees and their families. It was the responsibility of the interning country to carry this out.
A not too hidden agenda was to detect attempted escape by detainees (such as “I am planning to look at the fence from the outside.“) Nor were detainees allowed to complain about ill treatment or inadequate food in their letters to their families. Additionally, I was to serve as an interpreter at hearings when internees - some of them a year after their forced arrival at the camp were finally given the chance to confront their accusers. I applied, and was hired.
It was an
exciting time for me to be away from home for the first time, to experience
a totally different life style, become my own person and get a glimpse at small
One of the men concluded a letter to his wife with “yours by force, beyond my control, faithful husband”. Another detainee sent almost identical love letters to two women, assuring them each of his undying devotion. I had to suppress the urge to switch envelopes... And there was a man with a sense of humor, who was clever enough to censor his own letter by cutting out a line before submitting it then pasting a strip of paper behind it and adding in his own handwriting: “I cut out this line myself.”
Americans citizens are aware of the World War II imprisonment of West Coast
Japanese Americans in relocation centers, few are aware of the smaller
internment camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to
detain civilians from
three of them in
In addition to
Germans, Japanese and a few Italians were also deported to these
camps. My job was in
However, the average homeowner in Kenedy worried endlessly that there might be a daring escape from the camp, and panicked at the thought that these “dangerous criminals” might harm their women and children! And indeed, one man managed to escape for a very few days. Very hungry and cold, he returned to camp on his own, since he had no training in survival skills!
The camp received its first large group of prisoners in 1942, and during its existence housed more than 3,500 aliens. *#Other camps housed families with children, and couples without children.
So there I was the only female staff member among a large group of men with divergent political persuasions. Staff was provided with free housing in barracks inside the barbed wire enclosure, surrounded by guard towers with strong search lights. etc. The rooms for staff were freezing cold in winter, hot in summer.
of the camp commander and the town’s lawyer, who was hired for his German
knowledge, since he came from a small German community in
We also had a
Korean interpreter, who worked with the Japanese internees.
Puck and I became friendly, since he too was lonely and unacceptable to the town folk. He once told me that my face was like the full moon, which I found to be insulting, equating it with being fat. It was later explained that this was a big compliment! Learned something else again.
And there was
the town dentist, whose office was located on a two story building above the
railroad. When I developed a miserable tooth ache, I consulted him, had
him yank out the tooth after he spit onto the railroad tracks and then
proceeding with the task at hand.
I was able to put up with barrack life for about a month, feeling like a voluntary detainee, then decided to move to town where a woman advertised a room for rent. Meanwhile not only the internees but the staff were given the cold stare; we were obvious outsiders.
It then became the job of the woman from whom I rented to assure the population that I didn’t present a danger to them. Her main preoccupation: the cleanliness of her neighbors laundry, sheets, towels rustling in the breeze on clothes lines. Along with the weather, the efficiency of various detergents was the main subject of conversations among neighbors across the fence. Hardly a fascinating subject but, it was a relief from the “who done what to whom on Saturday night, in a drunken stupor”.
I was stunned by small town life, with its narrow focus and petty concerns. If gossip was local, it became blown up all out of proportion, whereas anything happening “down the road” just proved how careful one had to be of those “d... strangers”. And we all know what stranger rhymes with!
you do a large sweep of nationals, a few bad apples will surface. So
there were Nazis and Nazi haters in the camp voicing their opinions
ferociously. The internees were treated well quite unlike some of the
horror stories now surfacing regarding detainees in
In the beginning large amounts of food were delivered weekly to be prepared by the elected cook. Since the Germans were in the majority, they demanded fare heavy in potatoes and pigs’ knuckles, which made the Japanese population retch. They wanted rice and dried squid. In order to avoid a revolt, finally two separate kitchens were established, each ethnicity preparing food to its taste. We joked that we would like to share the men’s meals, since the cook was able to bake apple pies with whipped cream on top!
And there was humor and excitement too. On one occasion one of the female staff members left a bag of her personal dirty clothes in the kitchen to be taken to the town laundry. The fellow in charge of camp laundry thought it was part of the regular kitchen wash and took it to the Japanese laundry room to be washed. A riot nearly developed when female underwear showed up on clotheslines across this all men’s camp, and a search was on for hidden women!
I found myself in the strange position of empathizing with many of the detainees, some of whom wrote me love letters. My father had instilled us with the idea that we were to see each person on his or her own merits, as individuals, and not use generalizations on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. Since by definition I could not be accepted (I wasn’t from there) I was compelled to turn to “other outcasts,“ for companionship. Some were quite fascinating.
