Behind Barbed Wire: An Ecuadorian Family’s Life in Texas during WWII

The Texas Story Project.

Gertrud Harten’s husband, Wolfgang, was one of hundreds of Latin Americans sent to Texas to be interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II. Gertrud and her three small children volunteered to live behind barbed wire with him rather than be separated. They lived in the Crystal City Internment Camp from November 1944 to July 1946. The following year, Gertrud wrote a poem about the saga of their internment in Texas and illustrated it with whimsical sketches. The original poem, written in German, has been translated for the Bullock Texas State History Museum by Mrs. Harten’s daughter and former child internee, Karin Harten Schramm. 

Gertrud Harten illustration Christmas 1943 – it was difficult to bear that Wolfgang had been taken prisoner. We did not hear from him for a long time. But one day, the first letter from Panama arrived — a letter full of yearning, full of joy! We were offered the opportunity to be together again, although behind barbed wire, which we did not really like. But better that than being alone all the time with illness, worries and an always present anguish.

Gertrud Hartin illustration 10 months had passed by with lots of worries and waiting time. Reaching Salinas, no one had heard of a ship to come, to take us somewhere far away. However, early the next morning, we couldn’t believe our eyes, black and dark a huge ship was nearing. Many of us became frightened. The enemy’s gates opened and then things happened as they should. First we walked into the infirmary, where they looked into our mouths; diagnoses where ok. And then, that was not nice, they put us deep into the hatchways and children and their mums started to moan and cry, and thus we vegetated all the time, with life jackets always at hand.

Gertrud Hartin illustration But everything passes someday, and finally the Johnson vessel reached the Mississippi River and came alongside the pier of the beautiful city of New Orleans. Everybody disembarked full of hope – what would happen now? They took us to the disinfection room, where some of the women felt embarrassed. They tried to cover this and to cover that and it was no fun at all. After a bath in hot water, Miss May came with DDT. She looked good in her red skirt and dutifully she did her job. She missed not one little hair and afterwards we were completely clean. Nevertheless, they sprayed us again with a disinfecting gas.

Gertrud Hartin illustration Thank God now the better part would start. The Pullman had been waiting for us a long while, and welcomed all of us. We sat down on the soft seats and felt like being in paradise. And then the wonderful reunion took place, the children almost didn’t recognize their daddy! There were so many questions and so much gazing at each other.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationCrystal City, Texas was our destination; we didn’t expect much when getting behind barbed wire. An affectionate welcome from our friends who were already there received us when moving into the Camp. They came immediately to say hello, to explain, and to make all new things easier for us. The bungalow was small, but nice and we made it comfortable.

Everything in the Camp was in good order, there was food in abundance. The kindergarten was very nice and the children liked going there. They were always looking forward to it, and when the doors were opened for them by Tante Anna and Heddy there were big hellos. There was also a German school to which the children went. At first it was fun, but then there was too much “Partei” everywhere (Translator’s note: “Partei” would mean the Nazi Party). We could soon see that in the Camp no one could really trust the other.

When, finally, Christmas neared, all daddies helped Santa Claus in the workshop, so that they could make toys for the children. The auditorium looked beautiful. Full of wonder we walked around, marveling at the sights. In the evening, Santa Claus came from house to house, giving his presents to small and to big people. In every triplex, quadruplex and bungalow, there was a little Gertrud Hartin illustrationChristmas tree, which made everybody feel happy. We joined friends to celebrate together. At 12 o’clock we went to Mass. Everybody wished Merry Christmas and everybody prayed for peace in our homeland. The following evening, we all met in the big recreation hall, where children performed a fairytale; afterwards German Christmas carols were sung – it was really a German Christmas.

Then an exchange list was published, which was received with great joy. Those who didn’t want to go to Germany were declared not to be proper Germans. Quite a lot of friendships broke up because of this. Hatred and distrust surfaced everywhere. When, finally, Germany collapsed, we were interrogated again. Everybody had only one wish: to go back to South America.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationSince we had been living for quite some time in our homey bungalow, we were happy that we could stay. Families continued to arrive from Paraguay and Bolivia. Then a lot of couples were brought from Seagoville, Texas. Camp life became animated once again. There were concerts, theater and cabaret shows. Erna Schwarz and Ilonca performed and delighted so many hearts when singing “Wien, ach Wien” and other songs.

There was a lot of entertainment: movies, books, and card games like bridge and skat. They were very important, since much bad news was received; some persons even engaged a lawyer.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationNow I want to describe the daily routine, which was quite pleasurable. Some people loved disputes and arguments, others sociability. Everything could be found at the clothes store. In the mornings, women began lining up in order to find new dresses or a nice hat, which probably they would never use. There were so many young women who had more than enough time on their hands. So, they started looking here and there, mostly not earnestly but just to have fun. Some of the wives disapproved, though their husbands did like to observe the young ladies.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationThere was an extreme heat of about 108°F. Many of the internees looked so funny! Imagine a lady weighing about 200 lbs and wearing only a brassiere and rather colorful shorts. And the men wore usually only pants. Anyway, sweat gushed down; chairs and beds – everything was too hot. The extreme heat lasted several months and caused huge mental distress. Women suffered from headaches, the men did all the cleaning, and they even washed the babies’ diapers very early in the morning. One could also see them walking with the shopping baskets to the store, but on every corner, they stopped and talked about politics. There were some men, however, who were made fun of, since before the camp they had been millionaires and never had done anything. When they were seen carrying a chamber pot, they were the laughing stock of all the others. One can be mad at this or wrinkle one’s nose, but there wasn’t going to be any change until internment was over.

