My Internment by the
By Eberhard E. Fuhr ă 2001
August 1942, the
earned enough from my newspaper route to survive. Periodically, an FBI agent called to question
me. Once they picked me up about 8 PM,
took me to their offices and questioned me for two hours under bright lights while
toying with their guns. Their questions
concerned family friends, attitudes about relatives in
March 23, 1943, while in class at
The FBI Agents then took me to my brother's place of employment where he was arrested. We were taken to the city police station where we were booked on suspicion, fingerprinted, and taken to the Hamilton County Prison. This was built in the mid-1800's and had a medieval look of turrets with very high walls. A 5-tiered cellblock dominated the interior. Each cell was about 5' x 10' with a metal bucket as a toilet, a bed hung from the wall by 2 chains, and walls about 2' thick. We were given prison clothes and locked into separate cells some distance apart.
after the barred doors clanged shut, the prisoners, convicted criminals, began
yelling vicious threats about Nazis, Krauts, Huns and what we could expect just
as soon as the cells would open in the morning.
We hardly slept. We were brought
my brother, I had my hearing before the "Civilian Alien Hearing
Board" to face the same people that interned my parents 7 months
earlier. There were 5 or 6 members on
the board. One question concerned a
statement I supposedly made about Hitler when I was twelve. Another question concerned my attendance at
Coney Island German American Day and German American picnics in 1939 and
1940. They even had glossy photos of me
from the picnics. The
After questioning, my brother and I were again handcuffed and taken home. We were advised to take only enough clothes for about 2 days and to make sure all doors and windows were locked. This was the last time we ever saw the house. The contents were later looted: pictures stamp collection, violin, piano, furniture, keepsakes, irreplaceable family memorabilia—all treasured by my mother and gone forever. The house was lost to foreclosure. My parents could not afford to make the mortgage payments because they were interned. This was not unusual. Many homes were lost during internment. The government was not concerned about such matters. Incredibly, the elders of our church even stopped by after my parents were interned to demand their pledge. When we couldn't make payment, my parents were dropped from the rolls of the church.
were taken back to the County prison and immediately locked into our
cells. The next morning, Federal
Marshals picked us for an auto trip to
arrived late at night at
Ten days after my arrival, I turned 18. I knew by law that I was required to register for the draft and I was anxious to do my duty. The internment facility director disputed this. The Department of Justice advised him, however, not only that I had the right to register, but also that all males of 18, regardless of circumstances, were required to do so. Thus I registered at the Cook County Jail, which became my draft board during WWII.
In July 1943, we were sent to Crystal City, Texas, close to the Mexican border, on a heavily guarded train with about another 1,000 internees. The good news was that we were finally reunited with our parents and our younger brother. The bad news was that the fences were 12 feet high, with guard towers every 50 yards, and, except where irrigated, this was a harsh desert environment. Temperatures were often well over 100 degrees and the camp was filled with insects and scorpions. We received letters from friends and relatives, but these were heavily censored with much information cut out. Living conditions were tolerable at best.
After VE Day, we thought we would be released, but after VJ Day we were sure it would happen. It was not to be. President Harry Truman decided that those still interned at the end of the war were probably still "dangerous" and should be sent back to Germany. To my knowledge, this affected only the remaining several hundred persons of German ancestry still in custody. Everyone but internees of German descent left Crystal City by 1946. Those remaining, including my family, actually helped disassemble and close down the camp. Finally, in 1947, we were shipped to Ellis Island. The conditions were cramped, dirty and stultifying. I would never go back to Ellis Island. I spent too much time facing the back of the Statute of Liberty. I always felt that even though she had welcomed immigrants promising the American dream, she turned her back on us just because of our ancestry.
Finally, after a great deal of legal wrangling and a Congressional hearing, the Attorney General granted release to those remaining in custody in September 1947, two and a half years after the cessation of hostilities with Germany. My family had to start from scratch, burdened with the stigma of internment. For me, although not an even exchange, old friends were replaced with new friends. I met my wonderful wife, Barbara, in Crystal City. Lost time and opportunity was supplanted by an obsession not to waste either one. I completed high school and graduated from Ohio University with highest honors. After 12 years with Shell Oil, I earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and held responsible jobs until retirement.
I was interned when I was 17 and released when I was 22. I did 4 ˝ years of time for being German. Without experiencing internment, no one can appreciate the intense terror of government power and the despair of hopelessness and endless time one feels. In addition, an internee must suffer humiliation, stigmatization, and suspect "friends" who may have given damning "evidence" to the FBI, like whether one said something about Hitler at age 12. Understandably, many bear the psychological scars throughout their lives. Many have gone to their graves never speaking of their internment to their families, my brother included. A large majority of internees still do not speak out. We in the German American community must support and encourage these people to tell their stories at last without fear of recrimination. They are not criminals, but persons caught in a web of wartime hysteria. German Americans must support their people like the Japanese and Italian Americans before them.
A government has the right and duty to protect itself. But in America, civil liberties should not be cast aside so freely, even in times of war. Frequently, as a result of rumor and innuendo, families were torn apart and homes lost. Those who were a real threat to the US could have been controlled by means which did not violate civil liberties so severely. No internee was ever convicted of a crime. Spies and saboteurs were not interned. They were executed after receiving due process, the same due process internees, who were here legally, never received. The tragedy of Japanese American relocation is well known primarily because of the tremendous effort of their people. Are our people less deserving of recognition? German Americans and our organizations must insist that our government finally acknowledge the wrongs committed against our people because of our ethnicity. No one will do it for us. Likewise, we remaining internees, much as we would like to keep these experiences locked away in a dark corner, owe it to others to publicize the whole story so that what we suffered never happens again.
January 24, 2001
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