Righting an old wrong
This story was published in the Tri-CityHerald.com, Sunday, December 14th, 2003

By John Trumbo Herald staff writer

Ursula Vogt Potter is giving her family a Christmas gift that will be remembered for years to come.

What began 10 years ago as researching and filling in the gaps of her family history has become a book that reveals a largely unknown story about injustices on American soil during World War II.

The Misplaced American is the story of how the Kennewick woman's father, Karl Vogt, was arrested by FBI agents in December 1941 and forced to live as an American of German ancestry in internment camps.

Many people know about the Japanese internment camps, but few, says Potter, are aware that Germans and Italians in America also were taken into so-called protective custody during the war.

Potter's book is filled with the recollections of family members on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean from the 1930s and '40s.

It was written, she says, to help people understand what happened.

The book is more than a family memoir, because it is one of a few books on a subject that was done in secret and was supposed to remain that way.

"It is frustrating for some of us, because people didn't want it in the history books," Potter said.

Her father's family of nine immigrated to the Spokane area in 1923, at the invitation of an elderly uncle who wanted his relatives to help on his small farm near the community of Plaza.

A decade later, after the death of her father's mother, the family returned to Germany, leaving Karl and his brother, Bill behind to tend the farm. Karl married, the Depression deepened, and talk of war in Europe concerned the Vogt family on both continents.

Two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the FBI showed up at the Vogt farm.

Ursula was just a year old, her brother 4. Their father, Karl, was 35.

"They came, they put him in handcuffs, and my mother said, 'Where are you taking him?' The men told her, 'That's none of your business,' " Potter said.

The reason, they learned later, was that Karl had been sending money to Germany, to help his family there. U.S. officials assumed he was helping finance Hitler's war effort.

Karl would spend two years away from his wife and children. He was one of about 11,000 German Americans interned in the United States during the war.

His first camp was at Fort Lincoln in North Dakota. He also did time at Camp McCoy in Sparta, Wis., a camp in Stringtown, Okla., and at Fort Missoula, Mont.

The ordeal ended on Aug. 20,1943 -- 20 months after FBI agents arrested Karl for unspecified "un-American activities." Relatives were allowed a few visits, but the isolation and suspicion were psychologically devastating.

During that time, his family was left to fend for themselves with help from neighbors and church friends. Although they managed to hang onto the farm, U.S. officials froze their bank accounts, releasing money only through the persistence of Karl's wife, Elsie.

"I was struck by how fortunate our family was," Potter said. Other internees lost their homes, land, friends and even their families. Suspicion took its toll.

"Many wives were left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. In a lot of ways, this book is about one of the better stories," she said.

The collection of family papers, interviews and pictures remained in a box until three years ago, when Potter decided to get serious about pulling the material together in one volume. Then, when her husband, Ted, discovered an internment site on the Internet in 2001, Potter had the trigger she needed to turn out a book.

The Misplaced American is also about Karl's family who returned to Germany, and how they endured suspicion as having come from America, and what they had to do to survive in their homeland during and after the war.

Karl's brother and sisters lived under the shadow of Nazism, but covertly aided Jews and the Allies as translators whenever they could, Potter said.

Potter's uncle, Bill, was not interned, possibly because he was younger and there was no evidence he could be financing Hitler's war.

Potter's father died in 1974. He remained on U.S. soil, obtained his citizenship in the 1950s, and "was proud to be an American," Potter remembered. She added that her father did not allow his children to speak German.

"It's unfortunate when people don't embrace their roots because they are afraid of being seen as un-American," she said.

The book is attracting attention.

Potter said a radio station announcer in Oklahoma is interested in the story, and a woman from Los Angeles has contacted her about a possible TV documentary.

For now, Potter is more interested in having the story known because it's a secret that should be shared.

"My dad had to sign a paper when he was released that he wouldn't talk about what happened to him," Potter said.

"This is a story of how patriotic fervor during the crisis of a war can create a nightmare for a family with 'enemy' ethnic roots even though they are patriotic and pro-American," she wrote in her preface.

And there may be a lesson for today, too. Nearly 11,000 Americans of German and Italian ancestry were interned on the authority of the Alien Enemy Act of 1798.

"I think the Patriot Act (enacted by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks) has some of these same elements," Potter said.

But wrongs can be righted, and Potter is hoping that a bill in the U.S. Senate called the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act will help reveal the story and mend the wounds from 60 years ago.

Information on the book is available at www.1stBooks.com.