There was Mrs. Crawford, whom I ran into on an evening stroll, an old woman who looked like a scarecrow, rags blowing in the breeze, who lived at the edge of town in a room with her cats, 5 dogs, and a few chickens. She greeted me like her long lost daughter, told me she was 72 years old and a devout Catholic. When I mentioned that I was Jewish, she said “God bless you, my child, for is it not said in the Bible that the Jews will save the world”, which statement came as a surprise to me. I assumed that she was only mildly deranged. She was happy to have someone to talk to, which gave me a chance to practice my Spanish, her native language.
It was a lonely existence, but I had fun playing with fire and finally dated a detainee for a while, who had been released from camp and worked in the local coffee shop. He was a charming, intelligent man, who through no fault of his own, was caught up in these sweeps. That relationship had to be kept secret, as it would have been considered “a conflict of interest”. It ended when his stepmother arrived for a visit, and I learned that he had a great deal of romantic affection for her.
Some of the guards at the camp wanted to date me, but I discovered quickly that their interest in me had little to do with my great sense of humor and or intellect. They wanted only physical contact and since there was no chemistry on my part, I found this to be inappropriate, and soon preferred my own company to having to discourage clumsy attempts at unwanted intimacy.
In time, and
that could be several months to a year, each internee was given an individual
hearing on the basis of which his fate depended. If the internee was
found innocent, he had the option to return to his native country. If
interested in being repatriated to
In a few cases, internees were freed to live in Kenedy until other arrangements could be made.
All in all - and with a keen interest in psychology - I found this whole experience totally consuming and fascinating, and my feelings for the detainees and against the local narrow-minded folks only intensified.
The camp was finally closed in 1944. We made a final inspection of the premises and found it fascinating how the empty barracks still expressed so much of their former inhabitants’ personalities. There were pin-up galleries of lingerie clad females, cut out from the Montgomery Ward catalog, and the bragging of our one and only Frenchman who had a “female” companion, which turned out to be the stray camp cat he took to bed with him, my first look at bestiality..
challenge to use my German knowledge and to also help the war effort came in
the fall of that year when German speaking men and women were wanted by the War
Department to become censors. I applied, was hired and moved to
per the Geneva Convention, governed their treatment and ability to communicate
with the folks at home. And there was no personal interaction, as had
been in Kenedy. My job was to read their outgoing and incoming
mail. I did this with great fervor, feeling that I finally had an
opportunity to strike back at
consisted of 25 line stationery, treated in such a way that a drop of water
would show green, in order to prevent secret messages from going through.
I worked in a high rise building where 98 languages and dialects were read and
evaluated. Bear in mind that our current technology was in its infancy
stages, if that. Intelligence gathering was done mostly through the
written word or code interception. When reading outgoing mail, we had
instructions to delete any complaints of ill treatment. More interesting was
the mail from
damage sustained by bombing
possible catastrophic illnesses
interruptions in water/power supply
These directives changed on a weekly basis. The person in charge of the censors was a stern woman who had her own agenda, and did a bit of indoctrinating herself. She explained her assessment of the German character to us; according to her they all had basically split personalities who could wax sentimental when on a hike they found a bug on its back struggling to right itself - and would considerately turn the critter back on its feet - but were quite capable of killing millions of innocent men, women and children, such as in the Holocaust with never a feeling of guilt.
There was a
different technique applied in the handling of our outgoing mail and the German
censors’ treatment of their outgoing mail. We were requested to excise
unwanted material with a razor blade, whereas our German counterparts used a
black ink marker to obliterate the information they didn’t want to leave
Since the men were aware of mail being censored, there was a smart aleck who devised this letter to relatives, sure he would not run afoul of censorship rules:
“Date: Who cares;
After leaving where we were before we left for here, not knowing we were coming here from there, we could not tell if we would arrive here or not. Nevertheless, we are now here and not there. The weather here is just as it is at this season but, of course, quite unlike the weather where we were before we came here. The whole thing is quite a new experience here, because it isn’t like where we were before we left there for here. It is now time, in all probability to stop this somewhat too newsy letter before I give away too much information, as the censor here is likely to be a spy.”
As all mail from
So I spent about
one year in
At the end of
the war, we were given the opportunity to join the occupation forces to work in
As fate would
have it, while in