We had a nice group of friends and, together, we took English and Spanish lessons. We invited each other frequently. One day these meetings stopped: Tante Witt was also a member of the group, although she spoke English, and she and Onkel Witt were able to go back again to their home in the States where they had lived before their detention. Previous to their departure, Murkel and Karin were baptized and Erna Schwarz and Onkel Witt became Karin’s godparents.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationTime went on and on, hope went up and down and always the terrible heat. Herr Franke and his slim wife came often by our bungalow, with little Dieter by the hand. They liked to visit us since I had always German pastries for them. Our neighbors next door, family Willwater, were always ready for a nice talk, mostly we drank coffee together. The daddies were constantly talking when doing the washing outside the bungalows. Gertrud Hartin illustrationOften Wolfgang had a game of chess with Mr. Von Landwuest. Our children loved playing outside with their many friends. Birthday celebrations were mostly with lots and lots of children. For young people, the Camp was a paradise, they felt free there.

With the passing of the hot season, we could again spend time outdoors. We felt a little dried out and still there was no news about our leaving the Camp. Sometimes we felt a glimmer of hope, but afterwards the news we received was even worse.Gertrud Hartin illustration Some people were going nuts; others didn’t mind at all. Many firmly believed that everything was going to be all right.

When Christmas came again, many of the German-Americans could go back to their homes. For the children, we prepared a nice celebration with a nativity play in which the children performed the various parts. Some of the ladies came together, to sew the costumes of the angels and other roles. After the play, Santa Claus came with a huge bag full of wonderful presents.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationAfter Christmas, we were told that we were free. But that was only for those who could pay for their return tickets. All others who couldn’t afford it, had to stay in the Camp, waiting for what the future might bring.

Now that we could hope for a future, some of us felt that the Camp was beautiful, but many more months passed by in the usual monotony. 

Gertrud Hartin illustration

One day at the end of March, a guard made our hearts beat faster. He told us to get ready, because in a few days we would be free again.

When departing, we looked back to the Camp and Murkel cried that he wanted to stay in his beautiful camp. We were taken by train to New Orleans and there again behind barbed wire. And we were not treated nicely. Gertrud Hartin illustration The food was miserable and the lodgings disastrous. Was that the golden freedom for which we all had looked for? Early in the morning we had to go, cups in hands, to get our breakfast which was awful. At 10 p.m. we had to go to bed. Thus, three further weeks passed with trembling uncertainty. It was time that we could go home.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationA few times we were allowed to go to New Orleans for a walk, which was a wonderful experience, but we were not allowed to go together with other friends.

Then, finally, the doors opened for the Frankes, who went to El Salvador. Next day we were told that there were some people going to Ecuador.

Gertrud Hartin illustrationWe arrived at the New Orleans airport at 8 a.m. and our weariness stopped right away. The children’s eyes marveled at all they could see, a beautiful airplane very near. And we were going to fly with it – how wonderful! Everything was new for our little ones; many of them had grown up in the Camp without knowing the outside. Gradually the waiting time became too long and we had to sit hours on a bench. The clock showed 1, then 2 and, finally, at 3 o’clock, we were allowed to board the plane, but only for a very short time. The plane had to be repaired and we had to leave it until next morning at 8 o’clock, when we boarded the plane again. At last the four-engine plane took off and went up, to the children’s wonder. After a 7-hour-flight we reached Panama and what happened to us there was unbelievable. We were taken to a camp again and were not allowed to be together with Wolfgang. Gertrud Hartin illustration Soldiers walked with their rifles and accompanied us even to the dining room. We lost all hope to go home again. However, fortune was with us and after three days they took us out of “quarantine” and in a nice car we were brought to the airport, still accompanied by armed soldiers.

At the airport, Wolfgang’s cousin, Fernando Harten, from Lima/Peru stood in front of us, coming from an internment camp in Bismarck, North Dakota. What a surprise! However, not even in this airport could we move freely; there was always a soldier at our sides.

When we boarded the plane, we were free at last. We flew together with Fernando and after 3 hours we reached Guayaquil, where our good friends, Maria and Otto Schwarz, were awaiting us. [Note: Maria and Otto Schwarz had likewise formerly been interned in Crystal City, Texas with their children and extended family.]

Gertrud Hartin illustrationNovember 1947.
Gertrud Harten

Join 42 others and favorite this

Related Stories

See All Stories »
Browse All Stories

Read stories from people across Texas

Browse All Stories