The other camp

During World War II, Suzy Kvammen of Newport Beach was sent to a Texas
internment camp and then shipped to the country of her parents -- Germany

By Young Chang

September 2 2001

She's sitting in a private conference room at Hoag Hospital's surgery wing casually talking about the confusion during World War II. How she and other German Americans were sent to a relocation camp in Texas. The hardships that followed after being deported to Germany. The leather factory she worked in as a teenager abroad. And more.

But Suzy Kvammen is convincingly cool. Blunt. Unemotional. Almost blase about her dramatic past. She's quick to dismiss some of her thoughts as silly or strange, slow to dwell on anything for too long.

And then the 65-year-old starts talking about leather. Why, yes, she can smell her way to a pile of leather. And any time she buys shoes, she sniffs the pair first to see whether it's leather or pleather.

"Isn't that interesting." Kvammen quietly says to herself.

She didn't fully realize the habit until this week. She was surprised. Dwelt on it, even.

But the first generation American of German descent was at peace with the memories accidentally drudged up.

Despite the bustle of being the committee chair of surgery services of the auxiliary at Hoag, a board member of the Eastbluff Homeowner's Assn., a grandmother and an award-winning skier -- not to mention a beer-drinker and dart-thrower, she jokes -- Kvammen's past continues to revisit her in the strangest ways.

"My memory has gotten so cloudy about things," the Newport Beach resident confessed. "But I think the subconscious never lets go of the experience."

When Kvammen was 8 and living in Chicago, she and 11,000 German Americans were placed in relocation camps and seen as potential enemy aliens, a threat to America's national security during World War II.

While Japanese American internment during the war is commonly known, the German experience is buried deeper in history, said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"But that was a common sort of thing that was done in all countries," he said. "If the person was in the country when the war broke out, they would be interned as enemy aliens."

Breitbart largely attributes media coverage -- or the lack thereof -- for why the Japanese experience is better known than the German chapter of the story.

A new novel by Pat McCune Irvine, a former food editor at a Pasadena paper, is based on Kvammen's past but throws in a good dose of fiction. Published by Xlibris, "Sing To Me, Papa" is available online and through the mail, but not readily in bookstores.

"I was astounded to know how many people in this country were unaware that there were Germans, as well as Japanese, put into these camps," Irvine said. "That was very important to me. The thought of a kid over there in Germany attracted me to the story."

Kvammen's father, Karl Lechner, was sent to a men's camp in Bismark, N.D., in 1943. A year later, the entire family was moved to a relocation camp in Crystal City, Texas. In the fall of 1944, the Lechners were sent to Germany, where they lived for seven years and adjusted from being American to being German -- until moving back to the States to readjust the other way.

An identity nightmare, to say the least. And this on top of being a teenager.

The easy part, surprisingly, was the Crystal City camp.

"As a child, it had a whole different concept. It was wonderful," Kvammen said. "We had cactus. We had our own funny money. But it was a hardship on the adults."

She had to attend German school at the camp -- learning the language was difficult -- and the adults ran little businesses, including laundry and retail services.

"I remember my mother always working so hard to keep the bugs out of the huts they provided," Kvammen said. "My mother suffered mostly."

The situation worsened when they were forced to move to Germany.

She laughs, recalling the day the bombs fell. Kvammen, as an American whose affection lay with the American Army, was standing in the middle of a street in Furth im Wald when American planes began to fly overhead. She became excited and waved at her "American buddies." Then bombs started dropping, and she high-tailed it to the nearest house.

"My guardian angel saved me," she said.

Children in the small town, her father's home, picked on Kvammen endlessly because she wore colorful Western clothes while everyone else went about in drab, village garb.

But after outgrowing her wardrobe, which was scarce considering she arrived in Germany with minimal suitcases and the clothes on her back, Kvammen wore dresses that her mother, Eleanor Lechner, made from red Nazi flag material. Town residents often broke into the numerous warehouses Hitler owned around the country. Kvammen's mother made everything from bedsheets to dresses with the cloth.

"It was a poor material," Kvammen said. "We'd wake up with red on our skin."

The rural German landscape -- with cows and expanses of greenery -- contrasted uncomfortably with the urban Chicago scene Kvammen was born into. The customs were new. The rules were unfair. Girls weren't allowed to wear pants -- even while riding horses -- but Kvammen rebelled and wore lederhosen (leather shorts) anyway. You can imagine the harassment.

"They had a little bit of a stigma on me as being different," Kvammen said.

And for a teenager, she was different. By the age of 14, Kvammen was working at a German leather factory where the entire family also lived. Her duties included leather measuring and shipping goods. She worked all day in a facility that reeked of the liquid sludge involved in leather production.

"This, apparently, was not a hardship for me because I guess I was proud I could support my family," Kvammen said.

To this day, she loves the leather smell.

And the bomb-dropping aside, the American soldiers who invaded the town always treated Kvammen like a "princess." She got chocolates and oranges and other American goodies galore. She got to stay out past the 6 p.m. curfew to watch movies and walk the streets with the soldiers. The German kids, of course, grew more hostile and jealous.

"When the invasion troops came into Germany, every soldier wanted to adopt me, practically," Kvammen said.

Being sent to Germany also had a side benefit. She got to know her father, an unabashed drinker who Kvammen also calls a philanderer and womanizer.

"My father was around more, he didn't have the opportunity to roam around," she said. "And I never really held it against him."

When the family returned to America in 1951, Karl Lechner remained in Germany. Kvammen still isn't clear whether he didn't want to return or whether he couldn't. He might have been blacklisted, the survivor assumes, because in America he refused to go to war against Germany, and in Germany he refused to fight against the Americans.

Teen or adult, no one escaped a torn identity.

When Kvammen returned to the States, she was 15.

"It was a very liberating feeling, I was very happy to come back, but by then I was a teenager and very confused and very, very far behind in the teeny bopper . . . you know how American teenagers are very free-willy and happy-go-lucky people," Kvammen said.

She's been back to Germany three times since the '50s. Once in 1974, again in 1978 and most recently in 1994. The first time, she went back to the leather factory. She cried, she wanted to just get out, she didn't really know why she felt the emotions she did.

In 1994, her father passed away, and Kvammen went to bury him. She brought back a box of yellowed history. Karl Lechner's passport with a swastika on the cover, pictures, documents, various lists that don't tell the complete

She hasn't gone through everything yet.

"I don't know why. I really don't," Kvammen said. "Well, maybe someday
I'll go through it."

The relics are kept at Kvammen's storybook home where a frontyard resembles a realized Secret Garden and where Puss, the cat, lounges all day on a white-paned windowsill. The grassy area outside with the flowers and patio table reminds Kvammen of her past.

"I've got the greenery I had in Germany," she muses.

And, Kvammen said, that's a good thing.

-- Young Chang writes features. She may be reached at (949) 574-4268 or by e-mail at young.chang@latimes.com .

For information about reprinting this article, go to http://www.lats.com/rights/register.htm --reprinted with permissions from Daily Pilot/L.A. Times